Mark Rothko and Lelant

© Maxwell Adams 2010

Version 24 July 2010

I went to the Mark Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern, London a couple of years ago and I was reminded of my unfinished business: fathoming Rothko and Lelant.

In the summer of 1959 Mark Rothko, the American painter, visited Europe with his family. In that August they arrived in St Ives and stayed with Peter and Sheila Lanyon and had a thoroughly enjoyable time in west Cornwall.

Now this is the intriguing part. While Rothko was here he came across "a disused chapel at Lelant" and wondered whether to buy it as a gallery for his paintings (Compton 1989, 17). He visited it twice which suggests he was serious about this possibility. Rothko had expressed a wish to see his paintings in an out-of-the-way "wayside chapel" (Breslin 1993, 375-376). He appears to have changed his mind about his recently commissioned murals going in the restaurant of the Seagram Building in New York; they didn't go there in the end and Rothko donated nine of them to the Tate just before his death in 1970. Perhaps he was thinking of some of those Seagram paintings which I saw at Tate Modern being permanently exhibited here which would have made this Lelant chapel a world-class art museum.

However, Rothko went back to America without pursuing the idea.

Which chapel in Lelant did Rothko visit and consider as a gallery for his work? We have two clues. It has been described by Compton in his account - not directly by Rothko as far as I know - as "disused" and "at Lelant." There is no definitive answer but I think I can identify it.

There are, I think, five possibilities, but first let us look at the word "disused" and then at the possibilities the word "Lelant" suggests.

I'm not at all clear what we are to take 'disused chapel' as meaning. It could mean actually disused for worship and now shut up. It could simply mean it looks disused. Who would a visitor ask about it? It is not easy to tell for sure whether a locked chapel is disused; the high windows often prevent looking inside to see if it is bare of all life. A chapel slowly dying, especially one in a quiet rural location, might look disused to outsiders though it still had a small congregation. I think we have to be flexible in our understanding of disused.

Now for Lelant. There are two former Methodist chapels in the village of Lelant, both thereby qualifying: the village hall and the one at Trendreath, the southern end of the village. The first has been a village hall for long before the Rothko visit and no one would have described it as disused. The second was still in use in 1959 as a place of worship, closing in 1987. I think there was a notice board outside it though the windows are too high to see inside. It is extremely unlikely after two visits that anyone would think it disused in 1959. Neither of these is a wayside chapel.

If neither chapel in Lelant village itself is the one, we have to be flexible in our interpretation of "Lelant."

I am sure we can also rule out the two countryside Methodist chapels at Polpeor (Wesleyan) and Ninnis Bridge (Primitive), although they would qualify as "wayside." Both were closed well before the visit, Polpeor in 1938 (Easton, 35). Although both were in what had been Lelant parish, neither Polpeor nor Ninnis Bridge would in 1959 be described as being "at Lelant." Both are now residences but I do not know their status in 1959.

That leaves the chapel at Bowl Rock, what was called Lelant Downs Chapel and is now a private house. This chapel closed in 1966 (Easton, 35), after Rothko's visit, but chapels do not close hastily, they tend to cling on and linger, and thus it was probably running down as an active chapel for some time before that date. This chapel was in the countryside and just off the road, there are very few houses thereabouts, and it might well have looked "disused" in 1959. I remember it as an empty shell in the 1980s. It is now a house. The area is Lelant Downs but "at Lelant" is a reasonable description for someone not aware of the minutiae of local geography. I think this former chapel at Lelant Downs is the one Rothko visited and thought of for a museum for his Seagram paintings.

Do they do blue plaques for "This place was nearly..."?


BRESLIN James EB (1993) Mark Rothko: a biography University of Chicago (pages 375-376 discuss Rothko's ideal of a gallery)

COMPTON Michael 'Introduction,' page 17, in KELLEIN Thomas (1989) Mark Rothko: Kaaba in New York Kunsthalle Basel

EASTON David P Methodist chapel closures in Cornwall 1932-2003: a statistical survey (at the local studies library, Redruth)

PITMAN Joanna (6 September 2008) 'How Mark Rothko became an anglophile' in The Times, London

I have been helped in my explorations by Cedric Appleby, a local Methodist archivist, and Sheila Lanyon. I came to the original account of the Rothko visit to Lelant and the unidentified chapel in Michael Compton's writing through a reference in Sidney Nodelman's The Rothko Chapel: origins, structure, meaning (1996) University of Texas and he also has been very helpful to me.