• Rowena Cade Of The Minack
  • Barbara Hepworth
  • Dame Laura Knight

International Women’s Day: Famous Cornish Women

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we have put together a list of some inspirational Cornish women. We have chosen women from all walks of life, so it is a rather eclectic list; however, we think you will agree that each one brings something special to Cornwall’s story.

Inspired By St Ives: Barbara Hepworth

Dame Barbara Hepworth is technically not a Cornishwoman (she was born in Wakefield); however, she and her artist husband Ben Nicholson chose to make St Ives their home and become part of Cornwall’s thriving art scene.

They moved to St Ives at the start of World War II, setting up their home and Barbara’s studio at Trewyn. From here, she created her simple and organic abstract sculptures, which you can visit in-situ at Trewyn (now the Barbara Hepworth Museum And Sculpture Garden). Spend a sunny afternoon wandering around the gardens that so inspired her fluid and natural shapes.

You can also see Hepworth sculptures at the Tate, in the Malakoff garden (near the station) and outside the Tourist Information Centre.

A Cornish Author: Rosamund Pilcher

Rosamund Pilcher (née Scott) was born in 1924 in Lelant, just east of St Ives. She went to school in Penzance before moving to Howell’s School in Llandaff in Wales. Rosamund may have moved to Scotland after her marriage in 1946, but a lot of her works are set in the Cornish landscape of her childhood.

Her first novels were published by famous romantic fiction publishers, Mills and Boon. Fame came late, with the publication of the Shell Seekers in 1987, a family saga set in Cornwall and London. She continued to write prolifically and her last novel, Winter Solstice was published nine years before her death in 2019.

In 1993, German production company ZDF made the first of over 100 television films based on her novels and short stories, many of which were filmed on location here. Each year, around 350,000 German visitors take their holidays in Cornwall, inspired by the beautiful scenery from the ZDF movies.

An Adopted Cornish Author: Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne Du Maurier was born to a theatrical family in London in 1907 and spent her childhood summers at their home in Fowey. When her husband died in 1965, she finally made Cornwall her permanent home. She lived in Par until her death aged 81.

Novels such as Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek show the influence that Cornish history and legends, as well as its landscape and people, had on the author. If you have never read any of her work, don’t dismiss it as romance literature: her work is much darker and more haunting than you might imagine.

Daphne was made a Dame, but rarely used the title. She may not have been born a Cornishwoman, but such was her love of her adopted home that she was an early member of Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish national party.

Cornish Sporting Legend: Helen Glover

And we will now fast-forward to the present day and a local living legend from Penzance: Helen Glover. The Olympic rower was born in Cornwall in 1986 and educated in Penzance. From a sporty family, teenage Helen was a junior champion swimmer, runner and hockey and tennis player (rowing came later).  After graduating from the University of Wales, her original plan was to become a PE teacher, Helen got a place in Sir Steve Redgrave’s Sporting Giants programme and took up rowing. 

Within a few short years, Helen was a two-time Olympic champion, triple World champion, quadruple European champion and quintuple World Cup champion. Along with rowing partner Heather Stanning, she has also been a World, Olympic, European and World Cup record holder.

Helen still spends a lot of time in Cornwall, her three children enjoying the same beachy childhood that she did. If you are in Penzance, look out for Helen’s Olympic golden post box near The Dolphin Inn.

Goroures Kernewek: Dolly Pentreath

We are now heading back to 18th-century Mousehole, we did say that this is an eclectic collection, and Cornish matriarch Dolly Pentreath. There were plenty of female fish sellers in and around Penzance in those days, so what makes Dolly special?

In local legend, Dolly Pentreath was the last native speaker of the Cornish language. Aware even then of her celebrity status, the elderly Dolly made a few coins by speaking Cornish to impressed and uncomprehending visitors. She was even painted by Cornish artist, John Opie.

A lot of Dolly’s life is lost in time and hearsay, and rumour has it that this fierce-tempered lady would curse in Cornish and may have been a witch. However, that she managed to live to a ripe old age (probably 85) in poverty, as an unmarried mother, while courting fame to keep afloat, shows what a tough woman she must have been. You can visit her memorial in the churchyard in Paul, above Mousehole. 

A Force Of Nature: Rowena Cade Of The Minack

Rowena Cade was another tough West Cornish woman. She is famous for hewing the famous Minack Theatre from the granite cliffs of Porthcurno. Rowena Cade was no delegator: she and her gardener Billy Rawlings built the theatre themselves.

Rowena moved here with her family as a young adult at the time of the First World War. They bought this beautiful but wild headland and built Minack House. The inspiration for the theatre came after Rowena held a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the garden and decided that they needed a more permanent stage.

Most of us would not have immediately thought of the cliffs above Porthcurno as the obvious solution, but Rowena was a woman of great imagination, as well as considerable physical strength. Visit the Minack Theatre during the day, when you can take a tour of the stage and the visitor centre, where you can learn more about this extraordinary woman.

Newlyn School Artist: Laura Knight

If you visit Penzance during your Cornwall holidays, spend an afternoon at the excellent Penlee House Museum and Gallery. The gallery is home to a fine collection of work of artists from the Newlyn School, including Dame Laura Knight.

Derbyshire born Laura Johnson studied at the Nottingham School of Art, where she met her future husband, Harold Knight. The couple moved to Cornwall in 1907. They lived in Lamorna in the west, which inspired many of Laura’s landscape paintings.

She’s best known for her beautiful studies of people; and while her plein-air paintings of nudes raised a few local eyebrows, she soon won people over with her charming manner. The Knights left Cornwall in 1919, although Laura kept her studio here. Her later work includes studies of Romani and circus people, as well as pictures from her time as a war artist during World War II.


Feeling Inspired? Book Your Cornwall Holidays

One thing becomes clear when reading about these incredible women: Cornwall and its landscape is a source of inspiration. We have a selection of lovely holiday cottages in Cornwall – maybe you too will be inspired to put pen to paper while you’re here?

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