Film-loving brothers captured life by the sea in Cornwall in the 1930s

Twin brothers John and William Barnes have always been fascinated by the film. As teenagers, they spent their school holidays shooting and editing charming amateur mini-films of coastal and rural communities, including some that captured a unique view of everyday life in Cornwall in the 1930s.

They established themselves as experts in the field of cinematography, collecting untold treasures of early film and filmmaking equipment over five decades, and for more than 20 years their precious booty was on display in the world-renowned and pioneering Museum of Cinematography of John and his wife Carmen in St Ives settled down.

The Fore Street museum may have closed in 1986, but the Barnes Brothers’ legacy lives on in their archived work. This month two of her inspired short films enjoy a long overdue public appearance with daily screenings at Tate St Ives.

Like the award-winning 2019 Cornish film Bait, which earned Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer, the Barnes Brothers shot their work on 16mm black and white film.

The Gem of the Cornish Riviera, her mono silent love letter to the “quaint little fishing village” of St Ives, received a special award from the Board of Amateur Cine World.

Filmed in 1936, it shows families walking along the front line in the summer sunshine, an old woman feeding seagulls with bread, narrow back streets meandering past stone fisherman’s cottages, children walking arm in arm down to the water to swim, and all that Adults wear hats.

A horse-drawn carriage squeezes through cobbled streets, a child pushes a rickety wooden cart, a dapper guy in a bow tie strides through town, workers sit on ladders, and women walk, chatting and laughing with one another.

John Barnes at the Museum of Cinematography, St Ives, with vintage film equipment

Fishermen load their catch onto a horse-drawn cart, its wheels in the water, while up on the quay the fish are cleaned and gutted and the waste thrown straight at a crowd of squabbling seagulls, watched by smartly dressed tourists in jackets and ties.

Things take a dramatic turn when a storm gathers and the St Ives lifeboat is wheeled down the slipway on a rescue mission, but there is a happy ending as the sun sets on a calm bay.

Cornish Nets, filmed two years later when John and Bill were around 18, takes a closer look at fishermen at work in port towns and villages around West Cornwall.

They set the scene with more dramatic waves smashing against rocks. Salty old seals lean over quay railings to smoke their pipes, lobster pots are stacked and the ubiquitous seagulls wheel and dive. Trawlers go out to sea in the evening light to cast nets for sardines, and fishermen return in the foggy morning to unload their catch into baskets and pile them onto carts to take them to market before unloading the nets Hang dry for the next night’s work.

As well as the two Barnes Brothers films, below at Screen Archive South East, visitors to Tate St Ives can also see Treasures in Store, a 1976 Westward TV documentary about the Barnes Museum of Cinematography in its heyday in St Ives.

After forays into filmmaking as teenagers, John and Bill both studied film under Edward Carrick, film director at Ealing Studios and the Crown Film Unit before serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

John Barnes and his mother Garlick Barnes at the ticket office of the Museum of Cinematography, St Ives when the museum opened in 1962
John Barnes and his mother Garlick Barnes at the ticket office of the Museum of Cinematography, St Ives when the museum opened in 1962

The twins returned to St Ives, where their artist mother Garlick Barnes had moved, and it was there in 1951 that they held their first exhibition of period film equipment above a bookshop in Fore Street, to coincide with the Festival of Britain.

Bill later settled in London but continued to immerse himself in film history, sourcing incredible items for the Cornish Museum’s two-storey collection in Fore Street. John’s extensive research on the subject fed into his five-volume history, The Beginnings of Cinema in England 1894-1901, written in Cornwall between 1976 and 1998 and recently reprinted by Exeter University.

In 1997, the Barnes brothers received the prestigious Prix Jean Mitry for services to silent film. John Barnes died in 2008 at the age of 87. His brother Bill died in 2019 at the age of 99.

When the St Ives museum closed, many of the artifacts went to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin, where they are still on display.

Find out more about the film screening at Tate St Ives here

A special to speak and a discussion of the Barnes Brothers on Friday, October 22 in the gallery with award-winning film and TV screenwriter Tony Grisoni, local historian Janet Axten and Dr. Frank Gray, Director of the Film Office of the School of Art and Media, University of Brighton and founder of Screen Archive South East and Cinecity, the Brighton Film Festival.

More stories here:

A new Cornish language film inspired by BAFTA winner Bait is being made

In the Saltash store, where time and money stood still in 1971


About the author


Leave a Comment