Exploring St Michael’s Mount

The Castle & Recovered Portraits

After a week of steady mizzle, the skies cleared, and it felt like the perfect autumnal day to head off and explore the nearby island of historical St Michael’s Mount in Marazion.

Nestled on top of a rocky hill, surrounded by blue water, it truly is an incredible sight, even as we approached by road: a medieval church, ancient castle and a family home rise impressively out of the sea.

As we negotiated our way through the old town of Marazion and along the slipway, we went past this super cute cottage with the hand-painted door weathered by the sea air.

At low tide, a historic stone path is revealed like magic to link its harbour to the mainland. Used by pilgrims in the Middle Ages and visitors today, we were lucky enough to time it perfectly for a low tide foot crossing. This is a low angle view of the causeway, and I love the pattern on the rock that has been eroded by the waves up to the stones of the pass.

St Michael’s Mount has been a holy place since the 5th century; during the Middle Ages, it was a religious retreat and a garrison, and these precariously uneven Pilgrims Steps were the only way to access the summit! The castle dates from the 14th century, in 1659, Colonel John St Aubyn bought the Mount, and over the next three generations, his family converted the fort and church buildings into an elegant family home. 

Along one of the narrow passages in the castle, I spotted this fab portrait of Lady St Levan by De László. There were some really great gestural brush marks on the face, it felt like it had been sculpted by the thickness of the paint.

Philip de László was a contemporary of Sargent and Zorn and used the sight-size portrait method and captures a real presence. The pearls are painted with a real sparingness of mark, a translucent underpainting with thick white impasto highlights on top that reveal themself as pearls the further you step back from them.

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th (1758-1839), Oil on Canvas half-length, in a dark coat and neckcloth

There is a wonderful portrait of the 5th Sir John St Aubyn by Joshua Reynolds hanging in the Blue Drawing room.

It has a similar value balance to the De László, using a very dark foreground and background to help highlight the face. There is a paleness, almost grey tone to the skin, brought to life by the blush of pink hues on the cheeks. The white neckerchief draws our eye to the face, and it’s amazing how close in tone the background and the jacket are, yet we still perceive a difference in space behind the sitter.

Pro tip: If you’d like to learn more about Grisaille portraits and coloured glazing, you might be interested in the Oil Portrait Glazing Course.

Interestingly this original has recently returned to St Michael’s Mount, where it is on display for the first time in over 200 years. The current St Aubyn family successfully bid at Christie’s, as previously a copy hung in its place painted by renowned Cornish painter, John Opie.

This is a view down to the harbour looking out from the edge of the castle, and the organic pattern of spacing you get between the boats from this distance reminds me of stones in the sand.

This is right down next to the boats, and I really love the way that the sky was reflected into the sand, and you get this lovely muted blue hue. 

If you also look into the shadows cast by the boat, you have a nice cool blue hue. This is balanced against the warm yellow ochre on the rocks in the foreground. You’ve got a very similar colour to the back of the boat and a little bit of warm wood on the edge. This would be great to accentuate the turquoise colour on the side of the boat.

A touch of green gold on the seaweed and we’d be away!

Fishing boats at the entrance to the castle, taken later that day, and you can see the water, just coming in behind. 

The sun had moved to backlight St Michael’s Mount to give this amazing strong silhouette, if you’ve read my recent article on the blog about Notan design you can see how images like this lend themselves so well to it.

This elevated view is taken from within the terrace at the Godolphin Hotel (epic St Austell Bay Mussels too!) which is the perfect way end to a day and take in the view. You can just see in the distance how the water is covering up the far end of the causeway, as people scramble back onto the beach before the sea swallows it up again!

This Post Has 104 Comments

  1. Jennifer Ingle

    Hi Will, beautiful photos of the Mount, particularly that wonderful blue door and the steps. I remember toiling up those steps several times in my teens. Living on the fens, I’d never met anything quite so steep!
    Best wishes to you

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Jennifer, yes loved that blue door. Yes, it was steeper than I had imagined!

  2. Miles

    Morning Will,
    I have enjoyed your blog on St Michaels Mount and Marazion. I really need to revisit there myself. Have you been over to Tate, St Ives yet? I always leave there fizzing with enthusiasm and eager to splash some paint around. Did you know that as a local, you can have a years membership for £5.00?
    All the best for now

    1. Will Kemp

      Cheers Miles, yes the local pass is ace, a great excuse to sample the Tate carrot cake.

  3. Gordon

    Thank-you for sharing Will.

  4. Gloria Parry

    Thank you so much for showing this wonderful castle and surroundings. the portraits were fascinating . The entire picture tour was fascinating. Your remarks equally so- thanks again. Gloria Parry

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks for your kind word Gloria, so pleased you enjoyed it.

  5. Marie-Anne Roslinder

    Dear Will,
    Thanks a lot for this interesting newsletter!
    You as good photographer as excellent painter!
    Appreciated this very much, and will try to paint parts of one of these lovely photos- the boats on the shore where the sky reflects so beautiful in the watery beach/sand.
    Thank you very much!
    Marie (-Anne) R

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Marie-Anne, kind of you to say so. Yes, it’s lovely that one, I might make a little step-by step on it.

  6. Camille

    Thank you for the lovely tour

  7. Norman Ephithite

    Some great pictures should give me some inspiration / who knows

  8. Mike Kean

    Absolutely wonderful scenery Will! Great pics.

  9. Cynthia

    Will, thank you for a peek of your lovely excursion. Just form the photos you shared, I can tell there is an amazing amount of inspiration there. But that blue boat, wow. Have you already painted it and that lovely cottage?

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Cynthia, so pleased you enjoyed them. I haven’t painted the blue boat yet but thinking of doing a tutorial on it.

  10. Cheryl Cobb

    Beautiful photos – thanks Will. I love receiving your emails.

  11. Inara

    lovely photos–copied the one of the blue boat to do in watercolour

    1. Will Kemp

      Great one Inara, really hope it turns out well.

  12. Annette Parsons

    I loved looking at the pics and reading your comments. A great start to my day here in North Carolina. Thanks for sending them.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Annette, have a great day.

  13. Charles Parry

    Thank you Will for reliving our memories of St Michael’s Mount. Did you get your feet wet. We have friends at St Ives and of course St Michael’s Mount is a must on our visits. I feel sure you must have also taken in the Minack Open Air Theatre with the ocean as a backdrop. It’s amazing – we visit on every occasion we go to Cornwall no matter what play is taking place.
    It’s a long trip from our home in North Yorkshire but worth it.

    1. Will Kemp

      Ha, ha not quite Charles! so pleased it brought back good memories.

  14. Renate Pfeifer

    Thanks for these great photos, we visited St. Michael’s Mount whenever we have been in Cornwall. Hopefully next year we will be back again for a longer holiday, our favourite is the Lizard Peninsula, especially Kynance Cove! All the best from far away Vienna, Renate

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you liked them Renate, Kynance Cove is on my ‘to visit’ list, looks spectacular.

  15. Sarah Clark

    Another enjoyable and thought-provoking blog – thank you, Will.

  16. Steve in Seattle

    Will! What an interesting and inspiring locale. Thanks for sharing the history and photos of St Michael’s Mount in Marazion. So glad the original Sir John is safe and sound back at home with his family. Here’s to blue doors and boats, and green-gold seaweed

    1. Will Kemp

      So true Steve, an appreciation of green-gold seaweed is a must!

  17. Barb lettieri

    Hi Will,
    Lovely photos. Thanks for sharing. Love the turquoise boat!
    Barbara in Boulder, Colorado

  18. Deirdre Mc Inerney

    Lovely pictures…make me want to visit…always enjoy your interesting newsletters…

  19. Bonnie Innes

    Wonderful photos and commentary. Thank you so much.

  20. Karen Bohan

    Fabulous photo journey – thanks so much for sharing. The boat photos make me want to reach for a brush!

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you’re feeling inspired Karen.

  21. Liz

    Thank you so much for this tour of an enchanting place! and please do that tutorial on the blue boat!

    1. Will Kemp

      Great to hear you would enjoy it Liz.

  22. Elizabeth

    Thank you for sharing the amazing photography but your commentary as well. As a beginning slather’r of paint, I especially enjoy hearing what true artists see and how they perceive a scene, or in this case a portrait as well; i.e. the pearls.

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you enjoyed reading it Elizabeth.

  23. Ruth Hannley

    Will…what a lovely way to greet the day with these fabulous pictures and commentary of St Michael’s Mount. I too loved the blue door and the boat on the sand (I might try my hand at painting both…). I am a great fan of your acrylic tutorials – have learned so very much. Thanks a lot for bringing a bit of the UK to Arizona. Best, Ruth Hannley

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased the courses have been helpful Ruth.

  24. Barbra Joan

    Thank you so much for sharing your talents and your work.

  25. Viv

    Beautiful pictures and article Will. It takes my right back to my first holiday when we visited France (44 years ago) and went to Mont-Saint-Michel – I’ve never forgotten it. Carry on like this and you’ll end up achieving the impossible and inspire me to paint again, it’s been about 4 years since I last picked up a paintbrush.

    1. Will Kemp

      Ha, ha, sounds you’re very close to the paintbrush Viv. The first step would be to set up the easel with a canvas on, with zero inclination of painting anything. It can be amazing how these rituals of just moving materials around can start to become more and more familiar.

  26. Lynn

    Its so interesting to learn about other artists and see their works. Thank you for sharing, seems like the blue door is a hit.

  27. Mandy


  28. Shirley Fargo

    Loved this post! I think one of my next trips will be to Cornwall. The information and photos you have shared make a visit there very enticing. Along with others, the blue boat photo is exceptional and inspirational!

    1. Will Kemp

      Glad you liked the blue boat picture Shirley, so pleased you’re feeling inspired.

  29. Janice Hardisty

    Wow! I woke up to this beautiful group of photos and commentary. Thank you, Will. When I first saw your email I thought you were talking about Mont. St. Michel in Normandy (I’ve been there), I didn’t know she had a gorgeous twin on the other side. I’m an American, what do I know. I do know that I will have to visit her too.
    Thank you for your photos and your insight. You’re a wonderful teacher.

  30. valOrie paladinO

    Every single one of your emails is pure, absolute joy to open & explore. Your observations are thoroughly mind expanding. I feel like you are my personal muse with each posting & have been a huge fan for years, ALWAYS recommending your classes to new artists I meet.
    Thank you so much!

    1. Will Kemp

      You’re so kind Valorie, that really means a lot. Thanks for sharing with others, very much appreciated.

  31. Maddie Bower

    Thank you for your inspirational photos Will. I am in Yorkshire visiting family with no time for painting, but your mail has spurred me on to getting back to the easel when I get home.

    1. Will Kemp

      Have a great time in Yorkshire Maddie, pleased you’re feeling inspired.

  32. Gordon

    Will – loved the insight on the portrait of Sir John. Thanks for sharing your trip.

    1. Will Kemp

      Pleased you enjoyed the notes on the portraits Gordon.

  33. Nancy

    Thanks, Will, for this wonderful tour. Your photographs and descriptions are great. I especially love the photo of the blue boat! I really do hope that you do a tutorial of that one! I need a new one to paint! It must be amazing to live by the sea and in such a picturesque place. Living in landlocked Colorado, USA, it is a beautiful excursion to see. I’m glad you had such a wonderful day.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Nancy, Great to hear you’d enjoy the blue boat tutorial.

  34. Cheryl Hughes

    Thank you Will, so enjoyable to read and your photos are so interesting and inspiring. Many thanks.

  35. C-Marie

    Thank you so mich, Will, for all of the free sharings that you give to us!!
    Loved seeing all of thos up close!
    God bless, C-Marie

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks C-Marie, really pleased you enjoyed the photos.

  36. Laundrea L

    Beautiful pixs, Will. Hopefully, we’ll see a FREE acrylic painting course(s) of the blue door or the blue boat or the house or the harbor . . . hint-hint, wink-wink, you choose :-). I always enjoy your adventures from way over the pond in Tennessee, USA.

    Hope your new studio is coming along. Happy Fall!

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Laundrea, glad you enjoyed the tour.

  37. Lois

    Absolutely loved those clouds!!

  38. Sandie

    I am intrigued by the staircase in/on the beautiful portrait of Lady St Levan. Is it part of the background or a reflection? either way its lovely!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Sandie, it’s a reflection of the background.

  39. Beryl Underwood

    Hi Will, this post of St Michaels Mount and other very interesting topics including art historical is simply a great move, it grabbed my attention right away, need more, please keep doing it. In the time of Covid lockdowns we overseas subscribers need this sort of inspiration, information and connection with artists in other parts of the world. Thank you!

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you found it of interest Beryl.

  40. Linda

    Greetings from Arizona. What an informative article and richly descriptive of the (foot) pathways to the island and art. Always look forward to your articles about your excursions, and the art lessons that lie within. Thank you for posting photos. I find myself obsessing over the cottage’s blue door and that small boat! Ay, the beauty of open water

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you enjoyed the photos Linda.

  41. Judy

    Thanks Will! Fascinating, as usual, with inspiring photographs and interesting snippets of information.
    How about a newsletter with news of your home/studio renovation? We’d all love to hear how you are settling in to new surroundings.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Judy, that’s nice to hear, lots of plasterboard and dangling wires at the moment. I’ll put some new pics together soon.

  42. Peter BROWNING

    Thanks Will. Very interesting article. Our son works as a gardener on the Mount, & is also a very good artist, so with your permission I will forward this to him. Kind regards, Peter B.

    1. Will Kemp

      Wow, what an outlook when tending the gardens, yes for sure.

  43. Patrick Halloran

    Thanks for sharing those images , Will.
    The Laszlo portrait is very fine indeed , I love the pearls and how the effect was achieved ; but I must say the Joshua Reynolds portrait really moved me , with what consummate skill he brings his sitter to life before us !
    Thanks again , and all good wishes ,
    Patrick Halloran .

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you enjoyed seeing them Patrick.

  44. Barbara

    I would love to see a step-by-step video using the little boat on the reflected blue sands. Beautiful shot, lovely colors and simplicity.

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s great to know Barbara, pleased you like the image.

  45. Elinor Irvine

    I love your blogs Will , as you really love what you find , on your expeditions and show us all with such enthusiasm.
    I loved the whole thing about Anders Zorn . I go to a small
    Studio on a farm sanctuary run by Benedictine monks in a valley near Hermanus , cape province SA and decided that today I am going to try and explore his technique of painting hands … so exciting and of course your too. Many thanks Will

    1. Will Kemp

      Sounds exciting Elinor! so pleased you enjoyed the tour.

  46. Angela

    Super photos Will, thank you! Hope you do a tutorial on the boat in the sand! Love the old blue door, something I particularly enjoy painting, reminds me so much of Venice and the wonderful old doors in the back streets………..can’t wait to get there again!

    1. Will Kemp

      So glad you enjoyed them Angela.

  47. Bernadette McCafferrty

    Thank you for all you give Will. I have had some fun with the notan app since you showed it to us. I love the Zorn palette and have used it quite a bit.
    Thank you for sharing you journey in Cornwall and all the inspiration you pass on. . It’s on my bucket list go there.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Bernadette, glad you’ve been finding the notan apps helpful.

  48. Jill

    Hi Will, I loved the photos – my favourites are the door – yum – and the tranquil boat scene. Lovely soft blue light on the sand. Looking forward to seeing a tutorial on that one. Just been to Scotland and managed only one sketch – from The Jacobite steam train, paper got covered in smuts!

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks so much Jill, glad you’re looking forward to it.

  49. Steve Jones

    Hello Will

    Have not replied in a while. Love your newsletter when you send and always good to hear about your travels and interpretations of your visits. I have been painting more since the last email sent actually about 3 paintings (oils) and have started a new one. One is a portrait so branching out a bit. Had some prints made of about 8 of my paintings and sold two at an event hosted by our small towns downtown section. So lessons from you and others are like a golfer getting lessons from time to time, it only makes you better. Again glad to hear you are still working and providing new classes. (I need to look at and see when I may fit another class in.) Thanks again for keeping me on your list.
    Steve Jones, US

    1. Will Kemp

      Cheers Steve, pleased the print sales are going well.

  50. Leslé Guthrie

    Thoroughly enjoyed your photos and comments – I have such a yen to go to Cornwall as that is
    where my grandfather came from. Thanks too for the grate tutorials…..very inspiring. Greetings from sunnny South Africa!

  51. Cecilia

    Will, it seems you’ve touched a bit of artists’ natural heaven/habitat, it’s good to know it’s possible ;) Following from afar, and still learning from you, thank you.

  52. Lydia

    Thank you very much, Will, for sharing your trip, for such beautiful pictures. I like how you write. So nice to read.
    Your post has pushed me to grasp my brushes and start painting again after one year of painting nothing.
    Now I’m going to travel into your site web to look at all the posts I’ve missed.

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s so great to hear Lydia, fab that you’ve been inspired to grab the brushes!

  53. Gabriela

    An excellent story visiting of the most romantic historical castle, there is no other like it. Thanks for sharing.

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