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A Newlyn Retrospect

The article below was written by the Artist Stanhope Forbes in at the end of the 19th century. It appeared in “The Cornish Magazine” which was edited by A. T. Quiller-Couch otherwise known as Q. in July1898.  

A Few Reminiscences Of Newlyn

By  STANHOPE A. FORBES.

I AM asked to write a few reminiscences of Newlyn and its group of artists. In wondering whether some notes by one of  these painters may prove entertaining to Cornish readers, I find my chief encouragement in recalling the countless evidences of kindly interest in our welfare which I have myself witnessed since I have lived and worked in Newlyn. It would seem unnecessary to explain to any patriotic Cornishman the charm of his native county, to show wherein lies the fascination which it possesses for the artist ; but the question is so often asked, What tie binds them to this district? That I will invite the questioner to ramble with me along the cliff and through the narrow streets of which Newlyn is composed, whilst I point out its features and tell the story of our connection with the place.

Let us meet on the little bridge at the entrance to the village, the bridge which I remember so well first crossing some fifteen years ago. I had come from France, where I had been studying, and wandering down into Cornwall, came one spring morning along that dusty road by which Newlyn is approached from Penzance. Little did I think that the cluster of grey-roofed houses which I saw before me against the hill side would be my home for so many years.

What lodestone of artistic metal the place contains I know not, but its effects were strongly felt, in the studios of Paris and Antwerp particularly, by a number of young English painters studying there, who just about then, by some common impulse, seemed drawn towards this corner of their native land.

We cannot claim to have been the discoverers of this artistic Klondyke, and indeed found already settled here many old acquaintances, fellow-students of the Quartier Latin and elsewhere. It is difficult to say who was the original settler, for painters seem always to have known of the attractions of the place; but about the time I am speaking of the tide set strongly in to Mount’s Bay, and it is curious to think of the number of painters, many of whom have attained distinction, who visited this coast about then.

There are plenty of names amongst them which are still, and I hope will long be, associated with Newlyn, and the beauty of this fair district, which charmed us from the first, has not lost its power and holds us still. I like to recall those early days in the history of the colony, when, starting our careers full of enthusiasm and hope, so many of us came together and formed fast friendships, when the comradeship which still exists was solidly founded.

But here is the village before us, a busy little port, so different to that which I can remember when first it met my eye. In place of those two fine piers which now stretch out and form such an excellent harbour for the fishing fleet, only that little weather-beaten structure out yonder existed, capable at the most of giving shelter to a schooner or perhaps one or two fishing boats.

The brown-sailed luggers would in those days lie at their moorings out in the bay, or in rough weather seek the shelter of Penzance harbour. Yet though scarcely so large and important, the little port was active and picturesque, and the commerce of the place, carried on under more primitive conditions, was none the less attractive to an artist’s eye.

From the first I was fascinated by those wet sands, with their groups of figures reflected on the shiny surface, which the auctioneer’s bell would gather around him for the barter of his wares. If you look back now towards Penzance you will see, stretching out far into the bay, the sands at low tide. It was there that I elected to paint my first Newlyn picture, and out on that exposed beach, for many a month, struggled over a large canvas. I blush to recall what my models must have suffered posing for these early works of mine, and am only consoled by so often meeting healthy strapping lasses, or bronzed-faced young fishermen, whom I can remember as children shivering on the beach or roasting in the August sun whilst a young and over-zealous painter, forgetting all but his work, wrestled with the difficulties of light and shade.

Yes, those were the days of unflinching realism, of the cult of Bastien Lepage. It was part of our artistic creed to paint our pictures directly from Nature, and not merely to rely upon sketches and studies which we could afterwards amplify in the comfort of a studio.

It is a debatable practice, and this is no place to argue such techni­calities, but I mention it because, being strongly held by many of us, it imparted a noticeable feature to the village. Artists are common enough objects by the seaside; but it was scarcely so usual to see the painter not merely engaged upon a small sketch or panel, but with a large canvas securely fastened to some convenient boulder, absorbed in the very work with which he hoped to win fame in the ensuing, spring; perhaps even the model posing in full view of the entire populace, the portrait being executed with a publicity calculated to un­nerve even our practised brother artist of the pavement.

These singular goings on of the new-corners at first provoked much comment from the inhabitants, but by degrees they grew familiar with such strange doings, and scarce heeded the work which progressed before their eyes. Even the small folk grew tired of gazing, and at that dread moment when the school doors opened and let loose upon their chosen victims the arch tor­mentors of our race, a few moments of misery would ensue, and the harassed painter, with a sigh of relief, would find himself alone, once more free to continue his labours undisturbed.

Nothing, too, could exceed the good nature with which the village folk came to regard behaviour which might well have been thought intrusive on the part of any others than the members of our craft. Painters have an easy way of walking into other people’s houses, calmly causing their occupants no little inconvenience. It is this habit of theirs, which perhaps causes them to congregate in places where their oddities are known and their motives understood. I can remember with a shudder my experiences in Holland, where, speaking no word of Dutch, I have sometimes endeavored to explain to the bewildered natives that I had no burglarious intentions, but merely followed a peaceful if somewhat eccentric calling. When one considers the interest aroused by our proceedings, it speaks well for the good nature of the village folk that I can scarcely ever remember asking permission to set up my easel without it being freely accorded.

With such favoring conditions it may be guessed that the place soon became a veritable artists’ paradise, free from the drawbacks and hindrances that so commonly beset us. Let us on through the village, glancing as we go at the harbour, with its busy life so full of interest, for the mackerel fishery is in full swing, and alongside the quay are moored the laden boats; looking down upon them is a motley crowd of fishermen and fishwives, salesmen and onlookers. Down that little lane formerly stood an old foundry, in which were cast or forged the capstans and other iron gear belonging to the fishing fleet, an interesting old place which has now unfortunately ceased to exist. 

Here, too, is the village post office, and around it those quaint old houses which served Walter Langley for the background of his dramatic picture, ‘Among the Missing,’ and which with many another picturesque corner will be preserved long after the progress of civilisation, as I suppose we must politely term the hideous invasion of the modern builder, has swept them away.

Following a narrow winding lane, we come down upon a beach which separates the two distinct villages of which Newlyn is composed—viz. Street­an-nowan and Newlyn town. This has always been a favourite haunt of the artists, and here we shall surely find one or two camped out, though not so many perhaps as in former years, for glass houses and studios have sprung up, and with advancing years we have grown bashful and shy of being over­looked. From here we obtain what is per­haps the most cha­racteristic view of Newlyn. Alas! again many an old house, which made the irregular line along that uneven cliff still more interesting, has been pulled down and its place filled by some terribly common place modern structure, devoid of character and charm. One cannot help foreseeing a time soon approaching when the unfortunate painters must needs forsake their native land, and seek refuge in countries where age and beauty are thought worthy of respect.

However, let us be thankful that the new piers which we see so well from here are as thoroughly satis­factory to the eye as they are fitted for the work for which they were constructed. Severe and simple,they are yet pleasing to look upon, and have added to the beauty of the harbour rather than in any way marring it. At the end of one of them is a small lighthouse, which I can never contemplate without certain uneasy sen­sations. For off that pier head day after day for months I painted in a crazy old fishing boat, which lay at anchor there, and with un­steady hand endeavoured to dodge the motion of the waves.

Leaving the beach we ascend into Newlyn proper, and soon find ourselves in what might be termed the Melbury Road of this town. It boasts of the characteristic  name of Trewarveth

Street, which means, I believe, the street of the hill. Fortunately we are ascending, for it is a perilous journey to make one’s way down its ill-paved surface.

That old thatched cottage, with a window in its roof, is scarcely a remark­able edifice, but Newlyn painters point to it with pride as the little studio in which Frank Bramley painted his ‘Hopeless Dawn.’ It stands at the corner of a little lane which some wag has christened the ‘Rue des Beaux Arts,’ a name which, painted in large letters on a board, serves to mystify the villagers greatly. Just beyond here you can see a black gate, and alongside it a threatening notice warning parents that the direst penalties of the law await any unhappy urchin who strays within these portals.  

Be reassured: the Newlyn painters whose sanctuary this is are upon most excellent terms with the small fry of the village, and merely wish to have peace and quiet reigning round them when at work. Indeed, it is fortunate for us that the relations of the artist to the villagers have always been so cordial and satisfactory. A well-known portrait painter is said to have observed that he counted as many enemies as he had painted portraits.  

Luckily this feeling does not exist here, else were the lot of some of us an unenviable one. Scores of the village folk, young and old, men, women and children, have sat to us and bear no malice—indeed, take pride in successes in which they rightly feel they have their part. And truly to the models is due no small amount of the success the place has had. I am afraid painters are generally accredited with far too vivid and powerful imaginations; and at the risk of destroying an illusion flattering to their powers, I must confess that the co-operation of the model is indispensable, and without such aid our flights of fancy are sorely curbed. From the first little difficulty was found in this direction. The people intelligently grasped the idea that there was nothing derogatory to their dignity in being painted—indeed, saw and felt the implied compliment.

And what better material could artists have wished for? A fine-knit race of men and women, engaged in a healthy and picturesque occupation, and one which by its nature gives the painter his opportunity, when storms and tempests arise, to secure the necessary sittings; swarms of children, many of them charm­ingly pretty; no wonder that enough material has been found to keep us engaged these many years.

Of almost equal importance, too, is the costume worn, if dress as it is understood in England can be thus designated. Perhaps the attire of a fisher­man comes as near deserving the name as anything we can show (in this country), for it is distinctive and characteristic of his calling. I can remember occasional lapses, which made one fear that this too was passing away with other old-fashioned and paintable things, and one awful moment when a hideous fashion in hats set in—a hard, black abomination in place of the usual soft sailor like headgear or quaint old sou’-wester. But on the whole fishermen in their working dress, clad in jerseys or white duck frocks, and wearing their great sea-going boots, are far from being as unpicturesque as the male portion of our race seem to delight in making themselves. The women, too, have a charming instinct of dress; but at the risk of offending them I must confess to admiring the neat blouses and cotton aprons of everyday wear rather than the grandeur and finery of their Sunday toilettes. They might, however, retaliate by reminding me that after all I met with some of my best success when, painting a wedding party, I had perforce to do justice to a style of costume which I now have the ingratitude to decry.

Against the dress of the little ones there is not a word to be said. Always neat and tidy, the mothers, with excellent taste, choose for great occasions either white or pale colours, which seen in the sunshine, massed together in those charming processions the Cornish galas, have an altogether delightful effect.

But we have lingered long enough at the gate of the meadow, as this field is called which we now enter, to find a whole encampment of studios clustered together on a slope overlooking the bay. At first we had been contented with improvising our workshops out of discarded net lofts, or any other available structure—indeed, I fear we must at times have acted the part of the cuckoo and evicted their rightful occupants—but by degrees the more conventiona] studio has sprung into existence, and these were amongst the first of them. They were originally founded by one of the best friends the artists have had, Mr. Arthur Bateman, a gentleman who came to live and paint at Newlyn in the early days of the colony, and who, out of a strong feeling of comradeship and a desire to help his friends by facilitating their work, purchased this field and dedicated it to the service of artists and of art. And truly it has served us well, for in turn each of these buildings has been tenanted by one or other of our best known painters, and this spot has been the birthplace of many a picture which has won fame for the School.

Let us knock at the door of this large studio by the gate and see if its owner be disengaged, when we may persuade him to show us some of those beautiful and careful studies he has made for his well-known pictures, enabling us to realise how much thought, how much hard work, it has taken to achieve a result all have admired. Here he has painted several of those notable works which a visit to Florence and an intense appreciation of Italian art have in­spired. Before leaving we will ask him to let us have a peep at the lovely draperies he has collected, and induce him to unfold for our inspection his precious antique brocades.

Further on in that higher studio we shall find much to interest us, for there a wanderer has come to rest after years of travel, and has brought home sketches and studies from all lands, and of all people; a unique and splendid collection. We might spend days ransacking the treasures of these portfolios, but another friend has beckoned us from his point of ‘vantage and awaits us above. After climbing a steep ladder we inspect and admire many charming notes and impressions, and listen to an admirable exposition of their author’s views. Then to my own studio, the glass house of which commands so fine a view of the bay. And yet at times I have had to forego this, for driven out of my favourite foundry by smoke and grit, forced to abandon my cherished principles, I once built myself a smithy in this same glass house, and herein forged an anchor with brushes and paint.

But to-day the view is uninterrupted. Down below us one painter seems to have abandoned work, and heedless of the sarcasm of a brother artist is occupied in tying up a flower. Think not that he neglects his craft, for this is a future model, and when its blooms expand he will sally forth and render its charm immortal. In yonder glass house, amidst a heap of what would seem to the uninitiated the veriest rubbish, we can catch a glimpse of a painter hard at work. But that old crab-pot, those fishing nets, and other gear are in reality valuable properties, and have often figured in the pictures of our friend, who, unconscious of our gaze, continues his labour. Over there is one of the veterans of the colony, a pioneer of the School and one of its most faithful adherents, whilst leaning against the door of the most recent of these buildings we see the athletic form of a distinguished water-colourist. Strange sights have been seen in that meadow, and a few years ago a visitor might have been astonished to see a group of Elizabethan gentlemen in doublets and hose chatting pleasantly with swarthy blacksmiths, whilst a little maiden in medieval attire would lean over the steps and gossip with these gentry of another age. For it is the hour of the models’ repose, and for a short period they have escaped from the hot studio to stretch their limbs and breathe the air.  

Other models there are, too, that know their way to this field. I remember one poor old horse who used to trudge through the gates of this meadow day after day, without a soul to lead him, and quietly amble up to the spot where he had learnt it was his fate to stand. Up yonder grew the hollyhocks which Bramley loved to paint, and which he uses with such charm­ing effect in ‘After Fifty Years,’ and along that border whole groves of evening primrose night after night unfold their blossoms to appreciative eyes. As we leave one cannot repress a slight feeling of regret at the recollection of those pleasant days when the field was gay with crowds of visitors who had flocked thither for our yearly private view. It was, I think, Percy Craft who with me a good many years ago first introduced to Newlyn this fashion, and by degrees the custom grew until almost everyone adopted it, and the numbers of our visitors swelled from a handful of personal friends to that large crowd that each year filled the meadow, strolling from studio to studio, gazing at the pictures and getting a glimpse of our workshops and our ways.

But when fate in the person of Mr. Passmore Edwards decreed that we should possess an art gallery, it became inevitable that the pictures could no longer be exhibited in this novel manner, and seeing the many advantages which the possession of a properly constructed exhibition room has conferred upon us, it were ungenerous to cavil at so small a matter.  

It was a kind and generous thought of the giver to bestow this admirable little gallery upon us, and not the less gratifying for being so entirely spon­taneous and unsought for. The success it has met with so far, not only from the support which the public of West Cornwall has given it, but also from the valuable assistance of many eminent artists who have lent us interesting works, augurs well for its future prosperity.

We have seen the building just before entering the village. Its exterior, with four walls bare of windows by the necessities of its construction, scarcely afforded much opportunity to its architect, hut those panels of beaten copper on the façade are worth noticing. They1 are a product of the place, one of the latest developments of Newlyn art.

In the narrowest part of the little lane we stumbled along on our way through the village, there hangs a curiously fashioned sign, indicating that here an industrial class is held. A terrible din assails your ears, and, curious to find what occasions it, you enter a courtyard, and, climbing a steep ladder into an old net loft, find a room full of lads all busy hammering away at curiously shaped pieces of brass or copper. Originally started by that good friend of Newlyn, Mr. Bohitho, with the co-operation of the artists, and chief amongst them Messrs. Gotch and Percy Craft, the idea was to find employ­ment for the spare moments of fisher-lads, and certainly a more admirable safety valve for their superfluous energy could not have been devised. 

But it has served another and very different purpose, and has been the means of giving his opportunity to an artist of rare and very individual talent. Mr. J. D. Mackenzie has displayed a perfect wealth of imagination in executing a whole series of designs for the multitude of objects which the class and his able lieutenant Philip Hodder have wrought in repoussé work; and so the name of Newlyn has become linked with an art other than that of painting pictures. To have introduced the best qualities of design into some of the commonest objects of our daily use—surely this is an achievement to be proud of, and probably no work the colony has done will tend more to the true mission of the artist, which is to foster and encourage the love of beauty and grace.

But to resume our ramble. All around us now are the houses in which at one time or another most of us have found a home. Newlyn is not very fortunately situated in this respect, for good lodgings are not plentiful, and at times the demand exceeds the supply. Built at a time when an invasion of painters was not foreseen, the village possesses few houses which can do more than accommodate the fishermen and their families who inhabit them; and this difficulty of procuring rooms has somewhat tended to check our expansion. We have sometimes seen with regret comrades depart, won over by the greater facilities which neighbouring colonies can offer.

Still there are comfortable and pleasant quarters to be found by searching, in which we have lived happily enough. Here is one old house endeared to many of us by the recollection of the old days when we lived there side by side. In its garden stands a wooden studio which I saw constructed, and afterwards shared with Percy Craft and at times with Chevallier Tayler. In it I painted a wedding feast, which was the forerunner of my own. Pleasant times to look back upon, though the picture was not carried through without infinite painstaking labour, or finished without much misgiving and doubt of its reception. Yet when the other day I saw it hanging in the fine gallery which Sir Henry Tate has given to the nation, I could only remember the good luck it brought me, the happy fortune I owe to its success.

Further on is a charming house, under whose hospitable roof a genial host and hostess have done so much to promote and encourage that feeling of good fellowship which has always existed amongst us—the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gotc]z~. Indeed, this quarter of Newlyn is the very centre of the social life of the colony. Amongst the pleasantest of our recollections are the visits of those foreign painters, many of whom have made lengthy sojourns here, won by the charm of this fair English county, by the wild grandeur of its rugged coast, or by the softer beauty of its valleys and woodland glades. And the presence of those strangers, who, foreign only by race, are of our close kith and kin in the near relationship of art, is of an importance beyond measure, for the value to artists of an interchange of views and ideas with their foreign brethren cannot be over-estimated. Cornwall has, indeed, been fortunate in attracting the artists of other lands. I remember finding in a house at St. Ives where I was calling, four painters of four different nationalities. In that town Zorn, the well-known Swedish artist, painted his first oil picture, which now hangs in the Luxembourg, and for it his palette was set by an equally celebrated American painter who at that time resided there.

Indeed, so many of our transatlantic cousins have visited us, that who can tell to what extent we may not claim to have fostered those cordial relations which we are told now exist between the two nations?

Newlyn, too, has not failed to find favour in the eyes of foreigners; and painters of distinction, our own fellow countrymen, whom we can scarcely claim as members of our little coterie, have from time to time paid us transitory visits.

On one occasion having heard of the arrival of a famous draughtsman, I called at the studio which I was told he had just taken. The first thing that caught my eye on the familiar walls was a huge and admirable caricature of my own face and figure. Quite unabashed its author rose to greet me, and this was my first introduction to Phil May. Great is the rivalry between the adjacent colonies when some more than usually interesting stranger finds his way down, and fierce fights are waged over the possession of his person and his paints.

But except for this nothing could be more cordial than the relations between the art settlements in Cornwall, which, found so close together, are yet so distinct in character and diverse in their aim. It is curious how a few miles can affect the style of a body of workers. Men working together and constantly observing each other’s methods must unconsciously affect one another, but though this may have its drawbacks, I am equally convinced as to its benefits, for ours is an art in which mutual aid and counsel are invaluable, and none know this better than those who are fortunate enough to have a help­mate upon whose judgment they can rely.

But we have still much to see, so resume our wanderings and, prying into the little passages and courts which abound in Newlyn, obtain a glimpse of a fisherman’s home life and ways. We shall find many another studio tucked away in odd corners, queer old ramshackle places, many of them exceedingly serviceable and admirably suggestive.

Leaving the village now, for a glance at the country around, we might follow the course of a charming little brook up the rich coombe or valley down which it trickles. It is difficult to think that this can be the same river that only a few years ago came roaring down this quiet valley, through the heart of the village, wreaking destruction and havoc around on the day of the memorable flood. Now we pass a church where Newlyn marriages take place, for there are few Benedicts left amongst us, and another Newlyn school exists of which the little scholars are fast growing up, the future hope of the colony, the present sunshine of our homes.

We have still to climb that terrible hill that leads up into the higher land above to see the favourite haunts of our landscape painters. Wandering inland we may perhaps be overtaken by some of them spinning past, with canvas and brushes strapped to their bicycles, hurrying to their daily task; perhaps out on the moors, or in the heart of some quiet wood, catch sight of those little wooden shanties, excellent movable studios, which some have lately adopted.

Passing through this little hamlet I can point out a smithy, in the smoke and grime of which, working for months, I managed to carry to completion a large picture; and further on by the roadside a spot where one day I was forced to snatch up a seven-foot canvas, and, leaping a hedge, fly before a herd of advancing cattle.

But pictures bear a charmed life, and, as a friend of mine is fond of remark­ing, only the painter himself can hurt them. Once in an unlucky moment I left one leaning against a wall at a safe angle, as I had many a time left it before, but being nearly finished, for better security I asked a small boy to watch it in my absence. Imagine my feelings on returning, to find that my guardian—a stout-built chubby little fellow—had discovered a novel form of canvas chair, and was comfortably seated on the picture. I am told that a well-known colour merchant in London still quotes this experience of mine, with proper pride in the quality of the canvas which he manufactures.

Before turning homewards we might prolong our walk through the lovely valley of Lamorna, until we reach,a group of farm buildings by the side of the road, where we stop to admire the very latest achievement of two distinguished artists, a sign hanging on the wall of a cottage, indicating by a most charming painting that refreshments can here be obtained for wearied cyclists.

And now we have seen Newlyn, and something of the lives of its painters, and have had a peep behind the scenes. Meanwhile each year the curtain at Burlington House rises upon the little dramas and comedies we have fashioned, and our puppets act their parts and earn their mead of praise or blame. It is not perhaps for me to take part in this, but as the actor is permitted to visit the theatre, and join in the plaudits which greet his friends, so I may be allowed to express the pride I feel in the successes of these my comrades and associates. For indeed the applause has not been stinted, and the Newlyn School can surely not complain of want of recognition.

It counts many successes, and those pleasant occasions when we have met together to celebrate some honour won, some distinction gained, have been frequent in our annals. True it has not escaped criticism, nor failed to find detractors, yet doubtless has been the better for this wholesome discipline. We have outlived the obloquy of the square touch, and survived unkind references to the camera—indeed, I am sure that many of us have vastly profited by these comments on our defects, else what is the use of criticism, and how vain the labour of those who so unselfishly devote their lives to pointing out our limitations!

We have at times been charged with tendency to a grey and somber tone, to a love of gloomy and depressing motives. I am glad that this sketch of mine, this little picture of Newlyn life, cannot incur such censure, for it shows a singularly happy and fortunate community, and the sun which we are told is wanting in our pictures has not failed to shine upon our lives. I know not whether I have made clear the reasons of our affection for this adopted home of ours, and shown something of the nature of our attachment to it. To me it seems simple enough and easily understood, resting much on the memories of happy bygone days passed together working side by side in common aim.

 

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