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The art-colonies form

Rupert White


‘Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach’ was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in the summer of 1885. It was the first painting to bring national recognition to the artist’s colony of Newlyn, and in its realism and its portrayal of rural life in West Cornwall, it can be seen as the blueprint for all subsequent Newlyn School painting.

Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Forbes. Plymouth Museum.

Stanhope Forbes, its creator, had arrived in Cornwall in 1884, and spent most of that year working on the canvas outdoors in all weathers. He had previously studied at the Royal Academy Schools, but like many younger European and American artists in the 1870s, had fallen under the spell of progressive French art much of which, rather than being painted in the artificial light of the studio, was now executed ‘en plein-air’.

Forbes had gone on to study in Paris in 1880, but found that, during the warmer months there was an exodus of painters to the countryside; particularly to Brittany where a number of colonies had sprung up. The most influential of the French artists, like Millet and, later, Bastien Lepage, preferred to depict remote, unspoilt locations in their work: 'in almost all the places where colonies were established, the artists fancifully saw their surroundings in terms of a primitive world far removed from modern civilization…And it was essential that such areas should be populated by old fashioned peasant and fishing communities' (Jacobs, 1985).

They were figure painters rather than landscape painters, but their interest in rural communities was not simply voyeuristic or sentimental; it also had a political dimension. The rise of socialism across Europe - in the UK associated with Charterists, the Fabian Society, and artists like Ruskin and Morris - had led to a reconsideration of the value of traditional work. In 1853 Ruskin described the plight of the factory worker thus: It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread… they feel that the kind of labour to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men…To feel their souls withering within them, unthanked, to find their whole being sunk into an unrecognized abyss, to be counted off into a heap of mechanism numbered with its wheels, and weighed with its hammer strokes, this nature bade not; this God blesses not (Ruskin: The Stones of Venice). Tolstoy argued that now, even the rich viewed their own work as odious: ‘I say odious because I have never yet met with a person of this class who was contented with his work, or took as much satisfaction in it as the man who shovels the snow from his doorstep… (Tolstoy's Confessions).

Both men, influential as they were, saw a return to the land as the solution to modern man’s ills. Tolstoy, who took to wearing a simple peasant costume, started a community based on the principles of self-sufficiency and the simple life, whilst in the 1870’s Ruskin set up the ‘Guild of St George’, which included rural communities and farms based on the principle of medieval craft guilds that could provide alternatives to mass production. His example was later emulated all over Europe and America (Marsh, 1982).

The peasant communities of Brittany unchanged for centuries, uncorrupted by industrialisation and apparently contented in their work, must have therefore exemplified a similar ideal, as highlighted by Jacobs: Almost all the visitors to Brittany in the nineteenth century viewed the region in a similar way; and to many the experience of coming here was like travelling back to the Middle Ages, or even further back in time, to a primeval era. This fanciful image …had an obvious appeal to artists who…isolated themselves more and more from their own period, whose preoccupations with industrialisation disgusted them (Jacobs, 1985). p.42

Jacobs also asserts that the artists were interested in the Celticism of Brittany: It was not only the Breton environment which so fascinated artists, but also the people themselves…first they were not French but Celts who had come over to France from England to escape the Anglo-Saxon invasion…there were other aspects of the Bretons which interested foreign observers, such as their strong folklore tradition and intense Catholicism…

The Bretons also still wore their national costume, which is much in evidence in all the paintings completed in the main colonies of Pont-Aven and Concarneau, not least in those produced by Post-impressionist Paul Gauguin during the last decades of the century. Gauguin arrived in Pont-Aven in 1886, and in 1888 wrote: ‘I love Brittany. I find there the savage, the primitive. When my clogs resound on the granite soil I hear the muffled dull powerful tone that I seek in my painting’.

Stanhope Forbes, whose boyhood home was in London, had two summers and autumns painting in Brittany before travelling to Penzance. When he reached Newlyn, he discovered other painters that had also recently arrived: Ralph Todd, who had stayed with him in the same hotel in Quimperlé, and Walter Langley and Edwin Harris, both originally from Birmingham, who had also painted in Brittany before coming to Cornwall.

The residents of Newlyn did not have had the same ‘picturesque’ costumes as the Bretons, and Forbes’ first impressions suggest they had other less endearing qualities: All the men, or nearly all, are teetotalers and every one of them goes to church or chapel and keeps the seventh day holy, and the effect of this abstinence from strong drink and indulgence in strong prayers is to make them a most disagreeable set of people, full of hypocrisy and cant. (Stanhope Forbes in a letter to his father).

But by 1898 Forbes was able to look back on his first impressions of Newlyn with more fondness: 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 artists eye….from the first I was fascinated by those wet sands with those groups of figures reflected on the shiny surface which the auctioneers bell would gather around him for the barter of his wares…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.

He was already regretting the fact that the village was being modernised: 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 commonplace 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. (Stanhope Forbes (1898))

Given these views, one can only guess at the way in which the Newlyn painters were regarded by the fishermen, and there is always that nagging sense that locals were exploited for the entertainment of the metropolitan bourgeoisie. In one of his first letters from Newlyn (1884) Forbes referred to the availability of local models, who were paid for their time: The girls are quite pretty in spite of their rather ugly costume – sixpence an hour is the tariff – higher than France of course (Cross, 1994)


‘In Faith and Hope the World will Disagree But all Mankind’s concern is Charity’. Called ‘Charity’ for short and painted in 1897, by Walter Langley, this painting was singled out for praise by Leo Tolstoy.

However, the villagers were always depicted sympathetically. It is this that Tolstoy himself recognised in singling out Walter Langley’s ‘Charity’ for praise in his book ‘What is Art?’ (1898): The boy, pitifully drawing his bare feet under the bench is eating; the woman is looking on, probably considering whether he will not want some more; and a girl of about seven, leaning on her arm, is carefully and seriously looking on, not taking her eyes from the hungry boy and is evidently understanding for the first time what poverty is and what inequality among people is, and asking herself why she has everything provided for her while this boy goes barefoot and hungry?…One feels that the artist loved this girl and that she too loves. And this picture, by an artist who, I think, is not very widely known, is an admirable and true work of art.

Undoubtedly influenced by its reputation as being a colony like those in Brittany, more artists arrived in Newlyn in the 1880s. This included Frank Brambley, who would paint one of the most celebrated and moving paintings of the Victorian era: ‘A Hopeless Dawn’ (1888), and Elizabeth Armstrong who, as well as being an accomplished painter would later marry Forbes.

Armstrong was a Canadian who, in 1882, had stayed in Pont-Aven where she had met another future ‘Newlyner’, Edwin Harris. She arrived in Newlyn late in 1885, and in the summer of 1886 went to stay, temporarily, in the more salubrious surroundings of St Ives, about ten miles north of Newlyn. St Ives, as well as having white, sandy beaches and crystalline waters, also had two hotels (The White Hart and The Tregenna Castle), and since the branch-line had opened in 1877 was rapidly metamorphosing into a popular holiday resort.

By the mid 1880s artists from all over Europe and America had started to settle in St Ives. Like the Newlyn painters they were nearly all veterans of Pont Aven and Concarneau, and saw in St Ives similar ‘picturesque’ qualities. These early St Ives artists, like Émile Vernier, Edward Simmons, Edith Lees, Adrian and Marianne Stokes, the Swede, Anders Zorn and the Finn, Helene Scherjbeck, tended to be maritime or landscape painters rather than figurative painters; many of them taking spectacular studios in the old fishing (sail) lofts in ‘Downalong’ overlooking Porthmeor Beach, but living in larger houses at the top of the town. In 1888, the first meeting of St Ives Arts Club took place in a studio belonging to Australian artist, Louis Grier, and in 1890 a permanent home was found for the club on Westcott’s Quay close to the sea-shore.

By the end of the decade it was the Newlyn painters that were receiving the greatest accolades, however, and after success at the Royal Academy, in 1889 Stanhope Forbes’ ‘The Health of the Bride’ was bought by Henry Tate (of the Tate Gallery). Appropriately enough Forbes married Elizabeth Armstrong the same year. Ten years later the couple, who were among the few original settlers still living there, started a school of painting.

In 1895 the Passmore Edward’s Gallery opened specifically to show the work of Newlyn artists. Stanhope Forbes commented: 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 (Stanhope Forbes, 1898).


Writing in ‘The Studio’ at around the same time, Norman Garstin was much less upbeat and optimistic: It has all come too late, the colony in Newlyn is dispersing and some share of the blame must be taken by the new gallery...It has seemingly led to a disintegration of the Newlyners…This is only a coincidence, but certainly we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that Newlyn has thinned lately – leaner by many good men and good painters. (Cross, 1994)

In fact Newlyn, and as we shall see the adjacent smaller colony of Lamorna, remained a centre for painting in Cornwall for many decades. Newlyn for a while also became known for its repoussé copperwork: hand-crafted copper domestic-ware which was produced from the early 1890s onwards. Stanhope Forbes: In the narrowest part of the little lane 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 Bolitho, 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 repousse 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 (Stanhope Forbes, 1898).

Due to failing health Ruskin’s ‘Guild of St George’ had been only partially successful, and it was left to William Morris, poet, designer and socialist, to put many of his ideas into practice. Morris later acknowledged his debt to Ruskin in the preface to the Kelmscott Press edition of ‘The Nature of Gothic’ in 1892. The movement that was inspired by Ruskin eventually acquired a name, after ‘The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society’, formed in 1887. The Society reflected the activity of a wide number of guilds, village industries and crafts societies across the country.


Key sources:

Forbes, Stanhope (1898) Newlyn Retrospect (in The Cornish Magazine).

Jacobs, Michael (1985) The Good & Simple Life: Art colonies in Europe and America

Cross, Tom (1984) The Shining Sands

written in 2013 uploaded 20.6.22