Recently I saw an excellent exhibition at the Penlee House Gallery in Penzance, Walter Langley and the Birmingham Boys. Before I saw the exhibition I was only vaguely aware of the connections between Birmingham artists and the Newlyn artists, but the connection is clearly a significant one. As the gallery information says, quoting from the Magazine of Art in 1898, “It was Birmingham that first discovered Newlyn”. Walter Langley himself was Birmingham born and trained, and was commissioned by a Birmingham patron to paint the lives of working fishermen in Cornwall. From a poor, working-class background himself, Langley sympathised with the hard-working and often difficult lives of his subjects, and the paintings on show in the exhibition demonstrate the depth of his empathy.
Paintings such as ‘Waiting the Return of the Fleet’ (1903), for example, demonstrate the patience and pain of the women in the fishing community – Langley’s figures are wholly believable, and conjure up their lives for the viewer. Paintings like this and ‘Lingering Hope’ (1882), which shows an elderly couple evidently thinking of their missing son, are both very much of the Newlyn School, in their style and their subject matter, but also very much of their time. There is something remarkably – and appealingly – Victorian about Langley’s paintings. The subject matter was bound to appeal to Victorian culture, I suppose: tragedy, religion, work, and some wistful orphaned children, are combined nicely in the subjects and beautifully executed, too. In several cases, lines from Tennyson (including some from In Memoriam) are used as a title, which heightens the sense of tragedy and loss.
The paintings cover life in fishing communities, from love and loss to hard work and poverty, with moments of joy interspersed with pain. Of all the painters, however, Langley’s are, to my eye at least, the best: they are generally unsentimental, almost factual, in their depiction of the life of the village, and yet they have the power to move the viewer. This is particularly the case with the paintings of loss, such as ‘Disaster!’ (1888), in which the stricken face of a young woman with a child dominates the foreground, and ‘Among the Missing’ (1884), in which one can feel the tragedy, and it is difficult not to become immersed in the potential stories of the characters portrayed.
The exhibition includes paintings by a range of artists who were trained in Birmingham but painted in Cornwall, including Edwin Harris, William Banks Fortescue, Frank Richards, William Arthur Breakspear and William John Wainwright. I found the work of these other artists to be often more sentimental and idealised than those of Langley, often verging on the pastoral. There is certainly less hard work and sorrow in the work of these other artists, and it is the Victorian unflinching facing of life and death that Langley depicts that makes his paintings stand out.