Penlee House Gallery in Penzance never fails to offer fascinating exhibitions, and their current one is no exception. ‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’: Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis takes its title from Tennyson’s poem ‘Dedication to the Queen’, and indicates the breadth and depth of sea-painting over the period, with a focus – though not exclusively – on paintings of the Cornish coast. The quotation indicates the position of Britain as an island, suggestive of the strength and impassivity of the sea, though in fact it comes from one of Tennyson’s Laureate poems written in praise of Queen Victoria, and the line, which closes the poem, refers to the impregnability of her throne because of the peace and stability of her reign (you can read the poem here).
Turner’s ‘St Michael’s Mount’ (1834) is one of several paintings of that particular view, and one of the best, though looking much steeper and more impregnable than it does now. Turner’s composition shows wrecked ships overshadowed by the Mount and surrounded by the sea; like many of the pictures in the first room, this is not a chocolate-box view, but rather one which demonstrates the sea as a force ‘inviolate’ indeed, uncaring of the lives it takes. The works on display are more than local scenes, then: some are realist while others more representative, and indicate the huge number of ways in which artists engage with the sea, in working harbours, landscapes, even narrative paintings. Thomas Creswick’s ‘The Land’s End’ is strikingly realist, with carefully detailed geological strata of rock appearing in a style reminiscent of Dyce’s Pre-Raphaelite-inspired works, while Henry Moore’s ‘Seascape’ almost gestures towards abstraction in its focussed colour and vigour.
There are three striking images hung together: James Millar’s ‘Cornish Solitude’, Samuel ‘Lamorna’ Birch’s ‘Tol-Pedn’, and Richard Carter’s ‘The Rising Moon and the Day’s Departure’, all depict rocks, sea, and seagulls: no human figure is present, and none could get there (one wonders where the artist was sitting) – the sea is untouchable, inviolate indeed. The threat of the sea is palpable in all: these may be beautiful, picturesque scenes but this is the untamed sea, not simply a decorative image. Those images which do include figures often refer to disasters, past or potential, and again imply the dangers of the sea-faring life more than the tamer appeal of the seaside, though there are a few of these, too.
The later rooms of the exhibition are a little more tranquil, with more concession to the human figure, and it is interesting to note the shift; as the exhibition guide points out, the approach to sea-painting changed in the twentieth century, away from narrative Victorian approaches of Wallis and Birch, for example, towards an abstraction where form is sometimes dominated by colour. One of Birch’s later paintings, ‘Morning at Lamorna Cove’ (1930s) provides an interesting example of how his work becomes more ‘modern’ in its approach.
Meanwhile Robert Borlase Smart’s wonderful ‘Moonlit Sea’ of the same period shows how much further other artists had gone: the sea becomes a very different beast in Smart’s hands – an abstract surface of the sea, with colours, angles and patterns appearing on the waves.
John Mogford’s painting ‘Crossing the Bar – A Break in the Clouds, St Ives’ (1873) reminded me how important the sea was as a metaphor in the nineteenth century. There are several paintings here which reference Victorian writing, but no sea-poem was as powerful in the nineteenth century as Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ (not even Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, sadly). The ‘bar’ in fact refers (in the painting) to the old wooden pier at St Ives, but the link is clearly made with the sea as a stormy place (life) which must be crossed before we reach Heaven. Numerous hymns and songs of the nineteenth century draw on similar imagery, and the paintings owe something to this poetic history.
A spectacular finale to the exhibition is Albert Julius Olsson’s ‘Stormy Evening on the Cornish Coast’, in which the waves seem visibly and audibly to crash on the shore; again, this work is moving towards abstraction, providing the very essence of the sea. The Penwith Peninsula is one of the most treacherous coastlines in Britain, and the dangers it holds have been felt in the communities here for centuries. This exhibition does justice to this coastline in all its wild beauty.