Exhibition Review: Stanhope Forbes

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) is usually referred to as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’ of artists, and is indelibly associated with the group of Cornish artists despite being born in Ireland; his move to Newlyn coincided with his first major success, and his paintings reflect the differing realities of life on the Cornish coast. It’s appropriate, then, that the Penlee Gallery in Penzance is holding a major exhibition of Forbes’ work which includes almost all of his best paintings (on until September 9th).

91c6c4ee0a448b5f333e7b32b6a78a2aForbes studied in France where he learned the ‘plein air’ style, and recorded life there while he studied, and some of these early French paintings are on display here (The Convent, 1882, reminded me in its effects of open air of The Pretty Baa Lambs by Ford Madox Brown). His move to Cornwall in 1884 was primarily a search for subjects, and he certainly found it; his works have atmosphere and local colour in bucketloads, and the appeal to tourists ever since is clear, but there is something more genuine, and less chocolate-box, about his work than simply a postcard painting. He celebrates local festivals, bands playing, people celebrating – but he also shows us the heartbreak and the sheer hard work of life on the coast. A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885, above) was one of his first Cornish paintings, and one which taught him the challenges of painting outside, as light and people moved and weather made things difficult. This is one of his most famous works, and demonstrates that he is not sentimentalising the topic, I think, though it’s clear he had an eye for the market (and the Royal Academy). Regatta Day, Penzance (c1890, below) shows a cheerier scene which captures both the period and the idiosyncrasies of the local population, but in these two paintings as in the others it’s clear that he is watching the local community as an outsider with privileged access, rather than as part of it, which is perhaps the lot of a painter, maintaining detachment and distance.

Forbes, Stanhope Alexander, 1857-1947; Penzance Regatta Day

Other works, such as The Quarry Team (1894) are even stronger on social realism, depicting the toughness of life in Cornish industries, and rather gloomily, too. (This painting was slashed by suffragettes, incidentally, but despite careful looking there’s no sign of it! I’m interested to speculate whether this was random or if they chose this work for a particular reason).

The exhibition contains a number of photographs of the artist at work in his studio or Forbes, Stanhope Alexander, 1857-1947; Chadding on Mount's Baypainting outside, and also fishing, with other artists, etc, suggesting he was a jolly outdoors sort of chap of the type that the late nineteenth century bred so well (I’ve no idea if this is true, though). There are some more idyllic scenes among those on display: Chadding in Mounts Bay (1902) is a more cheerful, sentimentalised and more Edwardian scene (right), in which the sun shines, the sea is blue and the children are rosy-cheeked and cheerful(ish). Gala Day (1907) is slightly less so, because despite its emphasis on the local and the patriotic, there are figures on the fringes – an elderly woman straightening a child’s sleeve, women chatting and pointing – which makes the work feel real, almost photographic in composition if not in style.

Many of the paintings are linked to a specific location, and some of those have hardly changed – Mousehole Harbour (1910), for example, is still distinctly recognisable – but in many ways Forbes’ paintings preserve a moment in a world now lost. Times change, though, and in many ways his later paintings update these earlier idylls: the children of Relubbus Bridge (1930) are updated versions of the earlier cherubs that went chadding in Mount’s Bay. Yet there is change, in people, in dress and in subjects chosen; Forbes lived a long life and demonstrates his understanding of a changing way of life on the coast. The interwar years have less working men and more scenery, less sentiment and also less local colour in the form of festivals and ceremonies.

Lightin Up TimeThe colours of the paintings are often the colours of the sea; apart from some interiors, blues and greys (glas is the Cornish word for whatever colour the sea is) predominate, some muted and some vivid, but usually with a touch of brightness somewhere in the painting. The exhibition is carefully hung to emphasise this, I think; gallery 3 is darker, with many indoor or night paintings. The light effects in darkness here are masterly, seen in Lighting Up Time (1902), for example (left). The Steel Workers (1915) depicts a much more modern industry and seems uncharacteristic of his previous topics, though logically it’s another relevant industry to depict, and the painting demonstrates similar techniques with spots of light highlighting different parts of the painting. The Letter (1898, below) provides a major contrast, though: this is high Victorian melodrama, featuring dramatic lighting for a scene in which a presumably tragic letter has arrived, and the mother of the family opens it in the doorway watched by her family, the postman and, for full sentimental effect, the dog.

Letter

I’ve seen a lot of Stanhope Forbes’ work over the years, but this exhibition still managed to surprise me with the breadth and depth of his work; there is no substitute for seeing a wide range of an artist’s work on display together, and this demonstrated to me how much Forbes chose his subjects to suit his audience as well as his own style, and how well that style works in a coastal setting. The exhibition is set up to consider continuities in his work from the earlier to the final paintings rather than to examine his development as an artist, but it is, of course, possible to see both with careful attention.

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Hunting the Pre-Raphaelites at Lanhydrock

NT; (c) Lanhydrock; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI am a fairly regular visitor to Lanhydrock, an impressive Jacobean house near Truro, owned by the National Trust. However, while the house is 17th century originally, much of the house was rebuilt and redesigned, with new furniture, after a serious fire in 1881. Lord Robartes instructed architects to reconstruct the house along its original lines, keeping the traditional features of the house as well as imposing a segregation by gender, age and class on its inhabitants. The architects instructed were James MacLaren and Richard Coad; the latter was a Cornishman who had worked on Lanhydrock previously, and was supervised by George Gilbert Scott. He went into partnership with his previous apprentice, MacLaren, whose work was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and whose work was to influence Rennie Mackintosh. There is much of Lanhydrock that manifests the influence of the pair; a Pugin wallpaper, Morris-inspired papers (and a spectacular green gilt ‘Sunflower’ paper which is modern but perfectly in keeping with Skilbeck, Clement Oswald, 1865-1954; Saint Luke Writing His Gospel at the Dictation of the Virgin Marythe tone of the house). The Smoking Room has a wonderful Arts and Crafts chimney piece, dated 1883, and other small details such as Minton tiles demonstrate the incorporation of and enthusiasm for this late-Victorian aesthetic. As the guidebook notes, much of the house’s interior was influenced by Charles Eastlake, an architect trained by Philip Hardwick and a strong advocate for Morris’s medieval style. Eastlake’s book A History of the Gothic Revival (1872) has clear implications for Lanhydrock’s furnishings, and it is fascinating to see how such manuals of style influenced the creation of rooms such as those found here.

Smoking room

The paintings found throughout the house are often family portraits, many by outstanding painters of their day, such as Gainsborough and Joseph Wright of Derby. What particularly caught my eye, though, were works which were often less prominently displayed, but which suggest to me that someone in the house, perhaps StrudwickLord Robartes or his wife, had a particular interest in the style of painting produced by the Pre-Raphaelites. On the whole the paintings don’t include the big names of the PRB; there are no Rossettis or Burne-Joneses here, but the aesthetic is unmistakeable. There are a number of works which are untitled and for whom the artist and date are unknown, which in their colour and subject matter suggest a Pre-Raphaelite influence, and others where it is clearer. The Madonna with Attendant Angels (1901) by John Melhuish Strudwick is one of the best examples of this; Strudwick had worked as an assistant to Burne-Jones and Spencer Stanhope, and the influence of this is very clear. The painting is striking if somewhat overblown, known also as Virgin and Child, with glowing gold leaf halo; it was bought for the house by Michael Trinick, the Trust’s regional director, who perhaps had himself a penchant for Pre-Raphaelitism. Another, more obscure example, is A Girl with a Violin (1884-1896) by Henry Harewood Robinson, a St Ives based artist whose other interest was music. A young woman with long red hair in a green medieval style dress contemplatively plays a violin, surrounded by lilies; though little seems to be known of the artist the clearly implies an emulation of Pre-Raphaelite subject matter and use of Lawrance, C. E.; Pancolour; the painting was given to the family by the artist’s widow. Similarly, a head of Pan (1889) by the unknown C E Lawrance recalls Simeon Solomon’s poised and beautiful heads of young men; this appears to have been in the Robartes collection.

The house has a print of Millais’s infamous Bubbles, as well as two of Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, though I don’t think either are on display, and many of the works do have a religious themes, which is unsurprising for a devout family. A painting entitled The Nativity (date unknown) is unassumingly monogrammed EP, for Evelyn Pickering, later Evelyn de Morgan, whose work, along with her husband William’s, is well-known for its Pre-Raphaelite style. This work is a beautiful, subtle monochrome work in chalk and charcoal, with the angels’ faces clearly recalling the work of Burne-Jones. Another religious painting is St Luke writing his Gospel at the Dictation of the Virgin Mary (1892by Clement Oswald Skilbeck (1865-1954), whose name I didn’t know The Nativitybut whose work again appears influenced by the PRB; he was a friend of Morris and Burne-Jones, it seems, and the jewel colours of his painting, the hyper-real style coupled with the medievalised aesthetic demonstrate their influence. This, however, is one of the paintings which was bought by the National Trust in the 1970s rather than originating with the family.

The house, and its contents, are a late Victorian gem. Though much was lost in the fire, the beautiful restoration of the house and its contents captures the late Victorian aesthetic and its preoccupation with beauty, colour, morality and faith in a remarkable way. And, although this is beyond the remit of this post, it also tells us a lot about a Victorian and Edwardian way of life, in the remarkably well preserved servants quarters, the artefacts of everyday life in an enormous house, and the effective way in which the house is set up so you might believe the family could come back at any moment.

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‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’

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

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.

Creswick

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.

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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.

Morning at Lamorna Cove

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.

Smart moonlit sea

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.

Ancient stones

I’m endlessly fascinated by stone circles, quoits, burial mounds and so on, and West Penwith in Cornwall is full of them. To me they give a sense of an ancient past, one which we can’t really understand, and perhaps our failure to understand the purpose of many of these stones is part of the appeal. These stones have become an essential part of the landscape, part of the natural habitat though made by people of whom we know nothing, or very little. These were not decorative, or practical, but were often, possibly, part of a kind of worship – of nature, of the sun or the stars, of the world around. Interestingly, as far as I know none are situated in sight of the sea.

One of my favourites is the Merry Maidens or ‘Dans Maen’ (Dancing Stones), near St Buryan (images above). The IMG_3235myth is that girls were dancing on a Sunday, in contravention of the Church’s edicts, and were turned to stone – as well as the stone circle, to each side there is another stone, the piper and fiddler who played the music for their dances, transformed as they tried to run away. There is also a burial chamber. As with so many things, the Victorians’ well-meaning attempts at restoration have altered the original circle, possibly adding a stone, and changing their positions slightly. But the site is still fascinating, filled with wild flowers, and despite the regular arrival of tourists it is a peaceful place with wonderful views. There is more detailed information about the Merry Maidens here. Wandering around the circle, the stones are warm to the touch, the grasses dancing where the girls no longer do; there is something magical in the air. There has been speculation for over a century that another stone circle stood close by;

Another popular site is the Bronze Age Men-an-Tol (more details here). This is a fascinating holed stone (which is the meaning of the Cornish name) with two other upright stones, and it has historically been considered part of a fertility ritual, or as having curative powers (one is meant to crawl through it a certain number of times at sundown, or something like that – the legends vary). Again it is a beautiful situation, in open land, surrounded by fields and with a distant chimney of a tin mine on the horizon. The Historic Cornwall website suggests that this may once have been part of a stone circle, and that “the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds” – an appealing idea.

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These stones are part of a pre-Christian pagan landscape, in which the stones were imbued with magical qualities. I’m not someone who believes this is still the case – though there are many who do – but there is something mysterious, ancient and powerful in these places. Madron Well and Baptistry indicates early Christian worship, in the tiny ruined chapel, associated with both pagan and Christian worship, which is near a cloutie tree (a tree with ribbons or rags tied to it). Until recently I understand local Methodists held outdoor services here. This, like many other sites, is looked after by the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, which offers more information on its website. There are many, many more such sites across Cornwall (and indeed Britain), but the concentration of them in Cornwall, and their survival into the 21st century, perhaps indicates the ways in which Cornwall’s physical isolation from the rest of England has enabled it to maintain such a distinct heritage.

Barbara Hepworth’s Studio

20160711_110310In St Ives on holiday, we visited Barbara Hepworth’s studio and garden, now part of Tate St Ives; Hepworth (1903-1975) died there in a fire about 40 years ago, and in her will asked that Trewyn Studio and gardens, complete with her sculptures and belongings, be opened to the public. Now, it is a tranquil place to visit, and one can imagine the haven it provided for Hepworth, who moved to St Ives in 1939 to escape London in the advent of war.  The move initiated a shift in the focus of her work, to natural forms inspired by the Cornish landscape she grew to love.  This is displayed to great effect with the sculptures in her garden, where a natural sense of form and movement blends with plants, trees and natural light, for which St Ives is remarkable.  Previously Trewyn had been a children’s home, but in 1949, ten years after her move to St Ives, Hepworth fell in love with it and bought it even though she couldn’t afford it, and the garden in particular became integral to her work.

From the dark entrance hall, paved with Delabole slate, which she used for many of her sculptures, and filled with photographs of Hepworth’s life, the visitor emerges into a light, bright studio space equipped with many examples of her work, including the famous stringed designs, sketches, and photographs of the space as it was during Hepworth’s lifetime.  It is also still furnished with pieces of furniture she acquired herself, which give it a homely touch.  Through the studio the garden can be reached, where sculptures are set among an array of plants and flowers, their organic shapes demonstrating Hepworth’s understanding of the holistic form and harmony with nature and landscape.  Winding paths lead around the garden, where one is assailed with the smell of the flowers and the sea, and the sight of nature and art entwined.  The garden is based on a formal layout, which is a relic of the Georgian estate of which it was once a part.

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In the garden is a small, white-painted summerhouse, with a makeshift bed, where Hepworth used sometimes to sleep; there is also a large outdoor studio, consisting of several rooms not unlike a conservatory.  This makes the most of the St Ives light, and is airy and warm, housing a number of cacti, and sometimes a cat, which dozes in a shabby armchair in the sun.  There are also a number of unfinished works in the studio, which adds an unusual sense of immediacy, as though the artist may return at any moment.  Jars of coffee sit side-by-side with glue and varnish on the dusty shelves, and her tools are scattered about.  Hepworth used a number of assistants in her work, especially in later life when she became frail, but her own tools are clearly marked with red tape. While resting in the summerhouse, she could hear her assistants working, and would call out to them if they made a mistake, which she could tell by the sounds of the tools on the material.

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Some of the sculptures are small and unassuming, almost hidden by the foliage in which they reside, while some are towering focal points that demand attention.  These are combined with beautiful flowers, and gnarled trees, which are works of art in themselves.  A small lily pond with a bridge completes the picture.  Somehow the holes in the forms of her sculptures seem to make more sense when trees, flowers and the sky can be seen through them, giving an appropriate sense of context to these smooth and natural forms.  While modern sculpture is not something that appeals to everyone, there is a strong sense here that searching for meaning is beside the point; it is feeling which is important, and the garden is an ideal environment for this.  Unlike a gallery, here you can walk around the sculptures, and give in to the irresistible urge to reach out and touch them.  By walking around and peering through the pieces, a visitor can become a part of the sculpture garden. Visiting with my son, I was fascinated by his enthusiasm for interacting with the sculptures, looking at them from all sides and even touching them.

Hepworth is well known for her exploration of form, especially the “pierced form”, which by means of a hole or depression in a solid mass allows exploration both of form or shape, and material. Like many of her contemporaries in abstract art, she believed in the concept of “truth to material”, where the artist works with rather than against the inherent qualities of the material.  Frequently she worked in wood, but in later life she moved on to bronze sculptures, and it is these and stone sculptures which form the majority of pieces in the garden.  Some are totem-like, giving a feeling of standing in an ancient, pagan landscape, while some are smaller and curved, with strings demonstrating tension in the landscape.  One such sculpture fills up with water when it rains, giving it a fourth dimen20160711_104917sion which adds to the organic feeling of her work.

Although very much rooted in the Cornish landscape, her work was never insular, influenced by international movements in art and sculpture.  At art school in Leeds, she was a contemporary of Henry Moore, and had many friends and acquaintances in the international art scene.  It was after the birth of her triplets in 1934 that she moved to abstract art, and endeavoured to ‘infuse the formal perfection of geometry with the vital grace of nature’.  Her work reflected both her own emotions, and her feelings towards nature, examining seed forms and maternal instincts along with regeneration and regrowth.  This last was considered particularly significant in the post-war world.

Sculpture and Landscape

01ada5367e4539481d00fe5a8d3e1c3012e0aa5965On holiday recently, we visited Tremenheere sculpture gardens for the first time, and found the combination of plants and landscape with works of art a really interesting experience. Over the site there are 16 installations, all very different from each other, and which work with the landscape in different, appealing ways. The site is planted with the lush, tropical vegetation for which the climate of Cornwall is known, so that one almost expects the unexpected to appear anyway (or, in the case of my son, dinosaurs). Actually this is a great place for children, as the map you are given to follow for your walk creates a kind of treasure hunt as you search for the sculptures. There are also wonderful views of St Michael’s Mount from the gardens, and the food in the restaurant is excellent.

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One of my favourite works there – and, I imagine, one of the most popular – is ‘Tewlolow Kernow’, or ‘Twilight in Cornwall’ designed by James Turrell, a sky space which turns the sky into art, framing the sky with an oval hole in a dome. The entrance to the space feels as though one is entering a place of ritual, and though it echoes beautifully  – making it tempting to sing – I felt as though I ought to be silent whilst observing the clouds moving ahead (I am a little obsessed with clouds, and how they are portrayed in art, after reading Weatherland by Alexandra Harris). One of Turrell’s sky spaces was featured in ‘Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature’ on BBC4, and the presenter James Fox sat watching the sky for hours; I could happily have done so too. The clean, blank lines of the space you are in shifts your entire focus onto the world above.

Billy Wynter’s Camera Obscura was also hypnotic, projecting the world around onto a table in a small, dark room – which prompts questions about when nature becomes art, or vice versa. Like so many of the works, art and nature merge here, reflecting each other. Many works consequently prompt ideas about humanity’s place in the world, our relation to landscape and the land, and the cycles of nature and life. A remarkable, huge work, Penny Saunders’ ‘Restless Temple’ consists of counterbalanced pillars which sway in the wind, perhaps ‘challenging our preconceptions of what we hold secure and stable in everyday life’, the guide suggests. This link takes you to a video which shows my son enjoying this instability. We were all fascinated by the cloud form of Matt Chivers’ ‘Hybrid’ and Richard Marsh’s ‘Untitled X3’, both organic shapes which one can walk around endlessly.

We have got used to thinking of ‘art’ as an indoors thing: paintings of nature hung on a wall, perhaps, so it both refreshing and inspiring to walk around looking at art which grows, art which is placed in the landscape, art which is part of the natural world. My reflections were on the contrasts of transience and permanence, and questions about what art is and what it does, but it also works simply as a nice walk with some interesting things to look at.