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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Ruby

RubyOn holiday this year I visited the lovely Penlee House Gallery, hoping to see one of their (relatively) recent acquisitions: Ruby, by Thomas Cooper Gotch. Sadly it wasn’t on display, but I did buy a lovely postcard of it, and hope to see it next time I’m there. The gallery bought it with help from the Art Fund back in 2012. They already (I believe) have Gotch’s Girl in a Cornish Garden, a painting which cements his Newlyn School credentials as an artist, but Gotch changed his ideas and style of painting after some travelling: though he was instrumental in the founding of the Newlyn Gallery and very much a ‘plein air’ painter in the Newlyn style, he later became influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and began to paint in the rich colours and crisp lines of the PRB.

Ruby (c. 1909) is unusual in many ways. Gotch’s paintings tend to include a lot of children (such as the celestial Alleluia, in Tate Britain) and he paints them in jewel-like colours which make give the viewer the uncanny feeling that a child is standing in front of them. But Ruby (based on a local Cornish girl) is more than that: she is red-haired, like other Pre-Raphaelite women, and she is also scarlet-cheeked and clad in a crimson cloak – the painting, against a dull grey background, flames out like a beacon. As a redhead myself, I knowThomas_Cooper_Gotch_-_Alleluia_1896 there are assumptions that redheads shouldn’t wear red, but this little girl is deliberately defying it: she looks as though she has just been running through fields, with her tangled curls and bright face. In fact, Gotch painted Ruby Bone (who was about two) in response to a bet that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – paint a red-head in red clothes (the Art Fund give more information on this here).

Although Gotch is not a particularly prominent painter, his work is easily recognisable. From the glorious, celestial, if somewhat uncanny children (most famously, The Child Enthroned) to his more Gothic imaginings (such as Death the Bride), his work demonstrates how different schools of art may collide and produce something entirely unexpected and often quite thrilling.

220px-ThomasCooperGotch-DeathTheBrideThomas_Cooper_Gotch_-_The_Child_Enthroned_1894

large_16_GotchTCGirlinaCornishGarden

Laura Knight Portraits

264lk_selfportraitAt the moment the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition of Laura Knight’s portraits.  There have been quite a few Laura Knight exhibitions over the last few years, including Laura Knight in the Open Air and Laura Knight at the Theatre, plus appearances in Cornish Childhoods, Women War Artists and The Magic of a Line. This exhibition is somewhat different, since it only features portraits, usually of named figures. These portraits, as the exhibition notes point out, are “in the realist, figurative tradition”, demonstrating her “distinctive” approach to portraiture, “bold and compassionate” and “reflecting her experience of modern Britain”. Though these descriptions seem to contain a lot of buzzwords, in fact I tend to agree: there is a remarkable modern colour and life about Knight’s portraits. Still, I have seen several reviews of the exhibition which suggest that Knight’s approach was rather old-fashioned even at the time – that her contemporaries were experimenting with modernism and other isms, which make her recognisable approach seem rather regressive. Looking at this exhibition, I don’t agree. While her work is infrequently experimental, her empathy with her subjects and her expressiveness of style makes her work always interesting, and after all she was hardly the only successful painter not to embrace the art movements of the twentieth century.

The exhibition begins with the famous self-portrait, exhibiting her pleasure in being able to paint nudes after being denied the opportunity at art school. This is accompanied by a lovely, in(c) John Croft; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationformal sketch of Ella Napier, the model for the nude, sitting in a tree. I was interested in her large oil of Lamorna Birch and his daughters, which I don’t recall seeing before: it’s an odd painting, combining a realist style with an impressionistic background. While the painting indicates freedom and an unconventional and happy childhood, the figures are not smiling. Birch, a fellow Newlyn School painter, was a friend of Knight’s and one feels there must be history behind the painting.

The exhibition is divided into sections: Early years and Cornwall; Ballet and Theatre; John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore; Circus; Gypsies; War; The Royal Academy. These show a helpful trajectory in Knight’s life, work and subjects, though as ever the ballet and theatre paintings seem to take centre stage (no pun intended!) These paintings are so detailed, with many, such as her portrait of Lubov Tchernicheva, almost photographic. It is interesting that she paints Tchernicheva not as a dancer but as a knight-laura-1877-1970-united-the-ballerina-lydia-lopokova-1090806fashionable young woman, with sad, soulful eyes, in contrast to her painting of Lydia Lopokova, also a dancer, this time in the act of preparing to dance, looking almost childlike.

Knight’s paintings of gypsies have led to accusations that she abused the trust of her sitters by painting them over and over, but I find it difficult not to be drawn to these images, particularly those of the women, strong but sad, with experiences drawn into every line on their faces. I think Knight is at her most sympathetic as an artist when representing those whose lives have been a struggle, and the sadness of the gypsies’ eyes demonstrate this. There is an inner beauty and strength in many of these women, particularly ‘Freedom’ Smith, in a painting which reminds me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles!264lk_beulah2 And in the war pictures, from “Take Off”, with its focus, concentration and tension, to “Corporal J.M. Robins”, a woman who won a Military Medal for bravery, realism is a necessary part of the picture’s construction and meaning: to say Knight is not avant-garde enough is to miss the point.

Knight is significant for her determination to succeed as a woman artist, not only for finally becoming the Royal Academy’s first full female member, but also her desire to record the experience of women – at work, at war, as mothers. Many of her paintings are deceptively simple, but contain a wealth of meaning and experience behind their bright and vivacious surfaces. While this exhibition may not change your views of Knight’s work, it does bring a large body of her portraiture together and in so doing assemble a strong case for her significance as a twentieth-century painter.

Birmingham and Cornwall

Among the Missing

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.

The Magic of a Line

The Magic of a Line: Drawings and prints from the Newlyn School artists, Penlee Gallery, Penzance
After visiting the Laura Knight exhibition in Nottingham earlier this year, I’ve been looking forward to this – and it didn’t disappoint. The title of the exhibition is taken from the title of Laura Knight’s autobiography, and nicely suits the works included. Incidentally, this exhibition is part of the Campaign for Drawing’s annual “Big Draw”, to encourage everyone to pick up a pencil, and there was paper and pencils all around the exhibition for anyone who felt so inclined.
Many of the drawings in the early part of the exhibition were by the Birmingham-born Walter Langley, whose Newlyn School drawings display wonderful local flavour and attention to character. “Study for a Daydream” (1884), a portrait of a distracted young girl, had perfect, dreamy eyes, ignoring the viewer. The grainy effects of his lines are put to good use in images of local scenes, and characters such as elderly, weatherbeaten fishermen, whose relationship with the sea is etched in every line of their faces. Langley was clearly particularly interested in the local habitat, exploring the domestic side-effects of the local fishing trade such as wives left at home as their husbands were on the sea, widows and children portrayed inside the bare cottages. The tragedy of life in the area is particularly well-depicted in “Among the Missing”, where a woman, supported by an older woman, reads her husband’s name on the list of the dead. Other pictures such as “Alone” show the desolation after the death of a husband, while “Widowed” shows the young widow cared for by her mother.
The sea provides metaphors for other aspects of life, particularly death. In William Holt Yates Titcomb’s “Piloting her Home”, 1893, an old woman lies in bed, awaiting death with a radiance of divine love and peace on her face, while those around her raise their hands to God. Similarly, Langley’s Study for “The Seas are Quiet” shows an elderly lady lying on pillows, smiling, with the turbulence of her life past.
One of my favourite pictures here was Stanhope Alexander Forbes’s “The Cello Player” – one can almost hear the sonorous music in this dark and thoughtful study. I found this drawing to be more like his wife’s than many of his are: Elizabeth Adela Forbes’s drawings of “The Bakehouse” and “The Cornish Pasty” depict dark interiors, with only the figure in action lit for the viewer, suggested a theatricality in the ‘staging’ of the drawing. I’d not seen her illustrations for King Arthur’s Wood (1904) before, but was struck by their delightful medievalism – the wonderful texture of her other drawings is here used to evoke myth and enchantment. I was also interested in Thomas Cooper Gotch’s Pre-Raphaelite-esque cartoons for “A Mother Enthroned”, in which a mother of many daughters is clearly paralleled to the Virgin Mary. (see painting, left)
Harold Knight didn’t get much of a look-in here, with just a few portraits of almost photographic detail; but beside those of his wife Dame Laura they seem to lack conviction, while her portraits of young women – “Seated Girl Reading”, 1892, “Self Portrait”, etc, have so much life, feeling and movement even in repose. Knight seems to have a gift, in her portraits, for convincing the viewer of the character of the sitter with just a few lines. I was caught by “Madonna”, 1923 – very much of its time, this seems to be an early echo of the later theatrical works by Knight, despite the beatific expression on the Madonna’s face. Few of the works here are theatrical, though there is a wonderful sketch of “George Bernard Shaw Posing for his Bust”, but there are some amazing leaves from her sketchbook, which give an excellent insight into the clean lines she uses for movement and grace in the dancers she later painted – especially the ballerinas’ arms, so hard to capture correctly. I also rather liked “Country Girls” (1926) – especially appealing, I think: three girls seated together, side on; one looks anxiously – or is it slyly? – at the viewer, while the other two gaze unconcernedly into the distance. It’s stylised and of the period, yet still seems so natural.
Somehow I find going to an exhibition of drawings a very different experience to one with paintings – less colour, less large, dramatic paintings, more shadows and darkly intense, small pictures. And there are some perfect gems here.