‘The street scenes in Newlyn lack nothing of subject for the painter,’ reported the young Frank Richards from the Cornish art colony in 1895; ‘paved with cobblestone, some of the narrow streets are occasionally strewn over with fishheads and entrails, so that one’s progress in going “up” or “down”-along is sometimes considerably facilitated by an alarmingly quick slide to an unexpected destination.’

Thirty-six years earlier, Brunel’s bridge across the Tamar had connected England’s westernmost tip to the railway system, speeding the transport of fish one way and tourists the other. And, as elsewhere in Europe, before the tourists came the plein-air painters. The first to settle in Newlyn in 1882 were a bunch of Brummies led by Walter Langley, but it was the half-French Stanhope Forbes who put the fishing village on the cultural map with his ‘A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach’ (1885). The picture caused a sensation at the Royal Academy, setting a trend for Cornish social realism re-examined in Two Temple Place’s forthcoming exhibition Amongst Heroes: the artist in working Cornwall (26 January to 14 April).

Fish and paint went hand-in-hand in Newlyn. Forbes’s future wife, the Canadian painter Elizabeth Armstrong, described her converted net loft studio being at times ‘invaded by a red-bearded Cap’n and a troop of fisher lads’, while Frank Wright Bourdillon remembered his as ‘pregnant with the odour of the promiscuous pilchard’. In a small community, where incomes were supplemented by modelling, a thousand people attended the open studios in The Meadows before the annual send-off to the Royal Academy. But when ‘that there private interview’, as one local called it, moved to the formal setting of the newly opened Passmore Edwards Gallery in 1895, the fun went out of it. ‘A granite picture gallery dumped down among us instead of producing a feeling of solidarity has seemingly led to a disintegration of the Newlyners,’ lamented the artist Norman Garstin.

By then the first wave of settlers was drifting off. In 1899, to halt the decline, the Forbeses converted their Meadows studio, Anchor, into a school. Italian life models brought down from London struggled to find lodgings in a Primitive Methodist community that even frowned on Sunday painting, but the school attracted a new generation of students and colonists, including the Knights, the Procters and Alfred Munnings — who brought his horses and dogs on visits from Norfolk, and painted the local Zennor Hunt. It was a period of boho pre-war liberation celebrated in a new film, Summer in February, out next year.

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There was some rivalry, especially on the cricket pitch, between Newlyn and its neighbouring colony to the north, St Ives. Here the focus was on seascape rather than social realism and the atmosphere was more cosmopolitan, with a large group of American and Scandinavian artists gathered around the half-Swedish painter Julius Olsson and the school he founded in his studio above the pilchard cellars on Porthmeor Beach. A pioneer of marine abstraction, Olsson’s name has been erased from the modernist history of the colony promoted by Tate St Ives, but the school of painters he influenced — including Borlase Smart — is currently getting some overdue attention in the Royal Cornwall Museum’s exhibition A Century of St Ives Art. 

The origins of Porthmeor Studios were submerged in the nouvelle vague that washed over St Ives in the wake of Ben Nicholson’s arrival in 1939, but interest has resurfaced with the restoration of the Grade II listed building by the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust. The sensitively renovated studios, reopened in November, are now occupied by a new generation of leading Cornish artists: names like Sax Impey and Naomi Frears, unknown to the wider public because, like Julius Olsson, they’re absent — so far — from the Tate’s official account. After a mixed reception for Art Now Cornwall, its 2007 survey of the regional art scene, Tate St Ives has retreated into its shell and its staple diet of British Modernism spiced with foreign imports — the recipe for its current show The Far and the Near (until 13 January). A short-lived Porthmeor Studios residency scheme sponsored by the Tate drew half its artists from outside Cornwall. Meanwhile, although the St Ives School of Painting still operates from the top floor of the historic studios and net-setting goes on in the carefully preserved cellars, the local art scene has lost its tang.

The wind’s blowing south. The exodus of artists from St Ives that brought Denis Mitchell, Roger Hilton and Terry Frost to Newlyn in the 1960s and 1970s has gathered momentum since the arrival in town of an enterprising young artist called Henry Garfit, who last year relaunched Newlyn School of Art in an old board school building a couple of hundred yards up the road from Forbes’s Anchor (subsequently occupied by John Wells, and next on the list for the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust renovation treatment).

It’s here that Porthmeor Studios tenants Naomi Frears, Gareth Edwards and Rachael Kantaris come to teach, in line with Garfit’s policy of hiring practising artists to inject energy into the student experience and funds into the artists’ bank accounts. The approach is experimental — at a recent life class taught by Kate Walters, the model had to hold the artist’s new puppy — but it works. The school now employs 20 artist-teachers of short courses in drawing, painting and printmaking. It attracted 1,000 local and visiting students in its first year, as well as a £30,000 Arts Council grant during a funding famine.

While visitors no longer have to negotiate entrail-strewn streets, Newlyn remains a working harbour. Garfit leases the school building from local fish barons Stevenson, along with a harbour-front gallery named Bucca after the Cornish god of storms, where newcomers show alongside established local artists. It’s a promotional strategy rather than a money-making enterprise. ‘We almost want galleries to steal artists from us,’ says Garfit.

His sentiment is echoed by James Green, director of Newlyn Art Gallery (formerly the Passmore Edwards) and its sister gallery The Exchange in Penzance. This month saw the launch of Platform — a new series of solo shows by members of Newlyn Society of Artists — with Kate Walters’s exhibition The Secret Worth A Thousand (until 9 February). Although represented by Millennium gallery in St Ives, this is Walters’s first show in a public gallery and, in a reversal of the Cornish stereotype, it’s rooted in the land rather than the sea. Walters’s animal-human forms tap into primitive shamanistic beliefs in our common ancestry: ‘the secret’ that Goethe reckoned was ‘worth a thousand’. Beneath the earthy surface of her densely worked watercolours glows a prism of hues as radiant as a Turner ‘colour beginning’ — colour given full rein in photographs and films of the artist’s small garden that fill the downstairs gallery with birdsong.

Despite some festering resentment from traditionalists, Green has presided over a steady growth in visitor figures, even without Sunday opening — the Primitive Methodist tradition dies hard. Like Garfit at Bucca, he views Platform as a launchpad for local talent: ‘It’s important to bring national and international art to Cornwall, but it’s also important for Cornish artists to go the other way.’ If Tate St Ives doesn’t catch this local tide, it may start to look stuck in the mud.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated