When questioned for the 1891 census, Betsy Lanyon, an 84-year-old widow from Newlyn, decided she had better register a late change of career. She told her inquisitors that she was no longer a ‘fishwife’ — her new occupation was ‘artist’s model’.
In the decades around the turn of the last century, Newlyn, a fishing port a few miles west of Penzance, was overrun with artists. Stanhope Forbes had established his position as father of a local ‘school’ of painters; his followers were to be seen daily on the nearby beaches, battling against the Cornish wind as they attempted to keep their canvases upright. Villagers cashed in on the influx, renting out lofts as studios, using their carts to transport paintings to the railway, modelling for a few shillings. Similar mutually beneficial relationships were being struck up in nearby St Ives, and at Lamorna, a clutch of houses around a pretty cove further out towards Land’s End. Laura Knight had to use all her charm to win over residents who objected to her working on the cliffs with nude models. Alfred Munnings caused consternation in Methodist Newlyn when he was held responsible for getting a group of his students ‘hopelessly drunk’.
The Penlee House Gallery, set in the grand former residence of a rich Penzance merchant, has an enviable collection of Cornish pictures. Its year-round programme of exhibitions has now started rivalling Tate St Ives as a draw for art-lovers. John Miller, Harold Harvey and Elizabeth Forbes have been among the subjects of recent retrospectives; this summer it casts its eye further, in a show examining why a handful of small coastal towns and villages across the country proved a magnet to late Victorian and Edwardian painters.
Just as the railway turned Blackpool, Bridlington and Scarborough into tourist towns, so it opened up the extremities of Britain to artists. The Cornish Riviera sped towards Penzance, stopping briefly at St Erth to disgorge passengers for St Ives. The LNER reached Cullercoats, on the Northumbrian coast, in 1882. Travellers from London had to change just once to get to Walberswick in Suffolk. Painters, many of whom had travelled extensively on the Continent, found themselves at the London termini, boarding trains that would take them to places where, they had heard, the light was perfect, the choice of subject matter rich and the cost of living low.
Art clubs and societies were quickly established, certain pubs patronised. Often bar bills were settled with paintings. It must have been an amusing, carefree existence — in great contrast to the tough routine of the fishermen who made up the permanent population of these places. Perhaps realising that they were in a privileged position as observers, few of the coastal artists sought to romanticise the locals’ existence. Walter Langley’s ‘Among the Missing — Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village’ shows desperate women waiting outside the post office for the notice to go up confirming that their husbands have drowned. A young telegram boy brings more bad news in Henry Scott Tuke’s ‘The Message’. In Harold Knight’s ‘The Last Coble’, painted in Staithes in North Yorkshire, fishermen struggle to launch their flat-bottomed boats into a louring sea. Even the gulls are finding it hard to fly against the gale.
Rather like a British seaside holiday, this is an exhibition where sunshine sits alongside storm. Munnings builds on his reputation as an equine painter with a portrait of a horse and groom standing outside the Lamorna Inn. Philip Wilson Steer paints children playing on the beach at Walberswick, complete with sunhats and toy boats. ‘Sea Maidens’, by Thomas Bromley Blacklock, breaks away from reality altogether. Painted in Kirkcudbright, the larger of the two Scottish colonies featured in this show, it is almost Pre-Raphaelite in style, one of its subjects clutching a lyre as she emerges from a calm, rich-blue sea.
These days, Kirkcudbright is proud of its place in British art history. But Staithes and Cullercoats seem to have forgotten the time when easels stood side by side along their beaches. A century ago Walberswick’s proximity to London gave it a transient air; it was nicknamed ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’. Perhaps it now has more artists as permanent residents than ever before. Cornwall is still full of painters, sculptors and other creative folk, but the idea of a colony or school has long disappeared. Lamorna has become one of the most desirable villages in the county with house prices to match. In St Ives, while the Arts Club still goes strong in the building where it opened more than a century ago, and half the town’s population claim to be artists, the quality of the work on display in local commercial galleries is distinctly variable. John Miller, perhaps the greatest modern claimant to the line started by Stanhope Forbes, Laura Knight and Walter Langley, died three years ago. No one else will have a chance to produce work in his Penzance studio — it is being converted into luxury apartments.
The dining cars have all but disappeared, the sleeper service is under threat — but Brunel’s Great Western route to Cornwall is still one of the country’s most satisfying train journeys. It is well worth utilising it to visit this fulfilling exhibition, capturing the five decades when painters reached out and colonised the very edges of our island.
Painting at the Edge: Britain’s Coastal Art Colonies (1880–1930) is at the Penlee House Gallery, Penzance, until 10 September, and at the Newport Art Gallery and Museum from 8 October until 19 November. An accompanying book is published by Sansom & Company at £24.95.