Penlee House has the country's main collections of paintings of the Newlyn School which operated in Newlyn at the beginning of the twentieth century. These are what I think of as 'genre' paintings because if you really study them you learn a lot about the society in which they were painted. Although I am really a modern art person I do room stewarding at Penlee House which means I get to see the exhibitions several times.
The current exhibition which runs until early September, is called 'Model Citizens: Myths and Realities'. I think it is a really interesting exhibition because it focuses on the people who modelled for the artists and on how the artists interpreted life in Newlyn in a way that would help them sell paintings. So there is an element of myth and reality in the depictions of people and settings which means that 'artist's licence' operates and, for example, the women's dress is shown as more traditional than it really was. Details of scenes are also altered so that the painting will appeal to a wide audience.
Stanhope Alexander Forbes 1857-1947
Gala Day at Newlyn, 1907
Oil on canvas, 106 x 136 cm
Hartlepool Art Gallery
© The Artist’s Estate / Bridgeman Art Library
This is a painting that I know well but I had never thought about how the artist had changed the direction of the procession and removed the markers of Methodism, substituting a Union Jack for the Methodist Band of Hope banner. Methodism was very important in Penwith society (I know: My grandmother's father came from Penzance and was a staunch Methodist and many Methodist practices were passed down to us). There are a number of other paintings of Methodist processions in Penlee House's collection. They were obviously an important feature of life here and, although church based parades no longer happen, carnivals such as Galowan and Mazey Day in Penzance and Lafrowda in St Just are still a highlight of the year.
There is a second painting of Methodists in the exhibition: Primitive Methodists at Prayer.
William H Y Titcomb 1858 - 1930
Primitive Methodists at Prayer, 1889
Oil on canvas, 130 x 89 cm
Dudley Museum & Art Gallery
There are also lot of interior scenes in the exhibition and the point is made that interiors were 'women's territory' although this was a 'plein air' school and there are also many paintings of women working with fish or standing beside the harbour wall .
Edwin Harris 1855-1906
Mending the Nets, 1903
Oil on canvas, 86.5 x 102 cm
Bowerman Charitable Trust
Models were posed in the cottages in typical everyday scenes. Women were heavily involved in fishing and the artists frequently posed them in traditional fisherwomens' dress, even though it was not longer worn.
Frank Bramley 1857 – 1915
Oil on canvas, 89 x 112 cm
Crawford Art Gallery, Cork
Here the whitewashed walls and stairway are also representative of the 'Newlyn interior' while the map of West Cornwall on the wall also places the painting geographically. What I really like about this painting, though, is the white dress, tablecloth and paper in the front, all of which look like textiles you could almost touch. They are painted in the square brush technique of which Frank Bramley was a particular master.
The exhibition has an excellent book to go with it: Cornwall's Fisherfolk: Art and Artifice by the curator Mary O'Neill. The book is really a social history book with many of the Newlyn paintings reproduced in full colour. I learnt a lot from it including the possible origins of my mother and grandmother's huge consumption of tea. I had not realised that the fishermen and Methodists (who were teetotal) in this area were great tea drinkers so I suspect that is where it began! I also like having the paintings in one place rather than the collection of tatty postcards I have built up over the years. I would really recommend the book if this is your kind of exhibition.