ANOTHER CORNWALL/ GENS DE(S) CORNOUAILLE(S)
An exhibition at Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance, 25th March to 9th June, 2012, and Musée Departemental Breton, Quimper , 30th June to 30th September, 2012. ,
ANOTHER CORNWALL/GENS DE(S) CORNOUAILLE(S), a catalogue of the exhibition, with essays by David Tovey, Alison Bevan, and Philippe Le Stum. Published by Sansom & Co. 108 pages. £12.50. ISBN 978-1-908326-18-8
reviewed by Jim Burns
Walter Langley - Among the Missing
Recently I came across a DVD of a 1945 British film called Johnny Frenchman. I mention it here because the film deals with the rivalry between the inhabitants of a small Cornish fishing town and their counterparts in a similar location in Brittany. It isn't relevant to outline the plot (the action takes place between 1939 and 1945), but there are one or two scenes which can be viewed as relating to topics highlighted in the exhibition. There is, for example, an episode where, when relations between the two communities are reasonably affable, the Cornish fishermen visit the Breton port and witness a religious procession. It was obviously an actual event that was filmed, and not a studio set-up, and it was noticeable that many of the French women were wearing a traditional dress similar to the one shown in many of the paintings. It's probable that, by 1945, they dressed in this manner for special events, but the fact that the form of dress had survived, if only as a kind of historical reference, is significant. Even in the late-19th Century artists were lamenting that in Cornwall there was little or no evidence of what could be described as a traditional costume. It's useful, in this respect, to compare Walter Langley's Departure of the Fleet for the North with Alfred Guillou's Landing Tuna at Concarneau. The women in Langley's painting are clothed in a much more makeshift manner than those in Guillou's, where they all appear to have some sort of standard outfit which looks surprisingly clean. It's possible, of course, that Guillot may have overstated the formality of the dress his women adhered to in order to make his painting more appealing to the kind of bourgeois audience likely to see and buy it.
The development of plein-air painting in the late-19th Century led to the establishment of artists' colonies in France and Britain. What seems to be the case was that those in France came first. David Tovey says that many of the painters associated with Newlyn had initially met "during study in Paris or Antwerp, or during visits to various Breton colonies." And he particularly refers to Concarneau as a place which had attracted many of them at one time or another. Alexander Stanhope Forbes, who was to become one of the leading lights of the Newlyn group, described the Cornish port as a "sort of English Concarneau." Newlyn later tended to be overshadowed by St Ives, where a larger and more-cosmopolitan gathering of artists could be found. Interestingly, it was a French painter, Emile-Louis Vernier, who drew attention to St Ives as a favourable place for artists to work in. He was, in the words of the American, Howard Butler, "really the discoverer of St Ives." The English painter Henry Harewood Robinson and his Irish fiancée, Maria Dorothy Webb, who were living in Concarneau, were persuaded to visit St Ives,where they soon settled, by seeing Vernier's paintings of it.
Someone else who lived in Concarneau and later moved to St Ives was the American artist, Edward Simmons. He's often remembered because he was the model for the painter Everett Hamor in Blanche Willis Howard's 1883 novel, Guenn: A Wave on the Breton Coast. There's a painting by Simmons in the catalogue which shows two local girls, one of whom was the model for Guenn, though it's unlikely that, in real life, the relationship between Simmons and the girl was as described in the novel. There's a painting of St Ives harbour by Simmons in the exhibition, but it's a fairly routine canvas.
Given that French fishermen seem to have visited West Cornwall regularly and that, as Alison Bevan notes, "by the seventeenth century there was a flourishing trade between Brittany and West Cornwall," it's surprising that, with the exception of Vernier, French artists never bothered to spend time in Newlyn and St Ives. Perhaps they didn't think they needed to. After all, in the 19th Century the artistic pace was being set in France. And, if the reasons for going to Cornwall were, as Bevan says, not just the landscapes, but also "the wealth of subjects afforded by the local fishing and farming communities," the French may well have thought that they had those factors at their fingertips, so why bother to travel? It was true that, once it became easy to reach the Cornish ports, and artists' colonies began to grow there, British painters were less inclined to make the longer journey to France.
The exhibition shows that many of the concerns expressed by people in Cornwall and Brittany were similar, with the result that what the painters produced was often similar in content. Leaving aside the differences in dress mentioned earlier the paintings of fishermen and their women-folk show them involved in the same tasks in both the Cornish and Breton communities. Percy Craft's Tucking a School of Pilchards and Achille Granchi-Taylor's Fisherman carrying ray, along with Stanhope Forbes's A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach and Gwendoline Margaret Hopton's Packing fish, St Ives, are all about the business of fishing.
There is some evidence, too, that the painters often tried to indicate that life in Newlyn or Concarneau was not without its dark side. Granchi-Taylor's soft-lead and charcoal on paper Street Scene in Concarneau appears to catch a down-beat mood with several grim-faced women. Have they just been informed of a tragedy at sea? Perhaps there is a link here to Walter Langley's excellent Among the Missing - Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village, with its weeping young woman being comforted by an older one. Langley always tried to inject a note of realism into his work. His Breadwinners has a trio of women carrying heavy baskets trudging wearily along a beach. Some watercolours by him of interiors of cottages in Brittany do not attempt to hide the paucity of furniture in the rooms and the poverty that implies.
Alison Bevan makes the point that painters in Newlyn usually aimed to submit their work to the Royal Academy, whereas the cosmopolitan community in St Ives often preferred to send paintings to the Paris Salon. And it may be that this led to an acknowledgement outside the British Isles that St Ives was, in Bevan's words, important "as a global centre for painting." There were first-rate painters in Newlyn, for example Stanhope Forbes and Walter Langley. And Norman Garstin painted at least one picture, The Rain it Raineth Every Day, that is described as "seminal," though it's said that he had little success as an artist and was better known as a critic and teacher. But the sheer number of painters who spent some time in St Ives, together with their variety of countries of origin, inevitably meant that it would soon achieve prominence over Newlyn.
Quite a few of the Newlyn and St Ives artists will be known to those people who are familiar with the history of coastal art colonies in Britain. But I doubt that the names of French painters such as Eugene Bejot, Maxime Lalamne, and Fernand Legout-Gerard will be all that familiar. With all due respect to David Tovey and Alison Bevan it is, therefore, Philippe Le Stum's essay which is the most valuable in terms of the information and insights it provides about Brittany and especially Concarneau. He indicates that, though the region first featured in paintings in the 18th Century, it was generally considered too remote for most artists to visit it. After 1830, however, the rise of the Romantic movement in France led to Brittany becoming "an object of infatuation." And it wasn't just French painters who made their way there, as Tovey and Bevan had already noted. Philippe Le Stum says: "The main attractions of Brittany for painters were sites and landscapes which matched the Romantic idea of Nature as perceived by artists during the years 1830 to 1870." And he adds that, "it was possible to observe a people believed to be genuinely Celtic whose customs, lineage and dress had scarcely altered since the time of their distant ancestors."
The question of dress was clearly of key importance, and it's claimed that the traditional costumes "were of a local diversity unrivalled anywhere else in France or indeed in Western Europe." Evidence of this can be found in paintings by Henri Guinier and Marcel Jacquier, and in work by artists of other nationalities who visited Brittany. There is a study called A Breton Girl by Marianne Stokes, wife of Adrian Stokes. They lived in Concarneau before moving to St Ives. And I've already referred to Alfred Guillot's Landing Tuna at Concarneau, though while finding it an attractive painting in many ways, I can't help thinking that the women passing fish up to the quayside look a little too tidy. Theophile Deyrolle, who moved to Concarneau in 1871 and died there in 1923, got closer to reality with his Fisherwoman, which has a sturdy-looking girl clutching a basket and looking out over the harbour. Some viewers might see it as a bit formal and slightly romanticised, nonetheless. It certainly lacks the earthiness of Walter Langley's pencil on paper Breton Peasant Girl. Langley, in fact, comes across as one of the most significant figures in the exhibition.
I think it needs to be said that many of the painters in both Cornwall and Brittany were fairly minor in their achievements. But this isn't to suggest that their work lacks charm and interest. There are a few major works on display, so a balance is arrived at, and the whole exhibition is a pleasure to look at. There is probably a lot more work to be done in tracing the links between Cornwall and Brittany, but there is much here that offers insights into the subject.