Penlee Gallery, Penzance. 3rd May 2023 to 30th September 2023


By David Tovey

Wilson Books. 248 pages. ISBN 978-0-9955710-0-6


By David Tovey

Wilson Books.184 pages. ISBN 978-0-9955710-4-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns


“The Lamorna Valley, through which runs the Lamorna stream, which exits into Mount’s Bay at Lamorna Cove, a few miles south of Mousehole, developed as an arts centre several decades after Newlyn, St Ives and Falmouth, because for much of the second half of the nineteenth century, Lamorna was an industrial zone, dominated by granite quarrying, taking place on both the east and west of the Cove”.  

I’ve taken those words from the first volume of David Tovey’s fascinating survey of how an artistic community developed in Lamorna. Without going into too much detail, the area – described by Tovey as “not a place to tarry long” when the quarries were active – only really started to attract painters and others when the quarrying declined. It was in 1902 that the newly-married John Birch decided to settle in Lamorna. Another artist, Arthur Tanner, was already there, and Elizabeth Forbes had painted in the Valley from around 1895, and later established a studio where she could work on her own canvases and teach. The point is that an artists’ colony doesn’t suddenly come into existence. It develops over time, and it’s never really possible to give an exact date for its formation. But, as Tovey makes clear, John Birch, soon to become known as Lamorna Birch, was a dominant figure in the Lamorna community, so 1902 may well be the best date to use for documentary purposes.

Having said that, I should add that Tovey acknowledges that Austin Wormleighton, who wrote a biography of Birch, was inclined to favour 1912 as a likelier date for the foundation of a colony, as opposed to a number of individual artists living in an area. And Tovey acknowledged that “the years 1912 to 1914 were transformational, for that period saw Laura and Harold Knight and Alfred Munnings making Lamorna their principal base and the construction of new homes in the Valley by Robert and Eleanor Hughes, Frank and Jessica Heath, Charles and Ella Naper, Bengy and Bell Leader, Algernon and Marjorie Newton and Kate Westrup”.

The exhibition at Penlee House naturally and deservedly focuses a fair amount of attention on paintings by Lamorna Birch. What is impressive about them is that he managed to make so much of the landscape, including the coastline in its various forms, the clay pits, the streams, trees, barns, and much else of his surroundings. All that, and without seeming to simply repeat himself and always with skill and a sound sense of colour. It’s easy to see why his paintings were and are popular. They are good to look at, surely a key factor when considering the worth of a painting?  It would be wrong to claim that Birch was an innovator in any way. Like many of the artists who either lived in Lamorna or visited for a month or two, he had certainly picked up on the ideas developed in nineteenth century Paris by the Impressionists, though he was probably less-influenced by most of what came after them.  Birch, like many British artists had studied in Paris.  He had absorbed some of Impressionist practices, particularly in relation to colour, but not slavishly so. He remained what might be called a conventional artist in terms of overall composition and his intentions to paint scenes largely as he saw them. It would be interesting to know if Roger Fry’s promotion of Post-Impressionism through various exhibiti0ns in Britain between 1910 and 1913 had an influence on any of the artists active in Lamorna during this period?

I don’t intend to single out individual pictures in the exhibition, though I have to admit to a liking for a large painting by Richard Weatherby of the artist Stanley Gardiner at work. It captures some of the energy and character of the man. There are paintings by Munnings, Stanhope Forbes, Laura Knight, Charles Naper, Charles Simpson (who appears to have had a penchant for picturing ducks), Ann Halthea Hills, whose slightly ominous paintings have a feeling of autumn about them, Frank Heath, and many others, either on the walls of the gallery or in Tovey’s books.

It should be borne in mind that these were artists concerned to create pictures that the Royal Academy would approve of and people would want to buy. There is nothing wrong with that, and saying it doesn’t indicate that they were less than skilled in their application of paint to canvas. They weren’t out to break new ground or establish a new movement. Heath’s pictures of little girls at play in a garden were clearly meant to have popular appeal. No-one is about to claim that they were creating masterpieces. In general there was a fair amount of competent but forgettable work produced, along with some excellent paintings.  I’m reminded of a passage in a minor, but entertaining novel, A Breath of Fresh Air, by John Branfield (he’s also written books about some of the Lamorna painters) where the narrator, a collector of paintings by Cornish artists, admits that there’s a lot of routine work from the period when Newlyn, Lamorna, and St Ives flourished: “they only managed a uniform dullness, shipping in rough seas, sunsets at Land’s End, vases of flowers. How did they keep going?” That standards could vary isn’t surprising considering how many painters must have passed through Cornwall at one time or another.

Mentioning Branfield’s novel reminds me that Tovey devotes some attention to writers who were in Lamorna  when the artists were active. He particularly focuses on Cecily Sidgwick, a long-time resident of Lamorna, whose 1915 novel, In Other Days, has fictional portraits of many of the artists and their wives. It doesn’t appear to have had a wide circulation at the time, the war atmosphere probably not being favourable to an account of bohemian comings and goings, and was never reprinted. It’s certainly not easily available now. Tovey also mentions a much later novel about Lamorna, Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February, which came out in 1995 and concerned the tragic story of Edith Florence Carter-Wood, who married Alfred Munnings and, perhaps because of a pregnancy resulting from an affair with another man, committed suicide. It was an event that shocked the Lamorna community. A film of the same name appeared in 2013 and attempted to recreate the communal atmosphere in Lamorna in the pre-1914 period.

Lamorna’s relevance as an artistic centre probably went into decline as the 1930s progressed, though some of those who were there tended to be of an avant-garde inclination, a factor which didn’t please Lamorna Birch. He, like his contemporary Alfred Munnings, became something of an old fogey, speaking out in a dismissive manner about “modern” art and new-fangled ideas. But the somewhat eccentric Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) was quite an orthodox painter in many ways. Marlow Moss, on the other hand, was an admirer of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and worked in his geometric abstraction style. Ithell Colquhoun inclined towards surrealism, as did John Armstrong and John Tunnard.   

It may be that the stimulating exhibition and Tovey’s books will help to give Lamorna more of an identity of its own. Too often in the past its artists have tended to be lumped in with those active in Newlyn. The catalogues for the 1979 Artists of the Newlyn School (1880-1900) and the 1985 Painting in Newlyn 1880-1930 exhibitions show that Lamorna Birch, Laura and Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings, Charles Naper, Stanley Gardiner, and others who are in either the Penzance exhibition or David Tovey’s books, sit easily alongside artists associated with Newlyn. Did anyone mark a definite difference at the time, or did the painters not specify too much about where they lived? Tovey does suggest that “there were strong rivalries between the distinct Lamorna and Newlyn contingents”. It may be a generalisation, but the Newlyn artists did seem to want to portray the working people of the locality in their canvases. Few of them can be found in Lamorna paintings.  Newlyn clearly had a longer lifespan as an artistic centre, but in the end both it and Lamorna drifted into insignificance other than in historical terms. St Ives became the main focus of attention after the Second World War when Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson were prominent in the artistic life of the town, and a new group of painters, including Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Bryan Wynter, created abstract art canvases that brought them national and international fame.

It could be of relevance, in the context of artists in Cornwall, to point the interested viewer of the fine selection of paintings at Penlee in the direction of the St Ives Museum where Discovering St Ives; An Exhibition of Work by Early Visiting Artists 1830-1890 is well worth an inspection. It offers paintings by a range of artists, many of them perhaps not too well-known but interesting, nonetheless. Several Americans came over from France, including Howard Russell Butler, William Trost Richards, and Edward Emerson Simmons. The latter is described as “the leading artist in the Concarneau colony”. He’s an intriguing figure and the 1885 novel, Guenn: A Wave on the Breton Coast by Blanche Willis Howard has at its centre an American artist reputedly based on Simmons. His autobiography, From Seven to Seventy, published in 1922, contains comments about visiting St Ives. The St Ives exhibition continues until October 2023.