POLPERRO : CORNWALL’S FORGOTTEN ARTS CENTRE
Falmouth Art Gallery, 2nd April, 2022 to 18th June, 2022
POLPERRO : CORNWALL’S FORGOTTEN ARTS CENTRE : VOLUME ONE – PRE-1920
By David Tovey
Wilson Books, 256 pages. ISBN 978-0-9955710-1-3
POLPERRO : CORNWALL’S FORGOTTEN ARTS CENTRE : VOLUME TWO - POST-1920
By David Tovey
Wilson Books, 346 pages. ISBN 978-0-9955710-2-0
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Most people heading to Cornwall with art on their minds will naturally be conscious of St Ives as the main centre of activity for painters and those who cluster around them. Newlyn might also come into the picture. But how many hands would be raised if Polperro was named and a question posed about its place in Cornish art history? Not too many, I suspect, and I put myself among them. I knew next to nothing about Polperro prior to visiting the small, but excellent exhibition at Falmouth Art Gallery, and looking at David Tovey’s two-part history of the village and the artists who spent time there.
It is worth noting that both Tovey and the gallery are careful to refer to an Arts Centre and not an Art Colony. Unlike St Ives and Newlyn it seems fewer artists actually resided in Polperro on a permanent basis, especially in the early period that Tovey looks at. They were often mostly summer visitors. David Tovey names Herbert Butler, who married a local girl, as one of the few long-term residents, and rightly devotes space to his paintings and the art school that he opened in Polperro. And he says that “the contrast between the busy summer months, when the village was full of visiting artists, and the deserted winter period will have been stark”. With regard to summer visitors, Tovey notes that the French painter, Auguste Joseph Delécluse, brought a party of thirty female art students to the village in 1894. Tovey suggests that Chrissie Ash may have been among them. One of her paintings is in his book on Polperro’s early days.
As happened so often in Britain and on the Continent it was the development of the railway system that enabled more artists to visit Polperro from around 1901 when a branch line from Liskeard to Looe was opened. Polperro is situated on the south Cornwall coast between Looe and Fowey. Its main commercial activity was fishing and two pilchard factories were located in the village. It was obvious that the port and its fishing boats, the local people, and the tangle of cottages and other buildings, would provide material for artists concerned to produce attractive scenes which would have some commercial appeal. From this point of view it becomes obvious that few, if any, of the painters either in the exhibition, or in Tovey’s informative books, were innovators. Saying this doesn’t lessen their achievements. There are never more than a handful of artists who bring about major changes. The rest then absorb them into the mainstream.
Like most of their contemporaries in St Ives and Newlyn the Polperro painters worked within what might be termed traditional representational frameworks. Many of them had studied in Paris and elsewhere, and as Tovey makes clear, more than a few foreign artists – from America, Germany, Holland, France – spent time in Polperro and painted what they saw. Impressionism had clearly had an influence, though not to any extreme extent. Paintings by the Dutch artist, Hendrik Jan Wolter, do indicate that his days in Paris had opened his eyes to the work of Signac and Seurat.
Tovey notes that though “Polperro was undoubtedly thriving as an arts centre in the years leading up to 1914……there is very little art activity recorded during the War years”. Things began to pick up in the 1920s when tourists began to return to the village and Frederick Thomas Nettleinghame became what Tovey describes as a “tourist operator” and set up a business dealing in artefacts for the tourist market. He was assisted by a couple of young would-be artists, Arthur Wragg and Frederick Roberts Johnson, both of who would later bring some radical political intentions to their own work.They each contributed drawings to Tribune and Peace News in the 1930s.
Wragg is of particular interest and his anti-war statements still retain their powerful visual impact. He was a friend of Walter Greenwood (the author of Love on the Dole lived in Polperro in the 1930s) and illustrated his book of short-stories, The Cleft Stick. Wragg’s 1934 book, Jesus Wept, was described as “a commentary in black and white on ourselves and the world today”, and its sharp pictorial representations of poverty, unemployment, and other social problems were, and still are, striking. The exhibition has a short video with the title “The Polperro Polemicists”, which provides information about the friendship between Greenwood and Wragg. Greenwood shared Wragg’s left-leaning political ideas.
Wragg’s friend, Frederick Roberts Johnson was also a prolific illustrator in the inter-war years, “producing cartoons, caricatures, comic adverts and other funnies for a range of periodicals”. Using the pseudonym “Essex” he did a series of caricature portraits for Punch of well-known people such as Lord Halifax and Montagu Norman. And he came up with a wonderful sequence of caricatures of Polperro fishermen which Tovey uses in his book on the post-1920 village.
I think it’s important to look at what Wragg and Johnson did to earn a living. They both spotlighted Polperro in some of their paintings and drawings, but clearly had other concerns in terms of either making a little money or using their art to make socio-political comments. But it’s interesting to refer to Tovey’s comments on Johnson who, he says, “as a painter….never sold or exhibited his work”. What he earned from his commercial work, together with a marriage to someone with money, enabled him to paint purely for pleasure. The still-life paintings reproduced in Tovey’s book show him to have been a skilled artist.
The 1939-1945 War had an impact on Polperro. The noted artist. Oscar Kokoschka, was there for almost a year, and inevitably tended to be remembered whereas many others were overlooked. There are Kokoschka canvases from his Polperro sojourn in Tovey. And in the exhibition a Johnson painting that is based on one by Kokoschka. He seems to have struck up a friendship with the Austrian painter.
There were talented artists in Polperro in the 1950s, among them Stuart Armfield, whose work displayed some surrealist influences, and Jack Merriott, “painter, poster-designer, author, illustrator and teacher”. He was less-adventurous than Armfield in that he painted in a “direct method” and didn’t seem to deviate from the established details of what he was portraying. According to Tovey, “Merriott was one of the most successful Polperro artists. Furthermore, he managed to be successful in an age where representational art was totally out of fashion. – a not insignificant achievement”.
There perhaps isn’t any one single reason why interest in Polperro as an artistic community faded over the years. The 1950s saw attention focused mainly on St Ives where an influential group of abstract artists – Bryan Wynter, Peter Lanyon, and others – held sway. And St Ives became a key place for would-be artists, writers, and others to drift to when there was a surge of what might be called commercialised bohemianism in the late-1950s. The St Ives poet Arthur Caddick satirised the beatniks who cluttered up the streets and slept on the sands in his humorous verses.
It’s refreshing to see attention being brought to bear on Polperro. The Falmouth exhibition offers a selection of some of the artists who, at one time or another, lived and worked there. David Tovey’s books go into much greater details about their activities, and provide a far greater range of illustrations to show how much good work came out of a small place. In addition, he looks at various writers – Walter Greenwood, Hugh Walpole, and some others – who spent time in Polperro. Greenwood, in fact, wrote a trilogy of novels set in an “imaginary Cornish fishing port” called Treelooe. Some of the characters were allegedly based on real-life residents of Polperro, and it was suggested that Greenwood’s decision to leave the area and move to Looe was determined by their reactions to how he had portrayed them. Tovey’s research in relation to both artists and writers is to be admired.