Monday 14 September 2015

Cornwall lights Birmingham hearts

Among the missing -
Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village 1884
Walter Langley
'Cornish Lights' exhibition at Penlee House, Penzance, has just ended.  I didn't know about the 'Birmingham Boys' who came to dominate The Newlyn School Art Colony'. Boulton & Watt we knew about, providing the power for most Cornish mines driving deeper during the mining heydays of the nineteenth century, but the Birmingham Boys brushing scenes of social realism in fishing villages?  Nope.

So why did so many come to Cornwall? And why were they refered to as a 'colony' and not a 'set' (e.g. Bloomsbury) or a movement (e.g. Art & Craft)?  'En Plein air' was important to all Newlyn artists, but there was an important human connection too, even if the artists retained their Birmingham, or other, identities.

'Newlyn School' was most popular at the turn of the century - The Magazine of Art in 1898 wrote, “It was Birmingham that first discovered Newlyn”. Walter Langley a leading Newlyn light:
'...was Birmingham born and trained, and was commissioned by a Birmingham patron to paint the lives of working fishermen in Cornwall. From a poor, working-class background himself, Langley sympathised with the hard-working and often difficult lives of his subjects, and the paintings on show in the exhibition demonstrate the depth of his empathy.'
Ernest Hill exhibited his own and other Newlyn Schoolers at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) from 1900, where he became RBSA vice-President - he was also a Founding Director of the Barber Institute at Birmingham University and his death certificate in 1960 lists his occupation as Headmaster of Bournville Art School (retired). The 'Cornwall Artists register refers to 'The Birmingham Art Circle', 'the original members were Oliver BAKER, William Arthur BREAKSPEARE, S CURRIE, William Banks FORTESCUE, John FULLWOOD, E S HARPER, Edwin HARRIS, John KEELEY, Walter LANGLEY, W S LLOYD, F MERCER, C MORGAN, W J MORGAN, Henry Martin POPE, W F RODEN, Harry S THOMPSON, William John WAINWRIGHT and Charles Henry WHITWORTH.'

'Cornish light' may be what drew the Birmingham Artists to Cornwall, but the social realism they brought - passion for the everyday stories of people living in Cornwall - marked out their art from 'Impressionism' and the other art of the day.

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