West meets West

Picturesque Newlyn, Cornwall – the fishing village was the centre of a major art movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

I have been working hard with Uillinn – West Cork Arts Centre‘s fantastic new gallery in Skibbereen – to bring over an exhibition of the work of contemporary Cornish artists, which opens in June. West meets West will be the launch of a continuing programme which sees the art and culture of Cork and Cornwall being shared, to the mutual benefit of all working artists and art lovers – and to residents and visitors.

Greenstone – a canvas by the late Matthew Lanyon, one of Cornwall’s important contemporary artists whose work will be shown at Uillinn in June this year

Why Cornwall and Cork? And, particularly, why these westernmost peninsulas of Ireland and England? Well, as you may have noticed from past posts on this Journal, historic links between the two geographical areas go back a very long way. Starting between three and four thousand years ago copper was mined on Mount Gabriel and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to produce a revolutionary new metal – Bronze. This material was hard enough to make tools and weapons – therefore a practical commodity: also it does not rust. It has, too, been used to make bells for centuries, so its properties include sonority. In fact the word bronze probably originates from the Medieval Latin bronzium, in modern Italian bronzo, meaning ‘bell metal’. Regardless of all this, the important thing we know is that relations between the west of England and the west of Ireland were well enough advanced to set up regular trading between the two outposts in those far-off days.

Tony Lattimer, international award winning ceramic artist based near The Land’s End in Cornwall, whose large ceramic sculptures will be shown in West meets West, Skibbereen, June of this year

In a recent post I alluded to the incredible debt that Cornwall owes to us in West Cork because we gave them their patron saint – Saint Piran. The fact that the gift wasn’t intentional shouldn’t delay us too long: we tied Cape Clear’s Saint (whose Irish name was Ciarán) to a millstone and threw him over a cliff. Instead of meeting his doom he miraculously surfed the millstone across to the Cornish coast, where his landing place – Perranzabuloe – is named after him, and where he is royally celebrated on March 5th every year, with all the zeal that we show to our own St Patrick!

Apart from metal mining and saints, another important connection is shared fishing grounds. From medieval times onwards (and perhaps before) the Cornish fishing fleets put out from Mousehole and Newlyn to follow the pilchard and herring shoals across to Roaringwater Bay. This is really where art comes into our story, as it was the way of life of some of the Cornish fishing communities that attracted artists to that western County of England in the late nineteenth century, once the arrival of the Great Western Railway in Penzance had established the direct connection with London. Newlyn was an early focus, and a young man from Dublin, Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an up and coming young painter in the plein air tradition, made his home there in 1884 and stayed for life. Forbes found in Cornwall a true ‘rural idyll’: an unspoiled countryside where life was simply lived, and a rugged coastline with a magical quality of light. Known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’, he gathered around him like-minded artists who recorded (and perhaps romantically idealised) the way of life of the communities there, and that special quality of the light, in canvasses which are highly admired and respected today.

A preliminary sketch by Stanhope Alexander Forbes for a painting known as On Paul Hill (Paul is the name of a village between Newlyn and Mousehole in Cornwall). Forbes painted in the Plein Air style, out of doors and from real life

I made my home in Cornwall for a number of years, before I decided that I hadn’t come far enough to the west, and followed the pilchards and herring myself to Roaringwater Bay, where I now look down on them from my eyrie in Nead an Iolair (although the shoals are today much diminished). During my years in Cornwall I came to know and respect the stories of the artists from Victorian years up to the present day. The ‘Newlyn School’ which Forbes represented was only one piece of the jigsaw there: we will explore others later. Art is probably Cornwall’s biggest asset. Ever since the opening of the Tate Gallery in St Ives – established there because of that town’s historic links with artists and craftspeople of international repute – ‘art tourism’ has grown to become a major year-round driver of the local economy.

Newlyn old and new: left – Stanhope Alexander Forbes in 1900 painting outside Trelyn, Boase Street, Newlyn – my home for 25 years! Right – Newlyn today is Britain’s largest fishing port

Cornwall is home to a number of artists renowned today in the British Isles. I got to know many of them when I lived in Newlyn. Three of them will be exhibiting in Uillinn from 3 June to 8 July this year: Philip Booth, Matthew Lanyon and Tony Lattimer. Their work is large scale, stimulating and mutually complementary: constructions, canvasses and ceramic sculptures. Please make a note of the dates now: this exhibition is important for West Cork and for Cornwall. Please don’t miss it!

Below: Philip Booth, from Lamorna, Cornwall, will be showing a number of his spectacular relief constructions at West meets West, Uillinn, Skibbereen, in June. This one is titled ‘Formed in Running Water’

Formed in Running Water

Off to Skibbereen!

Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall

Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall

What’s the link between Newlyn in Cornwall – where I had a fisherman’s cottage for 20-odd years – and Skibbereen, our nearest town here in West Cork? The answer is ‘art’, and the painting below by Alexander Stanhope Forbes sums it up: Off to Skibbereen from Newlyn.

offtoskibb1

Stanhope Forbes was born in 1857 in Dublin and worked in the en plein air technique of painting, first in Brittany and then in Cornwall, where he settled and founded the Newlyn School of artists. He died in Newlyn (a day or two short of my first birthday) in 1947. If you want to see a collection of Newlyn School paintings visit the Penlee Gallery in Penzance: they are superbly detailed depictions of everyday life in a working fishing community during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. En plein air was all about light, sun and clarity: the artists chose places where the light was at its best, usually close to the sea. My cottage looked out over Mounts Bay in West Penwith, on the far south western tip of Britain. Like the lugger in the picture I have crossed the Celtic Sea from Cornwall, and I now live on the far south western tip of Ireland.

View from my cottage in Cornwall

View from my cottage in Cornwall

I am intrigued by the Off to Skibbereen painting. It tells a story, but we can’t guess that story. It’s presumably PZ 614 that’s on its way to Ireland, and not the ladies in a small open punt with a basket of sandwiches… But why Skibbereen? Records show that from the 1820s Newlyn fishermen were chasing the Herrings off the coast of County Cork. On the whole the fishermen of Newlyn were active most of the year. In January and February they fished for Mackerel off South Devon, following the shoals westwards to Mounts Bay for the next couple of months. Then they moved to Irish waters for the Herring season, returning in July to catch Pilchards until December. They were away from home for weeks at a time so a departure could be a poignant time for their families.

Skibbereen at the end of the 19th century: can you spot the cat?

Skibbereen at the end of the 19th century: can you spot the cat?

Skibbereen was a settlement served by water. The River Ilen is tidal and in the early 19th century boats of up to 200 tons could navigate to Oldcourt, within two miles of the town centre. From there goods were transferred into ‘lighters’ (unpowered barges) and then brought into the quays where there were warehouses and a Customs House. Now, sadly, Skibbereen’s waterfront is a bit neglected and its active past shipping history is no longer obvious. Five historic quays have been identified along the river: Steam Mill Quay, Long Quay, Levis Quay, Minihane’s Quay and Chapel Quay. The Skibbereen Town Development Plan has this to say about them:

…Historic Quays – Comprising of old disused stone quays along the town side of the River Ilen between the two road bridges, these quays were once the primary means to transport goods and people in and out of Skibbereen. Some of the quays are in private ownership, others are unrecognisable and some have been blocked with stone and deposits. However,what is unquestioned is the historic significance and value of the quays and therefore their protection should be considered as part of this plan. In the past, communities and public bodies turned their back on water bodies but now the tide is turning in this regard. Therefore an opportunity presents itself … by ensuring that the quays are redeveloped as part of any proposal on adjoining land…

Building work progresses in Skibbereen

Building work progresses in Skibbereen

There is a new development going up in the centre of Skibbereen right now, just by the old Levis Quay. It’s on the site of a rather bleak four-storey warehouse structure (now demolished) known most recently as Wolfe’s Bakery. This new building is all about art – rather neatly for my thesis on the artistic links between West Cornwall and Western Ireland.

WCAC_north_view_final-sized

Competition Winner – Skibbereen’s new Arts Centre

The people of Skibbereen are very fortunate to have secured funding for a major arts building, especially in the present climate of austerity. The West Cork Arts Centre will house exhibition space and studio space for artists and social spaces for the community, including enhanced workshop, dance, performance and film club facilities providing a ‘centre for excellence’ in the visual arts at local, national and international levels. The building occupies the ghost of the earlier warehouse and is on five storeys, all fully accessible. Valuable extra space is cleverly gained by cantilevering a portion of the main block out over the Caol Stream. An international design competition was held for the design of the new centre, and this was won by Architects Donaghy and Dimond of Dublin. Visually the building is stunningly contemporary – and this works well in a small town with a diverse architectural language spanning many centuries. So often, new buildings are not allowed to be ‘of their time’ and resort to pastiches of older styles with the result that present day town centres can lack any dynamic character.

The building is being clad with a material known as ‘Corten‘. It’s actually rusted steel! It’s an attractive and durable finish which matures and stabilizes as time goes on. The appearance of a large rusty steel box in the centre of town is exciting some comment but – as always with anything new – judgement is best reserved until the project is completed. In my opinion it will add to the attractions of Dear Old Skibbereen and provide very welcome new facilities in the heart of this creative community. Well done Skibbereen!

Taking Shape - 21 May 2014

Taking Shape – 21 May 2014

Here’s an idea: several of the Newlyn School artists were Irish – or had Irish connections. Perhaps in West Cork we should put on an exhibition highlighting artistic links – old and new – between Cornwall and Ireland?

Wolfe’s Bakery – site of the new Arts Project