Forbes – An Irish Artist in Cornwall

In yesterday’s gallery talk as part of the West meets West exhibition at Uillinn, Skibbereen, I concentrated on one of the many artists who made their way to Cornwall in the late nineteenth century: Stanhope Alexander Forbes. He deserves a Roaringwater Journal post of his own, as he rather neatly embodies the concept of linking the two westernmost seaboards of Ireland and England, which is an essential element of the West meets West project. Colloquially known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’ of painters who were established in the West of Cornwall, and who have left an impressive legacy of their work in the most remote part of the peninsula, it was probably his longevity that earned him that title (he lived in Newlyn for most of his working life and died there in 1947) rather than a particular comparison of his work with others. There was a large group of talented artists, men and women, who contributed to the reputation of the Newlyn colony.

Header Picture – Perranwell Viaduct, Cornwall, painted by Stanhope Forbes in 1933, when he was 76 (The Medici Society Ltd). Above – a photograph of the Newlyn Group, taken in the early 1880s: shown are Frank Bodilly, Fred Millard, Frank Bramley, William Blandford Fletcher, William Breakspeare, Ralph Todd, William Wainwright, Edwin Harris and (seated lower right) Stanhope Forbes

Stanhope Forbes was born in Dublin in 1857. His father, William Forbes, was manager of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland. William was also a folklorist and probably passed his interest in traditions and traditional lifestyles on to his son. Stanhope’s uncle, James Staats Forbes (also a railway manager) had a large collection of paintings from the French Barbizon School whose members (including Corot and Rousseau) abandoned formalism to draw directly from nature. Stanhope was familiar with these works and the aspirations of these painters, and it is likely that when he embarked on a career in art he was heavily influenced by their heritage.

Forbes early works: left – A Street in Brittany 1881 (Walker Art Gallery), and right – Beach Scene St Ives (City of Bristol Art Gallery) 1886

Norman Garstin, another Irish artist who joined the Newlyn group and documented some of its history, described the Forbes family as “…essentially of the nineteenth century, full of its movement and restless activity…” Stanhope attended the Royal Academy School in London where he would have had a traditional training in still life and figure painting in the studio. London itself in those post-Industrial Revolution Victorian days was no doubt dirty and noisy, and the air would have been polluted. Forbes and many of his student companions would have longed for clean air and light and yearned to join the then fashionable (but daring and rebellious) en plein air movement where the object was to paint ‘natural’ colours and tones direct from life, albeit with the inherent problems of changing light through the days and seasons, and the practicalities of carrying easels, canvases and equipment to wherever they wanted to paint. As Norman Garstin said: “…your work could not be any good unless you caught a cold doing it…” The young artists were attracted to Brittany, where they discovered an ‘idyllic’ unchanging lifestyle and, latterly, to Cornwall, where they also perceived the ‘rural idyll’ existing closer to home, among the villages, farms and fishing communities.

A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, completed in 1885 (now in the City of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery). This spectacular painting – five feet long – is a masterpiece of composition and contains portraits drawn from real life: Newlyn locals were delighted to receive ‘sitting fees’ from the influx of artists

It’s probably true to say that the Newlyn artists romanticised the way of life in rural Cornwall by concentrating on the fishing communities and the beautiful seaboard. There was another reality: the interior of Cornwall’s peninsula was heavily industrialised in the 19th century by the metal mining industry. The artists must have been aware of this reality but ignored any recording of it. There was, at least, some acknowledgement of the hardship and distress of those connected to the sea itself. Frank Bramley’s Hopeless Dawn (beautifully painted although also romanticising in a very Victorian way the aftermath of lost lives at sea), painted in 1888, depicts the widow of a drowned fisherman being comforted by her mother; the lighting and composition of the interior view is remarkable.

Upper picture – the industrial landscape of inland Cornwall: Dolcoath Mine 1883. Lower picture – Frank Bramley’s A Hopeless Dawn, painted in 1888 (Tate Gallery, London)

Stanhope Forbes lived into his ninetieth year. By all accounts he achieved success in his chosen profession, but his personal life saw some tragedies: Elizabeth Armstrong – an equally talented artist who travelled from her native Canada to work in Newlyn – married Stanhope in 1889. She pursued her own career as a painter and etcher until her early death – aged 52 – in 1912. Their son Alec died on the battlefields of France in 1916. All are buried in the beautiful churchyard of Sancreed, in Cornwall.

Blackberry Gatherers, painted by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes in 1912 (Walker Art Gallery)

West meets West – a celebration of three contemporary artists from Cornwall – runs through to 8 July at Uillinn, Skibbereen

I am indebted to Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School by Caroline Fox, published by David & Charles 1993, for much of the biographical information on the artist in this post.


Moongazy Pie

Ready for cooling 2

Moongazy Pie – an original Roaringwater Journal recipe

Each year around this time we look forward to the annual Cornish Invasion – a group of men and women from Cornwall who come on a cultural exchange to sing and tell stories around West Cork. Some are old friends of Robert’s and we inevitably end up in pubs, singing and playing our hearts out until all hours.

A Cornish Quartet

A Cornish Quartet in O’Donovan’s Hotel, Clonakilty

This year we managed to get a couple of them and their Irish hosts to sit still long enough to eat dinner with us. To celebrate the theme of our Irish/Cornish friendship, we made a special dish – Moongazy Pie.

Dinner Group

Robert, Majella O’Callaghan, Jonathan Ball, Nick Blood, Brendan O’Callaghan

Have you heard of the famous Cornish dish, Stargazy Pie? It’s an arresting looking dish, with pilchards’ heads peeking out of a pastry crust as if gazing at the stars. Of course, there’s a whole legend to go with it and lots of traditions.


Photo from

Regular readers will know by now that Robert is a hare fanatic. (In fact, he thinks he is a hare, but don’t tell him I told you that.) What better way to combine his Cornish heritage and his hare obsession than with the symbol of the moon-gazing hare – one of the classic, universal images with which we associate hares.


One of Etain Hickey’s wonderful moon gazing hares

So here is the recipe we devised! I’m not sure who likes pilchards (not me!) so don’t worry, there isn’t a pilchard in sight – just beautiful salmon and lots of leeks. Although this is an easy recipe give yourself time to make it, as part of the process involves cooling the ingredients and then the pie itself before baking. It’s a great dish to make in the morning for a Sunday lunch, or in the early afternoon for dinner.



6 leeks

2 tbs butter

A side of salmon (1 – 1.5k/2.5 – 3.5lbs), skinned and boned (we got our fishmonger to do this for us).

A large handful of fennel fronds (I happen to have this in the garden and I love the aniseedy aroma  but you can substitute fresh dill)

Freshly grated zest and juice of one lime

1 large egg

1 tablespoon water

2 packs ready-made puff pastry sheets – You’ll need about 900g/2lbs in total.


Take the puff pastry from the fridge so it will be at room temperature when you are ready to roll it out.

Wash the leeks very well, making sure to separate the leaves and hunt for that pesky soil that lurks between them. Drain them, pat them dry and cut them into rounds approx half inch or 1.5cm long. Sauté the leeks in butter over moderate heat, stirring, until tender, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Zest and juice the lime.

Cut off the coarser stalks from the fennel (or dill) and chop the fronds finely.

Cut salmon into pieces – about 2”/5cm square.

Once the leeks are cool, mix the leeks, salmon, lime zest and juice and fennel/dill in a bowl.

Whisk together egg and water to make an egg wash.

Dust a baking tray with floor. A 35 x 25 x 2cm (14″ x 10″ x 1”) works well.

Filling the pie


On a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin roll 1 puff pastry sheet (about 300g /10oz) to fit the baking tray with some overhang. Once rolled, transfer it to the tray. Roll a second sheet the same size. Mound the salmon mixture on to the pastry in the tray and spread carefully to fill the tray. Brush the edges with some egg wash and drape the second sheet over top. Roll the edge of the bottom sheet over the edge of the top sheet to form a seal and press it down all the way around with the tines of a fork.

Roll out a third sheet of pastry. Use a plate or saucer to cut out the moon shape. For the hare, we found a suitable silhouette on the internet and Robert used the printer to make one the right size to use as a template. There are various ways you can do this – make it your own, as long as you use the image of a hare gazing at the moon.

Cut four steam vents on top and brush all over with the remaining egg wash. Then cool the pie in the fridge for at least an hour and up to 3.


Preheat oven to 205C OR 400F.

Bake pie in middle of oven until pastry is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Ta Da!

Celtic Cousins

Jonathan Ball (right) - Architect, Co-Founder of the Eden Project - and Chorus Master

Jonathan Ball (right) – Architect, Co-Founder of the Eden Project – and Chorus Master

This weekend, West Cork was invaded by Celtic Cousins from Cornwall! By longstanding tradition, a group from Bude and its environs visits Courtmacsherry and the area surrounding it to join Irish neighbours in a feast of music and song: the hospitality is reciprocated when the Irish contingent goes over to Cornwall. The reason? The lifeboat based in Courtmacsherry has long been ‘twinned’ with the lifeboat based in Bude.

Images from the past: Bude’s Lifeboat in earlier years

Images from the past: Bude’s Lifeboat in earlier years (historic images courtesy of Bude RNLI)

The event is becoming an annual treat for us – because I worked in Bude for many years, with the Jonathan Ball Practice. The group that comes over is overseen by Jonathan himself, who won’t mind me saying that he is a Cornishman born and bred who believes that Bude is the centre of the Universe. I know, of course, that it’s actually West Cork that’s the centre of the Universe – so we have to have an annual get-together to sort out our differences…


First, a bit of background. There are 236 lifeboat stations around the coasts of these islands, and 43 of these are in Ireland. The RNLI has operated life saving facilities in the Republic and the UK since 1824, when the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded as a charity by Sir William Hillary, a soldier who lived on the Isle of Man. The Institution today is supported almost entirely by donations and legacies, and the crews are unpaid volunteers.

Bude, on the north coast of Cornwall, had its first lifeboat as early as 1837. This boat was presented to the town by King William IV and paid for by the Duchy of Cornwall: the cost was 100 guineas. The lifeboat at Bude was withdrawn in 1923, and not reinstated until 1966. At the same time the Bude Lifeboat Singers came into being: this was conducted by crew member Jonathan Ball, and over the next 25 years was much in demand across Britain and into West Cork, and during that time many thousands of pounds were raised for the RNLI and other charities.

Meanwhile, the lifeboat station at Courtmacsherry was established in 1825 – one of the first to be founded in Ireland – and has been active ever since, its Trent class Lifeboat being on hand at all times to save lives and rescue mariners in trouble. The Trent lifeboats are true all-weather vessels in the RNLI fleet, and are exclusively designed to operate in Europe’s most hostile waters.

Courtmacsherry 'Trent' class Lifeboat: Frederick Storey Cockburn

Courtmacsherry ‘Trent’ Class Lifeboat: Frederick Storey Cockburn

As you know, West Cork is also home to many people steeped in music and tradition, so it was only natural that Bude and Courtmacsherry should get together to share tunes and songs – and hospitality.

four alls

For us the ‘getting together’ happened on Friday, when we travelled up to Sam’s Cross: Michael Collins country. We had to visit his birthplace, of course – have a look at our previous post on this great Irish folk-hero. Collins’ local pub was the Four Alls, and that’s where the singers and musicians settled down for a lively session, joined by some of the pub regulars, who added their own contributions.

Jonathan, Finola and myself, having a Michael Collins moment...

Jonathan, Finola and myself, having a Michael Collins moment…

Although a little hoarse from the previous night’s revels, Cornwall gave of its best, with Jonathan himself still conducting – 48 years on! West Cork was well represented by Dan O’Donovan and colleagues – former show band members – and the locals. I felt privileged to be allowed to join in with my own European mixture of English / Irish / French dance tunes.

As dusk began to settle, the next venue beckoned, and we became part of a convoy snaking its way through the most remote parts of County Cork: we had no idea where we would end up! When we finally arrived at Hickey’s Bar in the fine village of Aherla we were completely disorientated.


But at Hickey’s we were welcomed with open arms and led into a back room full to the brim with musicians! I counted well over twenty from the Irish contingent and, as the evening progressed into night and then morning, more locals came in to add to the entertainment with songs and recitations.

Somehow, we found our way back to Nead an Iolair – it was a drive of an hour and a half – exhausted, but thoroughly elevated by all the music and conviviality. Only in Ireland (and Cornwall) could you find such a sharing: we are all Celtic Cousins, of course…