Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

This is the last in the series of West meets West posts, which have been running alongside the exhibition of Cornish artists at the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn.

The painting (above left) by Cornish artist Alex Smirnoff (courtesy of Bryony Harris) wonderfully illustrates the story of Saint Credan who, like Saint Piran before him, travelled from Ireland to convert the heathens in Cornwall to Christianity in the 7th century. Our Saint Credan is looking a little melancholy. That’s because he accidentally killed his own father and therefore spent the rest of his life as a swineherd in penance. As a compensation it has to be said that he raises very fine pigs! Behind him is the ancient parish Church of Sancreed, very accurately portrayed with its huge colony of rooks in the trees behind. In the same picture is one of the five ancient crosses in the churchyard. The church itself dates from the 14th century: the crosses may be much older than that.

Above right is from a fine study of the entrance to Sancreed churchyard – by the Irish-born ‘Father’ of the Newlyn School, Stanhope Alexander Forbes. It is titled ‘October’ and was painted in 1898. Sancreed was the church attended by many of the Newlyn School artists, and the churchyard contains the graves of some of them, including Forbes and his wife Elizabeth Armstrong. In the church is a memorial designed by Forbes to commemorate their only son, Alec, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Close by is a holy well, described by Amanda.

The crowning glories of this church, however, are the unusual carvings on the rood screen inside, which date from the 16th century. Last week I showed you the carving of the Chough – a bird closely linked with Cornwall and Ireland. Today I am illustrating some more of these carvings, and these show very strange beasts indeed! Some of them can be recognised as heraldic; no doubt they all would have carried symbolism when they were placed here five hundred years ago.

A basilisk is hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a toad. Be careful, because it has a lethal glare and poisonous breath. The basilisk carved in Sancreed church (above left) looks fairly personable, while Alex Smirnoff’s version of it (above right – inspired by the Sancreed carving) should be given a wide berth. Look at the shadowy figures – and the ancient cross – hiding in the background of Alex’s painting: typical of his work.

It’s not just strange creatures that are depicted at Sancreed (and there are many more of them) – there are figures as well:

Above are two panels with ‘Janus’ figures, male and female and – on the right – is a most curious character who seems to be a musician playing, perhaps, a serpent or a cornett. But he seems to be part bird, or wearing a feathered cloak. Below is a three-headed figure and a representation of an angel, perhaps: could this actually be Saint Credan hiding in his own church?

All this might seem a far cry from the exhibition in Skibbereen, which features three contemporary artists from Cornwall… But it certainly is art from Cornwall – and in a church which was founded by an Irish Saint; and a church, moreover, which had a special meaning for many of the Newlyn School artists, including Irish-born Stanhope Forbes, founding ‘Father’ of that school.

This series consist of twelve posts (including this one). You can link to them individually through this list:

Off to Skibbereen
A Saint’s Day – Ciarán and Piran
West meets West
Connecting with St Ives
A Watery Tale
Ways West
Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners
Artists of the Western Coasts
Up and Running!
Forbes – An Irish Artists in Cornwall
Choughs – and their travels
Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

There’s still time to visit Skibbereen to see the exhibition of the Cornish artists’ work: West meets West is on until July 8 at Uillinn. Enjoy it!

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.

 

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.

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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