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.

 

Ways West!

Many of you will know that I was a frequent traveller between Cornwall and West Cork from the 1990s and onwards – until I happily met with Finola and we came and settled permanently here in Nead an Iolair just a few years ago. We have never looked back! But I have often wondered about the various ways in which that journey was made – not just in the last century, but three or four thousand years ago… For we do know that tin mined in Cornwall was brought across to the west of Ireland then, in order to manufacture Bronze – the ‘supermetal’ of those advanced times: it symbolized strength and gave wealth and status.

MV Julia, the car ferry which plied between Cork and Swansea: top picture – in her heyday, when she operated throughout the year. Above – Julia leaving Cork in 2012 after the closure of the Fastnet Line. Her name was changed to Wind Perfection and she became a floating dormitory for workers on the offshore wind farms in the North Sea

Not only tin was brought from Cornwall. A study carried out in 2015 by universities in Southampton and Bristol – (using laser ablation mass spectrometry) – concluded that many of the gold artefacts in the National Museum of Ireland and dating from the Bronze Age were manufactured from gold imported from Cornwall – even though there were rich supplies of gold being extracted in Ireland. Author Chris Standish suggests: 

…It is probable that an ‘exotic’ origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production…

Gold artefacts from Ireland: left – Tyrone Lunula, early Bronze Age; right – Gleninsheen gold gorget, late Bronze Age (photos courtesy National Museum of Ireland)

I would really like to know what type of boat was used all that time ago to bring that precious metal across the Irish Sea. Some have suggested that it would have been a forerunner of the currach – implying a small hide-covered boat. But metal was heavy – even if it was smelted into ingots before the journey: something larger than a currach must surely have been needed. My own not-too-distant memories of having survived a night crossing in the MV Julia, from Swansea to Cork, in a Force 9 storm – with the thudding of huge waves against the steel hull and ominous creakings and crashings coming from the car decks below – lead me to think that any craft that had to traverse those seas in all weathers had to be substantial and sturdy.

A traditional currach in Dingle, Co Kerry – without its covering skin of hide or canvas

I began to research types of craft that were used in the Bronze Age: examples have been found, some preserved underwater or in bogs. These included ‘log boats’ such as the 14 metre long Lurgan Canoe in the National Museum, which doesn’t seem ideally suited to cargo carrying – especially on open sea. The most likely candidate comes from the Mediterranean: the Uluburun Shipwreck, found underwater in Turkey in 1982.

The Uluburun was a cargo boat: we know this because much of its load was intact when the wreck was found. Amazingly, archeologists were able to pinpoint its route: the ship set sail from either a Cypriot or Syro-Palestinian port and was probably heading for a Mycenaean palace on mainland Greece. It was wrecked in the late 14th century BC. The boat was constructed of cedar planks with morticed and tenoned joints and carried a huge cargo: 500 copper ingots; one ton of tin (which when alloyed with the copper would make around 11 tons of bronze); around 150 Canaanite jars, some filled with glass beads, many others with olives and some with an ancient form of turpentine; 175 glass ingots; African blackwood (ebony); ivory; tortoise-shells; ostrich eggs; Cypriot pottery and oil-lamps; a trumpet; quartz, gold, faience, amber, weapons, tools, pan-balance weights and a gold scarab… The list goes on.

Underwater archaeology: it took ten years to excavate and recover the cargo of the Uluburun vessel

This was in the Mediterranean, not in the Irish Sea. But it’s perfectly possible that the marine technology of those times extended to the northern outposts of Bronze Age Europe. We have to be very clear in our minds that we are looking at a sophisticated society capable of metallurgy, communication and long-distance travel.

Coming back to my own journeys from Cornwall to Ireland, I mourn the passing of the Swansea Cork Ferry, in those days by far the best way to get me and my car to the west of Ireland: I have good memories of arriving in the Lee estuary at daybreak and, excited to be here, watching the sun rise as we sailed up through Cobh to Ringaskiddy. On other journeys I also came over by air: there was a wonderful flight in a small aircraft from Exeter going to Cork. The homespun Devon airport in those days was unsophisticated: on one occasion I lined up to have my luggage checked by security and was asked to take my concertina (a constant travelling companion) out of its case for inspection. I was then asked to play it – in front of the queue – and everything stopped so that the serenade could be heard! It was a small aeroplane – about a dozen seats in the cabin, with the pilot up front – no partition. As he started the engines his broad Cork accent came over the speakers: “…let’s see if we can get this thing off the ground…” He succeeded and – once in the air and cruising at a lowish altitude – got out packs of sandwiches and passed them around. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the outline of Cornwall (exactly as it’s shown in the atlas!) passing below us, to be replaced shortly by the distinctive – and similar – geography of south-west Ireland, soon followed by a sketchy and invariably bumpy landing on Cork’s runaway – especially in any sort of stiff breeze.

Air Lingus Regional flights – operated by Stobart Air – now directly connect Cornwall with Cork. Photo – Trevor Hannant

It’s exciting that – just in time for Uillinn’s West meets West exhibition of Cornish artists, there is finally a direct link from within Cornwall to Cork! A new Air Lingus Regional flight – operated by Stobart Air started operating this month and it’s already popular: extra flights have been added to the planned timetable to cater for higher than expected demand. These flights leave from Newquay Airport and are very reasonably priced. I wish them every success… Back in the day, my journey from Newlyn to Skibbereen via the ferry took all day and a night: the new flight barely takes an hour.

Depart here for West Cork! Newquay Airport, in Cornwall

When the Swansea to Cork ferry stopped running the West of Ireland felt the loss: tourism numbers dropped significantly and businesses which relied on visitors suffered. Things have improved since then, particularly with the Wild Atlantic Way initiative. Hopefully the new air link will lead to increased business between the two western outposts of Britain and Ireland, hearkening back to historical times when close links were first forged. Meanwhile, please don’t forget to come along to West meets West and see the work of contemporary artists from Cornwall. The artists (some of whom will have flown over on the Newquay service!) will be speaking about their work at 12 noon on Saturday 3 June, and I will be giving a gallery talk on Saturday 10 June – also at 12 noon – about the many historic links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland. West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July. Opening at 6pm on Friday 2 June.

Travelling from Cornwall to Cork: Off to Skibbereen – painted by Newlyn Artist  (and Irishman) Stanhope Alexander Forbes in 1901

Connecting with St Ives

Have you ever met a Zorse? That’s a cross between a zebra and a horse. Probably not… But I have met the lady who invented them (above)! And, by quirky chance, she’s one link between Ireland and the group of artists who formed the ‘St Ives School of Painting’, Cornwall, in the twentieth century. You already know from last week’s post that the forthcoming exhibition in Uillinn, Skibbereen – West meets West, opening on 3 June, celebrates the historic connections and similarities between these two western outposts of Britain and Ireland, explored through the medium of art.

I was pleased to find this poster (produced for the London, Scottish and Midland Railway Company) by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an artist who was born in Ireland but spent most of his long working life in Newlyn, Cornwall

It was the coming of railways from the capital to Cornwall (arriving to Penzance in 1860, and to St Ives in 1877) that opened up the far south-west of Britain to tourists – and to the artists who were drawn to this hitherto remote and unspoiled ‘rural idyll’. They were particularly attracted to the picturesque fishing villages, and rather overlooked the equally interesting and visually dramatic mining communities which were the centre of the county’s economy in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

The picturesque St Ives fishing community as seen in these postcards which served the burgeoning tourist industry in the early 1900s

The first art gallery in St Ives opened in 1887, and an art school was opened the following year. By the time the photographs on the postcards above were taken, there were ten private schools of painting in the town. The development of St Ives as a national (perhaps even international) centre for ‘modern art’ began after the Great War when Ben Nicholson and Christopher (Kit) Wood visited and ‘discovered’ the seafarer and naïve artist Alfred Wallis, who spent his retirement years painting nautical scenes on old fish boxes, driftwood and even scraps of cardboard.  They found his small cottage (now marked by a plaque) filled with these images, many of them (to the artists’ horror) attached to the walls by nails driven through their centres.

Art in St Ives, Cornwall: upper left – Christopher Wood self portrait; upper right – Alfred Wallis The Blue Ship; lower – Ben Nicholson Mural for the Festival of Britain

As the century progressed and another European war loomed, remote St Ives became home to many artists – some conscientious objectors, others just escapists. It made for a cosmopolitan mix. Ceramicists Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji arrived from Japan in the 1920s. Many potters from all over the world were apprenticed at the Leach Pottery (which exists today in St Ives and is also now a museum), and spread Leach’s style and beliefs. At the outbreak of war in 1939 Nicholson (then the centre of the London based British avant-garde movement) returned with his wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, followed by their friend Russian Constructivist pioneer Naum Gabo and his wife Miriam. To quote the history pages of the St Ives Society of Artists:

…Soon Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, eastern philosophy, true naïveté and the English marine tradition were being discussed behind the blackout curtains of the town. The place was a hotbed of creativity and its importance grew…

Post-war, the artists’ community expanded, and changed. The names we now remember from the mid-century years include Sven Berlin, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, John Wells, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and many others. A good insight of what life was like there is given in the entertaining autobiographical notes of Irish artist Breon O’Casey, son of playwright Sean O’Casey:

…One day, watching television, sometime in the late fifties, I saw a film about Alfred Wallis, a primitive painter who had lived at St Ives in Cornwall. The film showed St Ives and the studios of some of the artists living there. I realised it was the place for me… Ah St Ives! In those days still a working fishing port, with tourism and art only tolerated, but kindly tolerated. The relief of mingling with other crazy artists was enormous. It was literally as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. This is exactly how it felt. One must remember the strong antagonism to modern art then, and the nervous energy used up resisting it… One was with a group of people who were hoping to make a living from their art and indeed some were professional artists. That times were hard mattered little. If no one has much money it doesn’t matter. And I certainly never experienced the depths of poverty and the necessary determination to survive it, that my father had experienced. Nor indeed did I face the privations that, as one reads, Matisse faced, never mind those suffered by the true early warriors, Van Gogh and Gauguin… My studio was in a ramshackle, wooden structure tucked in behind other similar studios facing out over Porthmeor beach to the wide Atlantic. I slept in a curtained off alcove at one end – illegally – and in the winter the thud of the great waves would shake the whole crazy structure like a dog shaking a rat. It was kept standing by the law of inertia which says: if an object has been in one place for a number of years, it will resist, of itself, natural physical forces trying to move it…

Breon O’Casey in 2009: he died in Cornwall in 2011. Right – O’Casey’s Trio

Peter Lanyon was one of the most influential artists in the St Ives School during his working life. He was a native of the town – born in The Red House, Bellyars, St Ives in 1918. Both his parents came from families who were connected with mining. Lanyon was a teacher and an artist. Irish artist Tony O’Malley (1913 – 2003) received his only formal art education from Peter Lanyon and, after Lanyon’s death in 1964, O’Malley dedicated all his work to his friend and mentor. Irish sculptor Conor Fallon (1939 – 2007), a friend of O’Malley and O’Casey, was also inspired by Peter Lanyon’s work and spent some years in St Ives before moving back to Kinsale. Lanyon claimed that he sought in his work to ‘get under the skin’ of his native county and explored it by going underground in the mines and flying over it in a glider. Lanyon died as a result of a gliding accident; the work of one of his sons – the late Matthew Lanyon – will feature in the West meets West exhibition in June this year.

Top: Bojewyan Farms by Peter Lanyon (courtesy Sheila Lanyon). Lower: Lanyon, left, in 1961 – photo by Ida Kar; Irish artists Tony O’Malley (centre) and Conor Fallon (right)

This post is a necessarily brief historical summary of the St Ives artists and their influences on the annals of art in the islands of Britain and Ireland. Many important names have been omitted. But we cannot leave the subject without mentioning Sven Berlin – and coming back to the Zorse!

‘The Dark Monarch’ – a fictionalised novel by Sven Berlin that characterised and defamed many of his fellow artists in the St Ives colony – they drummed him out of town! Right – Juanita Casey, Berlin’s second wife (photo Dolmen Press)

Sven Berlin (1911 – 1999) was a colourful and controversial addition to the St Ives group. Born in London, he came to Cornwall in 1938, meeting with Nicholson and Hepworth and writing the first book on the life of naïve artist Alfred Wallis. While there he met Juanita (1925 – 2012), who was named by her uncle after his favourite circus lion. Her mother, an Irish Traveller, had died in childbirth and her father, an English Romany, had given her up for adoption. She joined a circus at the age of 13, beginning a lifelong obsession with horses. She was a writer, artist and poet and – later – a horse breeder and circus trainer. She spent some years working on boats in Penzance and exhibiting paintings in the Newlyn Gallery, and there she became involved with Sven Berlin; they married in 1953. Soon after, Sven was ostracised from St Ives and they travelled in their Romany caravan to the New Forest and lived for a while in the Shave Green Gypsy community.

Sven Berlin in St Ives, left, and with Juanita and their family in their Gypsy wagon

The marriage broke up when Juanita met and eloped with a groom, Fergus Casey. While with him she trained and rode zebras and embarked on her project to produce the Zorse – apparently unsuccessful.  Her lifestyle was forever Bohemian. Her obituary in the Independent newspaper observes:

…Casey wrote that her children looked upon her “the way steam enthusiasts admire a hissing antique boiler.” Often, she would be the first to admit, her creativity and spontaneity took over from her domestic duties and responsibilities…

Fergus, a journalist, was drowned in Galway and Juanita, with her daughter, Sheba, continued to travel – firstly to Sneem in Co Kerry, and then to Okehampton in Devon, England where she once again joined the circus, as a horsemaster. I met her in Okehampton when she was in her eighties, and was fascinated to listen to many of her incredible stories – although while telling them she was always keeping half an eye on her television set in the corner, which was always on and always tuned in to the horse racing channels!

Below, Juanita Casey, living in Okehampton, Devon, in her eighties and an illustration from her novel  The Selene Horse

Don’t forget! West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July