Notes from the second in a series of three talks at The Beecroft Gallery focusing the art colonies around the coast of Britain 1880s-1910s – Painting-on-Sea: to Walberswick, Staithes and Kirkcudbright (February 2017).
The 1880s to 1910s were decades of extraordinary change and experiment in British Art History and, looking at the paintings made in these different coastal colonies, there is a sense of multiple sources of inspiration as artists sought to represent local communities, their working lives and the surrounding environment.
The French artists Millet and Bastien-Lepage were hugely influential (see previous notes on the Newlyn colony) for their realist subjects and naturalist painting. In Walberswick and Kirkcudbright, this would lead to Impressionist and Post-Impressionism approaches. Meanwhile, the artists of the Staithes colony experimented under the alternative influence of the Dutch Old Masters.
Staithes was a thriving fishing and boat-building port through the 19th-century. However, as Laura Newton points out in “Painting at the Edge” (Sansom & Co. 2005), the community was struggling in the developing shadows of Hull and Grimsby – huge industrial ports – and life, which had always been harsh, was becoming increasingly difficult.
Robert Roe (1851-1930)’s painting of Staithes from about 1880 (Mercer Gallery, Harrogate) seems to show a scene that may not have changed for decades if not centuries:
Whilst Staithes had often been a sketching ground for artists, it was the opening of the railway station in 1883 that really introduced painters to the town (and, indeed, the town to the painters); artists came from across Yorkshire and Lancashire, as well as down from Scotland.
Two of the most famous are Laura and Harold Knight: both young and finding their way, Staithes was an inspiration to their development, and just by looking at a couple of their paintings from Staithes, the influence of the Dutch Old Master is immediately apparent:
Laura Knight (1877-1970)’s A Cottage Interior, Staithes from 1903 (in a private collection) reveals her huge appreciation of Rembrandt:
Whilst for Harold Knight (1874-1961): The Young Seamstress (1907; Rochdale) seems more suggestive of Vermeer:
Throughout their time in Staithes (1900-1907) the Knights would regularly travel to Holland and spend time with colonies of artists working there; but it was Staithes itself that caught Laura’s youthful Romantic heart – as she recalled in her autobiography “Oil Paint (1936):
“The life and place were what I yearned for… the freedom, the austerity, the savagery, the wildness. I loved it passionately, overwhelmingly. I loved the cold and the northerly storms when no cover would protect you. I loved the strange race of people who lived there, whose stern, almost forbidding, exterior formed such a contrast to the warmth and richness of their natures.”
Not that the Knight were the only artist couple working in Staithes; the Joblings had been there for two decades.
Robert Jobling (1841-1923) was born in Newcastle; he had worked alongside his father at the glassworks and then became foreman on the shipyard. Yet in his spare time he studied at the local Government School of Design leading to his decision to become a full-time artist by the mid-1860s.
Isa Jobling (nee Thompson, 1851-1926), also from Newcastle and the Government School, had furthered her art education in Paris for a short while, marrying Robert in 1893.
Robert Jobling’s Hauling the Boats (1890; @LaingArtGallery ) really does depict the ‘harsh beauty’ of life in Staithes:
As the men haul in the boats on the shoreline, a young wife and mother of two watches; there’s a narrative, almost social documentary, here: the woman looking with loving relief that her husband has returned from the dangerous trip out to sea. It has a touch of Victorian sentimentality, yet the working conditions of these fisherman and the risks they took would have been extraordinary, their lives constantly threatened by the sea, weather and nature.
Isa Jobling’s Fisherfolk (1893; @LaingArtGallery ) similarly emphasises the natural elements of the coast – the dull daylight and the wet windy conditions:
Here, the two women are as heroic figures; they stand strong against the mudflats and sky, resilient. Isa Jobling asserts this monumentality of women in her work, even as she also explores other styles of painting. Haymaking (c.1900, @theshipley, Gateshead) is just a firework of golden colour and textures – revealing perhaps the artist’s experience of studying in France.
But perhaps one of the most brilliant artists associated with the Staithes Group is Mark Senior (1864-1927). His work is close to his Flemish peers, with a concentration on light, silhouette and texture. These two extraordinary paintings are @LeedsArtGallery:
The Flemish Wash-house (1907)
We still have the Dutch interior genre of the Old masters, and the subject matter of working lives – linking us again to Millet and Bastien-Lepage – remains; yet Senior’s use of colour and form is different to anything else in these notes: the silhouette of the women grouped around the wash basin is sculptural, the blues and blacks uniting them in one form, centring the design as the tones then ripple out across the whole painting, only to be dramatically contrasted with the yellow of the blind and the daylight bursting in. The brushstrokes themselves are almost swirls, deliciously liquid and decorative. and there is no narrative, the painting calls for no emotional response to its subject matter – the focus is much more fully on the joy of the paint itself and the play of colour, shape, line and texture.
Similarly stunning is The Cloth Dyers (no date):
Here the drama of light and silhouette balance with the rhythm of the working men and the flow of the fabric through the rollers.
And there is a pronounced texture of paint here also; its thick application drawing us into the modernist sensibility of a painting being a painting in and of itself (as opposed to a ‘window onto reality’) – we are drawn to the material making of the picture, the pigment and brushstrokes, the human hand of the artist.
Similarly: Frederick William Jackson (1859-1918)’s Coast Scene with Fishermen (no date; @LeedsArtGallery):
Laura Newton writes: “The dramatic contrast between the shadowy foreground figures and the ethereal merging of sky and sea, give this painting a strange, otherworldly quality, very different from the stable earthiness usually engendered by the ‘working fishermen’ subject.” (Painting at the Edge, p.101).
And this ‘poetic’ shift might lead us to another artist who was closely associated with the Staithes colony and who will lead us further north to Scotland: Charles Hodge Mackie (1862-1920).
Mackie’s The Evening Hour (1904; private collection) is both modern and ancient simultaneously: the drama of the twilight sky, the clouds edged with the end-of-day sunlight is expressionist – poetic; the brushstrokes seem to flow with emotion; whilst the subject of the shepherd and his flock is a portrait steeped in the Romantic vision of Britain, one that echoes the dreaming shepherd poets of Ancient Greece.
This emergence of an aesthetic that is stylistically modern yet simultaneously harbours a sense of the ancient is also at play as we travel with Mackie, via his affiliations with The Glasgow Boys, to Kirkcudbright on the coast of Scotland. Here two artists, Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933) and George Henry (1858-1943) collaborate on perhaps one of the most extraordinary paintings ever:
The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890; @NatGalleriesSco)
We are watching a ceremonial procession of Druids as they bring the mistletoe – cut from a sacred oak, and renowned for its magical and medicinal properties – home on the backs of white bulls.
It’s an ancient local custom rendered here is such an exuberant modern way from the light and shadows of the early morning sun, the bright colours and the decorative qualities of Gustav Klimt – just look at the gold, the intricate patterns, the dramatic ancient-looking profiles of the Druids.
Experimental art is in full flow across the art colonies of Britain during this period as artists finds new more powerful ways to represent deep notions of time and the peculiarities of place.
If we veer back south to Walberswick, however, the concentration remains on the the immediate, contemporary world. As we pick up the influence of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists once again, especially in the work of Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942), we might recognise how the world is changing: those old seaside ports of working fishermen are being transformed into holidays resorts, the subjects of men fighting against rain and wind as they haul in their boats change to a very different vision of leisure and pleasure.
Steer’s Walberswick – Children Paddling (1894; @FitzMuseum_UK) is a perfect example: from the Impressionists, the focus is very much on light – sunlight – its dappling effect on the water, its warmth on the sands and the joy of children paddling.
As if on our holidays, next month we travel to Cornwall alongside the Knights who, in 1907, packed their bags and moved from the ochres and honeyed browns of the Dutch interior to fully resplendent sunlit beaches and deep blue seas:
Saturday 25th March: Sunny Days in Cornwall (1900s)
We enter the 20th-century bathed in sunlight as the influence of French Impressionism takes us back down to Cornwall. We are in holiday mood. Artists such as Lamorna Birch, Alfred Munnings and Laura Knight find themselves enraptured by clear air, warm sunshine and blue seas: children paddle, artists sketch and colours become golden bright.
Meetings will be held on Saturday mornings, 10.30am to 12.30pm in the Lecture Theatre on the ground floor of the Beecroft Gallery.
Each talk costs £10 and includes tea/coffee (biscuits!) and resource materials for independent research.
For further information and to enrol, please contact Mark Banting: