This emotive scene by Walter Langley epitomises his oeuvre in terms of both medium and subject matter. Langley is best known for his studies of Cornish fishermen based in and around Newlyn, and focuses on the poverty of its inhabitants and in particular exploring the psychological impact of a way of life dependent on the sea. Waiting for the Boats encapsulates Langley's most effective method of portraying the hardship and suffering of the Cornish fisherfolk, depicting the family that are left behind as the menfolk go out to sea.
The face of the central woman expresses a resigned sadness and understanding, her eyes stare into the middle distance, her mouth down-turned. Her weathered face reveals the suffering and probable loss that she has endured. Time passing and long periods of waiting are demonstrated by the woman in the foreground quietly knitting. The younger woman stands with a gaze full of worry, her anxiety made more acute by the children at play in the centre of the composition, oblivious to the tensions surrounding them. We are reminded that the loss of livelihood, should their men not return from sea, means suffering and struggle for all those left behind.
It has been suggested that the setting for the present work depicts the same flight of steps seen in After the Storm, 1894, whereabouts unknown, and those of Disaster! Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village, 1889 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) and also relates to Langley's In the Fishing Season, 1898. We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for suggesting a date of circa 1885-90 for the present work.
The Victorian fascination with tales of the sea accounts for the commercial success that Langley enjoyed during his lifetime. In a time of Imperial fanfare, there was a growing interest in Britain's national past and coastal genre scenes gained a huge following. Langley also focuses on the regional identity of his sitters. They are unquestionably Cornish both in their features and in their garments, such as the creels wrapped over the elderly women's shoulders. By using everyday activities and portraying the sitters as monumental within their settings, Langley elevates his characters to heroic figures of Britain. Three generations stand close to each other, symbolising the community, its past and future.