On a sunlit afternoon three young men with their fishing tackle walk down the slip near a group of cottages known as Wherry Town on the edge of Newlyn in Cornwall. The leader carries, in addition to an oar, a fishing line wrapped around a wooden frame, while two others bring wicker baskets for the catch. Behind them on the beach, their mates are preparing to launch their rowing boats, joining others are already out in the bay. 'Whiffling'or 'wiffing' for fish in the harbour vicinity was the fishing equivalent of the field labourer tending his cabbage patch.1 This is the scene depicted by Harold Harvey in The Old Slip, Newlyn - a picture of daily foraging carried on in peaceful, if not entirely picturesque surroundings. It relates closely to Harvey's Whiffling for Mackerel, (fig 1, unlocated) also produced in 1908 - a subject which the young painter interited from Stanhope Forbes's Newlyn, 1906 (Ferens Art Gallery, Hull).2
While nearby Penzance burgeoned as a holiday resort sporting fairgrounds and boat tours, Newlyn remained a working port supporting a tightly knit community.3 The lighthouse and extended piers of the main harbour, constructed by 1894, in the background of the present work, had been greeted with enthusiasm, because they enabled the docking of larger steam trawlers. However older hands and many painters who worked in the area regarded these vessels as ugly.4 This contrast of traditional and modern informs Stanhope Forbes's The Lighthouse, 1893 (Manchester City Art Gallery), and provides the undeclared sub-plot of the present work. Painters like Harvey instinctively recognized the challenge to traditional ways of life. There would come a time when 'slips' used for launching clinker-built craft would fall into disuse.
Newlyn's 'slips' and sands at low tide were among the earlier subjects treated by incoming artists in the 1880s. They appeared in Stanhope Forbes, The Slip, 1885 and Thomas Cooper Gotch's Sharing Fish, 1889 (both Private Collections), while the harbour featured in Langley's Disaster! 1889 (Birmingham City Art Gallery), Frank Bramley's For of Such is the Kingdom of Heaven, 1892 (Auckland Art Gallery), and many other canvases - so that by the turn of the century, Royal Academy exhibitions had a gallery set aside as the 'Newlyn Room'. In 1902, when a major exhibition of painting in Cornwall was staged at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, the 'Newlyn School' was sufficiently well established to have spawned a second generation of painters, amongst whom was Harold Harvey.
Early works such as The Old Slip, Newlyn, often containing motifs tying Harvey to his mentors, offer a new approach. Where Forbes took every opportunity to underline the heroism of his fishermen, Harvey looks for a more relaxed mood, in which daily life continues in an unhurried fashion. Where Forbes, in the early years, looked for grey days and consistent light, Harvey embraced sunlight from the beginning of his career. Thus in the present work, the evening sun strikes the buildings from behind and casts shadows across the slip and the beach.5 And while first generation Newlyn artists painted large Academy pieces, painters like Harvey worked on a smaller scale accentuating the mise-en-scène. Ironically, as in the present case, the smaller the picture, the more it contains. In this sense, it could be claimed that The Old Slip, Newlyn presents the image of a whole way of life - albeit one that was changing rapidly.
1 This practice is illustrated in several works by Harvey - notably in an untitled painting c. 1900; see Peter Ridson and Pauline Sheppard, Harold Harvey, Painter of Cornwall, 2001 (Sansom and Co), p. 56 (illus).
2 The fishing line and basket in Whiffling for Mackerel (Ridson, no 108), are similar to those in the present work, while the famous lighthouse, seen in Stanhope Forbes's academy piece of 1893 (Manchester City Art Gallery) features in the background of both works.
3 See C Lewis Hind, Days in Cornwall, 1907 (Methuen and Co), pp. 192-5. Hind describes Penzance as 'the last station in England'.
4 See Ben Batten and Eric Richards, 'A Short History of Newlyn' in Caroline Fox and Francis Greenacre, Painting in Newlyn, 1880-1930, 1985, (exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery), pp. 29-35.
5 Another work entitled The Old Slip, Newlyn, (Ridson no 109, sold at Bonhams, 20 October 1994, lot 42), showing a woman walking towards the viewer with another conversing with two men, may have been conceived as a companion to the present work since it is of similar size. This was described as having been purchased from the artist by William Herbert Lane. The present work is not included in the Ridson catalogue.