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The Pier Head

The Pier Head
signed 'Stanhope A. Forbes.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
26 ¾ x 33 ½ in. (68 x 85 cm.)
Private Collection, U.K., circa 1919, and by descent.
Anonymous sale; James Thompson Auctioneers, Kirby Lonsdale, 23 May 1990, lot 140, where purchased by
with John Adams Fine Art, London, where purchased by
Private Collection, Jersey.
Anonymous sale; Phillips, London, 17 July 2001, lot 23.
with Richard Green, London, where purchased by the present owner.
K. McConkey, Rural & Urban Naturalism; Masterpieces of Late Nineteenth Century French and British Art from the Marchman Collection, London, 1987, p. 86.

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Lot Essay

Although elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1892, Stanhope Forbes refused to leave the remote western tip of Cornwall upon which his artistic identity depended. While other Academicians-in-waiting moved to Kensington and St John’s Wood, such was the prominence of the school he led that, by the turn of the century, his personal reputation was continuing to attract younger artists. Harold and Laura Knight famously relocated to west Cornwall in 1907. [The essential survey of the Newlyn School remains Caroline Fox and Francis Greenacre, Painting in Newlyn 1880-1930, 1985 (ex. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London); see also Melissa Hardie, ed., Artists in Newlyn and West Cornwall 1880-1940, Dictionary and Sourcebook, 2009 (Bristol).]

In 1904, he designed, built and finally moved into Higher Faugan, a palatial new house on the hilltop above Newlyn, the fishing village he had first explored as a young painter, twenty years earlier. The local economy depended upon its fleet for subsistence, and early artist-visitors found ready subject matter in its departures and arrivals. Apart from scattered farms between Newlyn and St Ives on the north coast, the nearby Gwavas quarry, which supplied stone for the Thames Embankment, also provided work for local labourers. In the early days of the artist’s colony, the rural Naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage held sway and Forbes was its principal proponent.

However, by mid-career, Forbes’s style and subject matter had evolved and with its new piers and deep anchorage for steam trawlers, the rapid development of Newlyn as an industrial hub of the fishing industry held less appeal to the painter. Within little over a mile from his new home the smaller port of Mousehole was in easy reach. Down from the village of Paul, by pony and trap, a lane, flanked by copses of hazel and alder trees, descended to this ‘quiet cove’, that the writer, Charles Lewis Hind, found ‘alluring’. By the iron rail protecting observers on its pier, Hind scanned ‘the faces of the battered fishermen’ - those depicted by Forbes in the present work – for traces of ‘Spanish ancestry’, since this had been the landing place for an unsuccessful invasion in 1595 (C. L. Hind, Days in Cornwall, 1907, p. 186.)

Here was a safe anchorage for its numerous older fishing vessels, that drew the painter back to the original subject matter of the Newlyn School. Forbes represented the Mousehole fleet as A Safe Anchorage (Private Collection) at the Royal Academy in 1908. After his first sequence of Newlyn canvases, Forbes’s new subject matter had been found in gypsy camps, in nearby villages and in the coastal town of Penzance. Seamanship was demanded of those who plied their trade from Mousehole’s harbour for it was protected by a rocky reef known as St Clement’s Isle, that glows in the sunlight as an ochre strip across its entrance in the present Study for ‘The Pier Head’. Reputedly the isle, named after the early Christian martyr, St Clement, patron saint of mariners and lighthouse keepers, was the home of a hermit who manned a small medieval church and lit the safe passage of boats into the anchorage. The same topography is also visible in The Harbour Window, Forbes’s Academy Diploma painting, being worked at the same time as the present work. Forbes’s election to full membership of the Royal Academy was announced in the press in January 1910.

The present study provided both setting and central motif for Forbes’s major Academy-piece in 1910. Following standard atelier practice, compositional balayé studies were the essential first draft of any major work. In his case, small at first, these grew in scale as he attained maturity, almost to the point where they could claim to be separate versions of a given subject – albeit freer and more spontaneous than the Academy-pieces to which they relate. In the present case, greater intimacy is given by the fact that we have moved closer to the principal figures, and the male model here has become an ‘old salt’ in The Pier Head (Geelong Art Gallery, Geelong, Victoria, Australia). In the present study, however, one can observe the artist describing forms with a flowing brush and placing them convincingly within the spatial envelope. Directional strokes take an arm to the harbour rail, set a head on its shoulders and sculpt an elbow. Supreme self-confidence characterises the master’s handling, often tamed, or at least modified, in a finished exhibition picture.

In the couple of miles, and twenty-five years that separated this harbour picture from those of Newlyn, grey days and a tonal palette had been replaced by glowing colour. Mousehole was a sunny place and it was the ‘joyous sunlight and ozone-laden air’ and ‘abnormal naturalness’ of Forbes’s figures that appealed to critics in the Geelong painting (‘From our London Correspondent’, Western Morning News, 9 May 1910, p. 4). ‘Breadth and decision of bush work’ that now ‘atones for some of his photographic verisimilitude of past days’, made it ‘one of the most entirely gratifying pictures in the exhibition’ (M Hardie, ‘The Royal Academy: Second Notice’, The Queen, 14 May 1910, p. 42; ‘Royal Academy: First Notice’, Edinburgh Evening News, 30 April 1910, p. 6). If anything was to compete with The Pier Head, it would be the present ‘study’.

Forbes’s engagement with Mousehole harbour did not end in 1910. The following year he was back at the Academy with two further paintings – The Fleet in Sight and The Old Pier Steps – and in 1919, his main exhibit was Fitting Out, Mousehole Harbour (Bradford City Art Galleries).

Studies done in situ in each case inform these works. Speaking to a group of students in Brighton, just before The Pier Head went on display, the newly elected full Academician stressed the importance of draughtsmanship and informed his audience that ‘it had always been his practice to paint his pictures on the spot’ (‘Mr Stanhope Forbes RA, Address to Art Students’, South Eastern Gazette, 16 April 1910, p. 8). How else, in the present study, could an exchange between two villagers at the harbour mouth as the fleet sets sail be achieved? Their ‘naturalness’ depends upon it – but so too does the setting – a harbour bathed in sunshine, and with it, the representation of a way of life that was in tune with his youthful experiences.

We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.

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