Stanhope Alexander Forbes, R.A. (1857-1947)
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Stanhope Alexander Forbes, R.A. (1857-1947)

Picking chrysanthemums

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, R.A. (1857-1947)
Picking chrysanthemums
signed, inscribed and dated 'Stanhope A. Forbes. Newlyn. 1903.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
24 3/8 x 20 in. (61.9 x 50.8 cm.)
with David Messum, London.
London, David Messum, British Impressions, The Progress of Impressionism, 1880-1940, c. 1985, no. 32.
Special notice
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Lot Essay

In the hands of many Edwardian painters, a picture of a hillside garden in which a woman gathers flowers may provide the excuse for mawkish sentiment. Such conventional dreams of bloom and beauty find no place in the hands of Stanhope Forbes, leader of the Newlyn School. More than any artist of his generation, Stanhope Forbes took the advice of Bastien-Lepage to heart. Back in the 1880s 'the great BL' as Forbes referred to him, counselled his followers to seek out their own 'coin de terre' - literally a little 'corner of the earth' - that they alone would paint. Whilst Clausen was drawn back to London with a professorship at the Royal Academy, and La Thangue wandered in search of his ideal corner, Forbes found his haven in 1884 in the fishing village of Newlyn where he remained until his death sixty-three years later. He owed his livelihood to the village and in return he brought it fame and recognition in the outside world through large Academy-pieces depicting its harbour activities and the lives of the fishing communities. Picking chrysanthemums however reveals more intimate surroundings.

The setting is likely to be in close proximity to Trewarveneth, the house near the top of Paul Hill, overlooking the port, where Forbes and his wife Elizabeth moved on the birth of their son Alec in 1893. According to Frederick Dolman, writing in 1901, it was approached through a five-barred gate and a short road 'through field and hedgerow'. To its side was 'a large studio built like the house in grey stone which is characteristic of the county...'. The writer continued, '... with its small casements and low, timbered roof 'Trewarveneth' as a bit of old Newlyn, is doubtless dear to the painter's heart' (see Frederick Dolman, 'Illustrated Interviews, LXXVI - Mr Stanhope A Forbes ARA', The Strand Magazine, November 1901, p. 483). The extension, built on stone piers, if not that described by Dolman, is likely to have been one of the new studios developed as a result of the popularity of the artists's colony.

By oral tradition, the figure in the foreground picking flowers is Elizabeth Forbes, the painter's wife. Born in Ottawa in 1859, Elizabeth Adela Armstrong was a distinguished painter who trained at the Art Student's League in New York under William Merrit Chase. She worked in Brittany in the early 1880s, showed for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1882, and exhibited etchings at the newly formed Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. This brought her to the attention of James McNeill Whistler and Walter Sickert, much to the dismay of her future husband. She showed at the New English Art Club up until the year of their marriage in 1889, and thereafter, like Forbes, moved to the Royal Academy. Although she remained true to the principles of working in the open air, she gradually abandoned rustic subject matter for medieval romance, after the birth of her son.

The figure farther along the path, bearing a canvas and easel is of equal interest, reminding us that not only were Elizabeth and Stanhope Forbes plein air painters, but that from 1899 they ran a small art school together. This moved and expanded in 1904 when Higher Faugan was constructed. We know that the painter was already cramped for space when the present picture was painted, and that his mural of The Fire of London, for the Royal Exchange, needed to be painted in sections because it would not fit in the studio. Moving to larger premises also led to the school's expansion and it would be in character that the hidden purpose of Elizabeth's flowers, for Forbes, was not domestic decoration, but a studio still-life set-up for students.



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