Mending Nets: Bay of Naples is a superb example of Cooke's devotion to the working fishing boat - on whatever coast, with the gear, fittings and method of handling carefully and clearly recorded. It is also a demonstration of his interest in geology - he ascended the volcano in 1846.
The painting appears to be a sort of last fling with his western Italy subjects the majority of which date from twenty years earlier. He was on that coast only once, in 1846, but had many oil sketches and drawings in the studio from which to work. Among his camera lucida record drawings of completed paintings (which he made before the general introduction of photography,) is one similar scene, further south Solerno Bay and the mountains of Paestum from Amalfi.
He was by now living and painting in the fine house designed for him by R. Norman Shaw at Groombridge, on the Kent-Sussex border. His pictures for next year's Royal Academy were in various stages of work and he began to design this one at the very end of 1868. He began painting on 17th February '69. 'Painted Gozzo in new picture of Bay of Naples' and his daily notes contain memos of progress 'painted to foreground, Corks, nets, of Vesuvius.' People came to call but he noted he was too busy to see them. On 6th March he wrote: 'painted all day till 6 on Vesuvius, boat, sail and nets.' He noted that Eatwell, his supplier, came down and stretched two new canvases and 're-stretched Vesuvius an inch higher.' Cooke wrote to his frame-maker Guillet to make a large case to ship his pictures up to town and began another small painting of an evening sky over the Venetian lagoon!
The painting received rave reviews including the Art Journal Critic of 1869 who reported 'we are glad to come upon a more than usually sparkling and vivid scene by E.W. Cooke, R.A. an artist who may have suffered degeneration under over-zealous attempt to paint unpaintable scenes. This artist naturally becomes more vivacious and sensitive to beauty when he nears the coast of Italy, than when he dwells on the stagnant coasts of Holland. 'Mending Nets: Bay of Naples (204) is a picture which awakens even into poetry under the brilliance of the Italian sky. Admirable too far truth is the modelling of form in the mountain group of Vesuvius, and equally literal is the study of detail on the Neapolitan shore, familiar to every tourist.'
It is difficult to list the provenance of the painting as Cookes ledger remains blank under the name of the purchaser and there seems to be no mention of a sale in his diary.
We are grateful to John Munday for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.