Radical changes occurred in coastal genre painting in Britain in the 1880s. The themes associated with the lives of mariners and fishermen were recast by a new generation of painters anxious to break with conventional scenography painters, like James Clarke Hook. Even the anxieties of fisher families, portrayed in the dark interiors of Frank Holl, were to be re-examined. The visual culture in which these young painters emerged was sharpened and modernized by the new reportage methods which came with hand-held photography. French training, infinitely preferable to that of the London art schools, laid greater strictures on accurate observation. Summers spent in artists' colonies in Fontainebleau and Brittany led many young British artists to reject London and seek rural or coastal retreats in fishing villages on the north east coast and in the west country. Although London studios might be retained for winter projects they were frequently vacant in summer.
Such was the popularity of Cornwall that the impoverished Frank Brangwyn, having obtained sponsorship from Frederick Mills, an elderly artist's colourman, with a shop in Soho, set off in October 1887, for Mevagissey, St Austell, Goran Haven and Fowey (see R. Brangwyn, Brangwyn, London, 1978, pp. 38-41). It is clear from the work he produced as a result of the expedition that Brangwyn wished to be part of the new movement. Mending the Nets, (fig. 1; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne) for instance, painted at Goran, along with Megavissey, (private collection) and the present work, Fowey Harbour, Cornwall, demonstrate his command of plein-air handling, the new and controversial procedures imported from Paris ateliers. Although he did not experience the mêlée of Paris, he compensated for it by moving into no. 4 Wentworth Studios, Chelsea in 1887. This group of crumbling habitations in Manresa Road was regarded as a 'revolutionary centre in art'. Brangwyn was now surrounded by young artists committed to a radical practice and new society of Anglo-French painters known as the New English Art Club.
Here he shared a studio with Ernest Dade, a sea painter from Scarborough. Dade had studied at the atelier Julian and served as a deck-hand on an American yacht, two things which would have greatly impressed the young Brangwyn. Currently, Dade was exhibiting watercolours painted at Staithes, the picturesque fishing village on the North Yorkshire coast near his home town, and which, like Newlyn, was becoming an artists' colony.
Brangwyn was also befriended at this point by Percy Jacomb Hood, a Whistler follower who occupied a neighbouring studio. From Hood we learn of Brangwyn's extreme poverty. Having abandoned the relative security of work as a designer for William Morris's firm, he had begun to practice as a painter and exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1885. Two years later and he was reputedly existing on marmalade and potatoes, and making frequent trips to a pawnbroker who considered the frames of his pictures more valuable than the pictures themselves. Hood recounts that he rescued, in exchange for an overcoat, an early watercolour which was about to be used to light the studio stove (With Brush and Pencil, London, 1925, p. 73). The two artists, along with Frank Short and Nelson Dawson joined the Naval Volunteers and would go to India Docks for gunnery practice, Hood passing on his kit to Brangwyn when he gave up. A few years later, in 1891, both were founder members of the Chelsea Arts Club.
Brangwyn's other companions in the Wentworth and adjacent Trafalgar Studios included Philip Wilson Steer, James Jebusa Shannon and Henry Herbert La Thangue who, at that time was mobilising his colleagues to support a large Salon-style exhibition to rival the Royal Academy. Although these efforts failed, La Thangue's dramatic 'square brush' style of painting, enjoyed considerable prestige. This was described by Morley Roberts as 'a technical method which puts paint on canvas in a particular way with a square brush, which many older men never use. Those who practice it in its simplest form leave brush-marks, and do not smooth away the evidence of method, thus sometimes insisting on the way a picture is painted, perhaps at the sacrifice of subtleties in the subject' (Scottish Arts Review, vol. 2, 1889, p. 73).
It is this method which we see in Mending the Nets and other works produced by Brangwyn during 1887. Roberts was led to the conclusion that the painter, 'the youngest artist in the road' had a 'natural facility ... as marvellous as his minute and retentive memory for the tones and minor details of nature' (p. 77). Brangwyn's autumn painting expedition to Megavissey Bay was thus of immense significance. He chose not to base himself at Newlyn, going instead to Fowey, and the most important picture he produced as a result is that now known as Fowey Harbour, Cornwall, the present picture.
Referred to here under the title used by Galloway in 1962, Fowey Harbour, Cornwall has been known erroneously for a number of years as Off Clovelly. There is however, no evidence to place Brangwyn in the picturesque North Devon fishing village overlooking the approaches to the Bristol channel. Favoured by writers like Dickens and Kingsley, Clovelly was associated with an older generation of marine and coastal genre painters such as James Clarke Hook, Charles Napier Hemy, John Brett and Edwin Edwards. It cannot be assumed that Hemy for instance, who lived at Falmouth and was helpful to young artists like Brangwyn, would necessarily have suggested the village to him. Equally, it is unlikely that Galloway's title was that originally used by Brangwyn. The buildings and stone pier in the background, the curve of which is difficult to discern a result of Brangwyn's low viewpoint, is an almost identical configuration to those on the left of John Robertson Reid's Grosvenor Gallery exhibit of 1884, The Rival Grandfathers (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). Although another location has recently been proposed, Reid's picture has always been thought to represent Fowey harbour, with Polruan on the left, looking towards the sea. It is of course possible for a rowing boat, clearly labelled 'Fowey', as here, to be seen in what is probably, actually Polruan, rather than Fowey harbour.
One of the oldest and most important natural harbours in England which had now lost its glory, it was described by Sidney Heath, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, as a 'revelation', 'Much and rather too much visited, it is yet one of Cornwall's most picturesque and interesting towns ... the general effect of line, of light and shade produced by a mass of broken and highly unconventional contours ... is highly satisfactory and pleasing from the artist's point of view' (S. Heath, The Cornish Riviera, London, circa 1905, pp. 13-14).
The late Victorian writer, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, declared that Fowey had a charm, 'over and above its natural beauty, and what I may call its holiday conveniences, for the yachtman, for the sea-fisherman, or for one content to idle in peaceful waters' (quoted in S. Heath, op. cit, p. 16). Its 'charm' came from the fact that it, from the time of Edward IV up to the Tudor period, it had been of immense strategic importance in the defense of the realm. Touring Cornwall twenty years after Brangwyn's visit, the art critic, Lewis Hind, described its ambience as 'original and delightful', its steep streets looking down on a 'cosy haven'. Hind follows Quiller-Couch in noting that it had been taken over by the yachting fraternity. Across the harbour the fishing community of Polruan was 'very poor, very comfortless' and 'there is hardly a household which has not lost one or more by drowning' (Days in Cornwall, London, 1907, pp. 230-2). These contrasts might not have been so stark in Brangwyn's day. If there were fashionable yachts in 1887, the painter chose not to see them, concentrating instead upon the innocent indolence of local children, on a hot autumn day. His mood reflects that of the poet, Arthur Symons who visited Fowey in the summer of 1901 and wrote, 'I felt the same languid sense of physical comfort that I have felt on the coast of Spain, with the same disinclination to do anything, even to think with any intentness. The air was full of sleep; the faint noise of the water flapping on the rocks, the sound of voices, of oars, something in the dull brilliance of the water, like the surface of a mirror, reflecting all the heat of the sky, came up to one drowsily; the boats, with white or rusty sails, passed like great birds or moths, afloat on the water' (see Cornish Sketches. 1.- At Fowey, in The Saturday Review, vol. 92, 7 September 1901, p. 297).
Brangwyn's picture represents the harbour pool. He focuses upon two children in a rowing boat. The sense of childhood dreams and adventures staged in inshore waters recalls the 'nooning' water rats of Winslow Homer. Cornish children, like their American counterparts, we learn from the natural history writer, W.H. Hudson, were a special breed of free and wild creatures, who, unlike those elsewhere in England at the time were never 'sickly or unhappy'. The author could not recall 'one that was thin and sad-looking or pale and anaemic' (Wildwood (ed. 1980), The Land's End, A Naturalist's Impressions in West Cornwall, London, 1908, p. 110). These, like the birds and field creatures exist in the open air. And the natural effect of open air, was the rallying cry of much of the new painting of the 1880s. In general terms, the 'plein-air' ambience of Brangwyn's painting, its palette of strong whites, straw colours and shrill blues and greens, recalls works such as John Singer Sargent's Oyster Gatherers of Cancale, 1879 (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington).
The motif of boys at sea in a rowing boat, however, has a more specific lineage. It returns to James Clarke Hook's Luff Boy!, 1863, a work widely distibuted and known primarily through steel engravings, which depicts an effete young sailor taking the helm in heavy seas. This, and similar scenes of sailors and fisherman, was reprised in Ulysse Butin's La Pèche, 1880, and Emile Renouf's A Helping Hand, (formerly Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington) shown at the Salons of 1880 and 1882. It is evident from Fowey Harbour, Cornwall, that Brangwyn's eye was clearly more on contemporary French painting, than that of the Royal Academy. The precedents set by coastal genre painters like Hook, Henry Moore, John Brett and Colin Hunter were rejected as he placed himself alongside Stanhope Forbes, Henry Scott Tuke and the burgeoning Newlyn school. Tuke's Summer-time (Grosvenor Gallery, 1884), for instance, a shipboard scene showing two sailor boys, draws upon the Salon naturalism of Butin and Renouf, and would have been admired by the young Brangwyn. The sense of a developing image community is confirmed by the fact that during 1887, Jacomb Hood, working on the south coast near Bournemouth, produced Two Boys in a Boat, (Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums on Merseyside). Like the present work, this is a depiction of the colour and atmosphere of a flat 'mill pond' sea on a calm sunny day, although arguably, it lacks the sophistication of handling and composition of Fowey Harbour.
The most immediate visual source, however, for Fowey Harbour is Eugene Vail's Marine, on the Thames (fig. 2; private collection, U.S.A.), a work which was acclaimed at the Salon of 1886, and illustrated in its catalogue. An American expatriate, Vail had close connections with British and Irish painters in France, and it is likely that Brangwyn would have known his work. In the Marine, on the Thames, for instance we confront a rowing boat head-on, weaving its way through the London docks. One of its three occupants, a young woman, leans over the side of the boat, trailing a stick in the water, just as the boy on the left trails a toy boat in Fowey Harbour. For all his youth and inexperience, Brangwyn's composition is more suave than that of Vail. The boy and his homemade toy draws the eye across a series of flat, limpid reflections, while his companion holds the viewer's gaze. The tilted oar on the right breaks the rectangle and takes the eye up to the harbour and houses on the horizon line. All is calm.
Brangwyn's composition was not without its imitators. It was reiterated in La Thangue's After the Gale, (Royal Academy, 1892) and its effects reverberated through Forbes' Chadding in Mount's Bay, 1902, Tuke's Ruby, Gold and Malachite, 1902 (Guildhall Art Gallery) and works like Sailing in Newlyn Harbour, 1906 (private collection), by Harold Harvey. It would be easy to leave the picture at this point were it not possible to say something more about the meaning. The clear implication of the painting is obvious enough - namely for all its naturalistic prose, it alludes to a richly poetic world of childhood fantasies, derived from the magic kingdom of Cornwall. No one who grew up in a world polluted by industrialism, and who would experience the 'charm' lucidly expressed in Arthur Symons account of Fowey, could avoid such conclusions.
Yet there is something more powerful, albeit hidden in Brangwyn's picture, which comes to the fore in his later work and in the writings of Joseph Conrad and many others. In stories like The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897), Conrad sees the boat and its mariners as a microcosm of the state. English boys are trained to be good crew, and the sea on which they sail may be presently calm, but it can also bring danger and death. In later years, in works like Funeral at Sea, 1890 (Glasgow City Art Gallery), Brangwyn's figuring of the stoic, weather-beaten ship's company was seen to epitomize national virtue. 'C'est l'Angleterre', a French critic, reputedly remarked when he saw the picure (W. Shaw Sparrow, Frank Brangwyn and his Art, London,
1910, p. 39). In the Buccaneers, 1893 (Washington University Art Museum, St Louis), and in his mural commisions for the London livery companies, Brangwyn alluded to the realm of imperial adventure, in which the Englishman's triumph over foreign lands was based upon his skill and sagacity at sea. Boys in boats, innocent adventures of Cornish estuaries, underpined the imperial entablature for succeeding generations. In such a setting, Brangwyn's picturing of sons of the sea, idling offshore in Fowey harbour in 1887 takes on deep, resonant and symbolic intentions.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.