Langley was the first major artist to settle in Newlyn and his work is central to our concept of the Newlyn School, that group of artists who worked in this West Cornwall fishing village and collectively represent one of the most important manifestations (some might say the most important manifestation) of late Victorian naturalism and plein-air painting. His humble origins and lack of European training, together with his preference for watercolour during his early and most interesting phase, caused his importance to be overlooked at the time, and there has been something of a Langley revival in recent years. It is now recognised that, with the exception of Stanhope Forbes, no-one made a greater contribution to Newlyn, both in terms of a substantial body of work and the intense sympathy he shows for the village's fishing community.
That sympathy, also expressed in leanings towards socialism, stemmed from the struggles of his own early life. The son of a Birmingham tailor and his illiterate wife, Langley was apprenticed to a local lithographer at the age of fifteen. His apprenticeship complete, he won a scholarship to South Kensington, where for two years he studied design. His intention was to enter the jewellery trade for which Birmingham had long been famous, but he soon found this work uncongenial and decided to take up professionally the painting he had long practised in his spare time. In 1879, by now married with children, he helped to found the Birmingham Art Circle, and two years later he was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.
Langley paid his first visit to Newlyn in 1880, and he had settled there by January 1882. He was soon followed by others. His fellow Birmingham artist Edwin Harris arrived in 1883. So did T.C. Gotch and his wife, while Stanhope Forbes, who was to become the acknowledged leader of the School, discovered Newlyn the following year. It was, he thought, 'a sort of English Concarneau', a reference to his recent experience of painting in Brittany, where Langley himself had worked briefly in 1881. Over the years Langley and Forbes were to gain a good deal of mutual respect, but Forbes's initial attitude to Langley - 'the little man', as he called him - was undeniably patronising, a reflection of his superior social standing and the fact that he had been trained at the Royal Academy Schools and in Bonnat's atelier in Paris.
There may also have been an element of jealously involved, for Langley was already enjoying considerable success. As Forbes himself observed, he was 'a rapid worker, and sells all he does as fast as done'. Langley had eager patrons in Birmingham, where the Art Gallery today houses some of his finest works. In 1883, not only was one of his pictures accorded the place of hounour at the Dudley Gallery, but he was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Here he was to show his greatest works over the next few years, large, carefully constructed watercolours documenting the harsh lives of the Newlyn fisherfolk. Two of them, Among the Missing and Waiting for the Boats, have been sold recently at Christie's for record prices.
The 1880s were the heyday of Langley's career, although he continued to produce fine pictures for many years. In 1892 he took the important step of beginning to paint in oils, showing Sunlight and Shadow (untraced) at the Royal Academy. By the 1890s his reputation was international. His work was acclaimed at exhibitions in Paris and Chicago; in 1895 he was asked to paint a self-portrait for the Uffizi; and in 1897 Tolstoy chose one of his pictures as a example of 'true art' in his controversial essay What is Art?. Only after the turn of the century was there some slackening of pace, and for the last ten years of his life he showed nothing at the London exhibitions.
The present picture, painted towards the end of the 1880s, shows Langley's art at its most intimate. Like all his work, it displays extreme sensitivity to human emotion, but the subject, though pathetic and touching, lacks the harrowing dimension of those focusing on the reactions of wives and girlfriends to their menfolk's fate at sea. Several items which appear in the picture, including the settle, the Windsor chair, the gate-leg table and the large earthenware jug, are found in other pictures by Langley from the 1880s onwards. Two preparatory works are recorded, a watercolour sketch and a full-size charcoal drawing, both dated 1888. The finished picture was exhibited at Liverpool the following year and re-appeared at the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1901.