The Victorian fascination with tales of the sea accounts for the enduring popularity of paintings of old salts in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. An earlier generation of coastal genre painters like James Clarke Hook had made these subjects acceptable before they were taken up by the artists of the Newlyn School. The old sailor, sitting by the shore, or in the harbour, was seen as both an adventurer and as a guardian of the national past. He was the embodiment of Tennyson's Ulysses. Thus, for instance, Thomas Cooper Gotch's Mental Arithmetic, 1883, (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) painted in his first summer at Newlyn, portrays an old fisherman being tested by a child, one of those for whom compulsory school education was now being introduced. At the same time, along the coast at Fowey, John Robertson Reid was painting The Rival Godfathers, 1884 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), a monumental work shown at the Grosvenor Gallery, in which old sea dogs compete for the affection of their granddaughter.1
Throughout the 1890s such characters made regular appearances in the work of Newlyn painters and in an age of Imperial fanfare, these 'hearts of oak' came to symbolize national virtues. They invariably emerge from what might be regarded as daily rituals, to take on heroic stature in paintings like Stanhope Forbes' The Seine Boat, 1904 (private collection) and Langley's A Chip of the old Block, 1905 (Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull).2 In the present instance, the aged fisherman has paused from mending his nets, in order to read the newspaper. Mending nets was a task that, in some fishing communities, wives and husbands collaborated upon. In this case, a subject made familiar in Britain by artists of Hook's generation, and in America by Winslow Homer, has been adapted to remind the Academy visitor that fishing ports now had literate populations who could afford to purchase the local newspaper. Perhaps the most important treatment of this theme had come two years earlier in Stanhope Forbes' 22nd January 1901, (fig. 1, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter) in which an aged patriach reports on the death of Queen Victoria to the members of his immediate family. Cleverly Forbes transforms an inconsequential genre painting into a defining moment in the national pageant.
While the present work lacks this sense of a moment in time, it underscores regional identity in a more profound way. The fact that Langley's protagonist is reading The Cornishman leaves us in no doubt as to his origin.3 He is the classic type noted by W.H. Hudson in 1908 as having a '... broad head, high cheek bones, large mouth, depressed nose, wide at the nostrils, of the pure Cornish Celt, and, most marked feature of all, the shrewd, prying almost inquisitorial, yet friendly, blue-grey eyes'.4 The elderly fishwife, her creel on her shoulder, looks down at him and listens. Once loaded with fish the basket will be strapped around the brow of her stout bonnet, as in Langley's earlier monumental oil, Breadwinners, 1896, (fig. 2, private collection).5 Others in the background, a young woman, an unemployed fisherman and two children complete the scene, cascading the viewer through three generations, for whom there would be important changes. By 1903, offshore fishing for the massive shoals of pilchards which were sometimes found in Cornish coastal waters, was being threatened by the arrival of more efficient steam trawlers. Travellers to Cornwall at this time reported on the fact that fishing boats were now being turned into pleasure boats for tourists, and the whole economy of Penzance and Newlyn was changing rapidly.
The present work relies heavily upon a watercolour study that shows the same disposition of figures. The only variation is that a fishing net in the oil has replaced a basket in the watercolour.6 Langley had begun his career as a watercolourist who, like Homer, deployed the medium for important narrative exhibition-pieces. Only later did he develop these as oil paintings for the Royal Academy. During the Edwardian years, while others diversified - Forbes for example into painting gypsy encampments - Langley remained true to his essential subject matter, seeing and celebrating, as in the present example, the life and fortunes of the fishing community. It was for this way of life, with its values of comradeship and Christian charity, that he had been singled out by Tolstoy in his volume, What is Art?7 Of all the Newlyn painters, Langley, more than any other, insisted upon the tenets of naturalism, more than any other, he stood against the tide.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.
1 For further reference to late Victorian and Edwardian coastal genre painting, see K. McConkey, Memory and Desire, Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Aldershot, 2002, pp.106-30.
2 For further reference to these works see F. Greenacre and C. Fox, Exhibition catalogue, Artists of the Newlyn School, London, Barbican Art Gallery, 1985.
3 R. Langley, Walter Langely, Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony, Bristol, 1997, p. 120, indicates that the picture was originally entitled Local News. In itself, it became the subject of comment because The Cornishman, like The Times at this period, only carried advertising on its front page. The man was therefore studying the small ads rather than the news.
4 W.H. Hudson, The Land's End, A Naturalist's Impression of West Cornwall, 1981, pp. 162-3.
5 See Exhibition catalogue, Rural and Urban Naturalism, Masterpieces of late nineteenth century French and British Art from the Marchman Collection, Sante Fe, Museum of Fine Arts, in association with Pyms Gallery, London, 1987, pp. 68-9.
6 R. Langley, 1997, p. 118, illustrated.
7 L. Tolstoy, (translation Aylmer Maude), What is Art?, London, 1960, p. 45; quoted by R. Langley, 1997, pp. 107-8. See also K. McConkey, 2002, pp. 137-8.