Cesare Formilli, 'Closing the Link', c. 1890. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the Royal Cornwall Museum. Long before Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth settled in St Ives in 1939, encouraging many other liked-minded modernists to the Cornish coast, the town, together with Newlyn, had been a magnet for nineteenth-century British artists, especially painters influenced by the Barbizon and Impressionists schools across the English Channel.
‘Amongst Heroes: The Artist in Working Cornwall’ focuses on these early art colonies, on view at London's Two Temple Place, an extraordinarily elaborate Victorian building on the Thames embankment – from the outside a quasi-castle, from the inside all extravagant wooden panels, carvings and stained glass.
The exhibition focuses on representations of work on the peninsula, in particular the fishing industry, but also agriculture, mining and smaller-scale crafts in the local communities. Associated objects from a fishing boat to a mining handcart, as well as paraphernalia like fishermen’s tools, are placed in the canvas-lined spaces. This gives the show a decidedly social-historical bent; the text panels tend towards discussion of the industries and day-to-day lives rather than art-historical interpretation.
Charles Napier Hemy, 'Pilchards', 1897. Oil on canvas. © Tate: Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1897.
As the exhibition title makes clear, the heroism of people is heralded throughout the paintings. Fishermen and their catch are a blur of action in Charles Napier Hemy’s Pilchards (1897); a blacksmith and his son work with care in Cesare Formilli’s Closing the Link (c.1890s). At times the artists look on at local life as if they have entered Eden: in A Morning with Pilchard Fishers, St Ives (c.1910–16), for example, Garstin Cox tries to render a harbour in the same sunrise light as Claude used to paint Rome, albeit with more impressionistic brushstrokes.
Stanhope A. Forbes, RA, 'A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach’, 1885. Oil on canvas. From the collections of Plymouth City Council (Museums and Archives) © Bridgeman Art Library.
There is one exceptional painting in the show, plastered on the poster and print material but still worth the visit to see in person. In A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885), Stanhope Forbes RA steers clear of sentimentality, instead concentrating on recreating the watery texture of the sand at low-tide with consummate skill, and unifying disparate groups of people – and the fish in the foreground – with a gorgeous palette restricted to blues, browns, black and white, with patches of red for fish blood and the odd rosy cheek.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine