The last exhibition at Penlee House – ‘A Casket of Pearls’ – a celebration of its twentieth anniversary – was always going to be a difficult act to follow, but I take my hat off to whoever decided that Stanhope Forbes was the man for the job.
I knew that I loved many of his painting of places I know, I knew that he was there at the beginning of the Newlyn School, and that he taught art and founded an art gallery there; but it was only when I walked around this exhibition that I realised that there were so very many paintings and that his talent was so broad.
I also learned a little more about the man that gave me a greater understanding of the arc of his life and his work.
I don’t really speak the language of art – and I probably never will – but I’d love to show you some of the paintings and share a few thoughts and memories.
This painting, opposite the entrance door, was wonderfully well chosen. It fitted the space perfectly, it was clearly close to home and yet familiar, and it would have pulled me in had I not realised that this was a must- see exhibition.
‘Portrait of Florence’
I couldn’t help thinking that it would have made a lovely cover for a green Virago Modern Classic, and I wondered if this was the Florence who gave her name to Florence Place, close to Newlyn Bridge.
I have to say that the curators of this exhibition have done very well, gathering together works from this museum’s own collection with works from other galleries and from private collections.
I particularly pleased to see this painting from a private collection:
My first thought was – I know that road! It runs behind the granite quarry where my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather worked.
Newlyn is best known for painting and fishing, but it was also a quarry town. Travel around the harbour and up the hill towards Mousehole and you will come to Penlee Quarry.
I remember when I was a little girl my father used to take me down the hill from my grandparents house to see the industrial narrow gauge railway that took stone down from the quarry to the quay, where it was loaded onto stone boats that would sail across the bay ….
One of the things that I noted down to say about this exhibition was that it was lovely to see so many contrasts.
In the first room there were many big paintings – and a few very small ones.
This is my favourite small painting. It’s our promenade and that dog is so like Briar!
The promenade has changed somewhat over the years, but when I saw this painting of Newlyn Bridge I realised that it has hardly changed at all.
The Man of the House remembers playing down there with his cousins, and, more recently, we’ve walked up the stream with Briar at low tide.
Here’s another lovely painting of a bridge a few miles away.
The other contrast I saw was between different kinds of light. When we crossed the corridor to the next rooms we saw that paintings had been arranged to move from the light outside to dark interiors and then back outside again.
I hadn’t known that Forbes was widowed in 1912 and that he lost his only son a few years later. That made this portrait of his son, painted after his death, particularly poignant.
Years later, during World War II, Forbes painted the main street of my home town.
I have always loved this painting, but I hadn’t notice that it included representatives of all three armed services.
Another thing I should say is that this isn’t purely a Cornish exhibition, and there are paintings of other people and places; but I had to pick out the paintings of places I knew and loved.
I love Newlyn Copper, and I remember we had a school trophy very much like the piece in the painting. I also remember being set to clean it with a couple of friends during a PE lesson when it was too wet to go out and play netball. We thought that we had done a wonderful job, but when we saw it presented a few days later we realised that we had completely forgotten to clean the back. The front was lovely though …
The painting that I particularly wanted the Man of the House to see was upstairs.
His father had been a train driver during the last days of steam, and it had occurred to me that this is the station as he would have known it as a boy, when his ambition to drive trains was forming.
That was the last painting we saw, but, as we haven’t seen the sea yet I really must show you just one more.
This was on the way down from my Grandparents’ house to Sandy Cove where we used to watch the little train and the stone boats. You just turn right below those buildings …
* * * * * * *
Stanhope Forbes: Father of the Newlyn School runs until 9th September 2017.
Do visit if you have the chance. There are so many more wonderful paintings to see, and art is so much lovelier, so much more alive, face to face than it can ever be in a book or on a computer screen.