The Transformation of Cornish Landscape Identity in the Perspective of Six Artists' Landscape Paintings
This essay introduces the term landscape identity in the historical context of Cornish art; it selects six artists from its pre-colony stage to late 80s and briefly addresses how landscape images they produced were used to define identity respectively in each example. It discusses how impressions of Cornish identity were shaped as an integration, with case studies of artists Frances Hodgkins, Euphemia Charlton Fortune, John Anthony Park, Alfred Wallis, Bryan Pearce and Peter Lanyon. The essay describes how these artists’ interpretations developed due to a variety of factors, including art trends and personal experience, and analyses in the historical context critically. In the end, the writing identifies the value of artworks for researching landscape identity in Cornish context. It also makes suggestions regarding how to interpret the landscape and its identity responsibly, introduces potential directions this subject may contribute.
Cornish, Identity, Landscape, Art, Landscape Painting
Pre-Art Colony Era
The key date of artists’ discovery of Cornwall was 1859, determined by the completion of construction of the railway bridge over river Tamar, Saltash. Before the arrival of the majority of artist visitors, there were etchings firstly depicted the town of St Ives, as the shown example produced by Joseph Farington (Tovey, 2008).
Figure 1, Farington,J ,1813, St Ives, [Etching], unknown collection
Despite the fact that the reputation of art colonies in Cornwall became internationally aware which ultimately led to the establishment of, for example, Newlyn School and St Ives School, Cornwall has been engaging in travelling artists’ activities for nearly a century. Integrating into a collective society of fishers can be sometimes tricky. It was also pointed out by Bernard Deacon’s research Imagining the fishing: artists and fishermen in late nineteenth century Cornwall (2008). He described the difficulty of visiting artists of bing accepted by locals, argued that cultural and class difference was the main factor that caused such division. And after their residential and working condition was ensured, travelling artists were forced to focus on the pressure from the field before their works become influential (Deacon, 2001).
Figure 2, Durand-Brager, J., 1862, St Ives, [Etching], unknown collection
Based on the drawing of French marine painter Jean Baptiste Henri Durand-Brager, Cordier engraved an image which documented the mining activities of St Ives. Although it was published in 1862 (Tovey, n.d.), this industrial mining scene represents one of three perspectives of interpreting Cornish landscape at the beginning of the nineteenth century as Bernard Deacon suggested in his resourceful dissertation. The other two angles, one considers the landscape as an agent of human activity, which reflects Cornwall’s economy activity, urban planning and social class structure; the other is the natural landscape of the county which often being pictured as images of anti-urbanisation and anti-industrialisation (Deacon, 2001). Interestingly, as Mr Deacon emphasised the vital part of how imagined image engages in territorial identity, the latter two perspectives motivated artists who expected to run into a region with traditional lifestyle and medieval romance as well as idyllic sceneries, to search the pre-industrialisation countryside image after the decline of Barbizon School. Imaginations about the region and its residents significantly shaped the county (Paasi, 2001). It has been continuously enhanced by paintings and etchings brought back by up-country gentleman artists in its pre-art colony era. These production opportunely satisfied the art market’s demand for a preindustrial marginal land, similarly reflected on Darby’s theory of “unpeopled landscapes” (Darby, 2000), and have been attracting more peers to visit.
Labelling preoccupied impression of an idyllic rural area substantially influenced the way artists depict Cornwall for decades. Moreover, images about Cornwall gradually transited from an industrialised civilisation that flourished with mining and fishing into a remote land of retreat which preserves Celtic culture heritage, bringing hybridity to Cornish identity (Deacon, 2001). Stobbelaar and Pedroli (2011) defines landscape identity as “the perceived uniqueness of a place”. As travelling artists’ intension ascertained to identify the “Cornishness” despite its nature was not “to document” but very selective and subjective, pictorial Cornish landscape identity was shaped unavoidably when works were brought into public attention.
Hodgkins, Fortune and Park
Word of mouth sometimes does interesting effects in artists’ small circles. New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins, after her journey to Europe and enrolment at London art school, in 1902, she joined a summer school in Brittany led by artist Norman Garstin. Norman Garstin moved to Newlyn in 1886 and relocated in Penzance years after. In both May and November 1902, Hodgkins talked about the weather and the climate of Cornwall in her letters. A photo taken in the same year shows Garstin and his company on their way back from Helston Furry Dance, indicating Hodgkins has engaged in Cornish culture, art and humanity. There are a few sketches of Cornish landscape made by Frances Hodgkins in 1902; she mostly interested in drew tall trees and overgrown trails and demonstrated her fascination in wild vegetation and little settlements. In 1903, a conventional watercolour painting Newlyn, Cornwall was produced. She pictured fishing boats and small houses that usually built right next to the seacoast in West Penwith. Comparing to Newlyn School painting which generally focuses more on the realistic image of the hardship of life, this work is much more lively and brighter, even gives a notion of contemporary watercolour practice.
Figure 3, Hodgkins, F, 1903, Newlyn, Cornwall, [Watercolour on Paper]
Combining with Frances Hodgkins’s frequent visits to Cornwall, we can retrieve many interesting scenes from her letters. Judging from her social circle and artworks from the late stage, her immerse in Cornish life is hard to ignore, despite complaints also occupies a great proportion. In the letter to her mother dated 14th Jan 1915, Hodgkins complained local cheese’s manufactural process and meat’s tastelessness, said she had to have Australian honey and butter from New Zealand for they were cheaper and tastier. However, in her myriad grumbles and a subdued chronicle of troubles, the work of the painter still maintained the enthusiasm and a sense of freshness to the region. Another watercolour practice of Hodgkins depicts the town of St Ives in vivid colours. Illustrative cottages were arranged on the side of the stone path; two ambiguous figures bring an uncertain development of narrative to the composition (Fig 4). A stranded boat on the sandy shore and the conspicuous The Island introduced the location of the landscape straightforwardly. In 1918, she wrote about wreckings’ presence in Cornish cultural and tradition, although she wrote that she had no love to Cornishmen, she still described locales as “a powerful, virile race”.
The controlling of brushwork for Frances Hodgkins became increasingly loose while her style develops. Her membership of the Seven and Five Society indicates the existence of the influence of other Cornwall-based artists. In 2004, a gallery label described her 1931 painting Wings over Water “a typical Seven and Five artists in its depiction of a table-top still life set before a window”, and “evokes her memories of Cornwall where she had settled in 1914” (‘Wings over Water’, Frances Hodgkins, 1930 | Tate, 2020). Although the painting was very likely finished in her London studio, the image represents an impactful moment of her settlement in Bodinnick-by-Fowey (Townsend and Hillary, n.d.).
Figure 4, Hodgkins, F, 1915, St Ives, [Watercolour on Paper], Unknown Collection
Figure 5, Hodgkins, F, 1931, Wings over Water, [Watercolour on Paper], Private Collection
Under the financial pressure, Hodgkins temporarily left London and relocated in Bodinnick. One year after, her famous piece Bodinnick, Cornwall was produced. Many typical maritime elements of a Cornish harbour town— boats and their serried masts, stuccoed cottages, wildly growing bushes — are composited in the image however divided by the gate painted with black, heavy strokes. The painter observed this view behind her studio window, a sense of retreat was embodied in Hodgkins’s Cornish landscape accordingly in this specific period of her life. Bodinnick, Cornwall, the essay suggests, symbolised a very typical interpretation of Cornwall; the county transitioned from an unpremeditated journey to Acadia that away from real-life pressure and worldly bothering, a real-life retreat at the edge of the industrial civilisation.
Figure 6, Hodgkins, F, 1932, Bodinnick, Cornwall, [watercolour on paper], Tate Collection
Euphemia Charlton Fortune is an American Impressionist. She travelled to St Ives during a six years’ tour in Europe. Her wide sight and open-minded aesthetic standard has contributed many bright depictions among images of St Ives. Her utilisation of colour, as one of the most representative features of her painting, merges a Mediterranean vividness into, and brightened the hard labour in the fishing scenario. In 1922 a well-regarded painting Scavenger was finished. It pictures a massive number of hovering seagulls in bright colouration, rhythm the painting with an agile movement.
Figure 7, Fortune. E., 1922, Scavenger, [oil on canvas], unknown collection
The painting distinguishes from a gloomy, Strindberg-like description of ordinary fisher sceneries of that time; but also distinctive from an almost cinematic rendering of optimistic and idealised capture like Olsson’s Moonlit Shore (1919). E. Charlton Fortune’s skilful control of brushwork has impressed the public. A similar painting was produced the next year. In 1924, Summer Morning, St Ives was awarded a silver medal in the French Salon (Beebe, 2006), further introduced the presence of St Ives art society to the West European academics. Comparing to the Scavenger, the proportion of seagulls in this painting decreases while the painter’s focus has shifted to figures. The choice of paint grew more boldly; Fortune applied solid Prussian blue to individualise labouring figures and sailing vessels, and blend the roaming seagulls into an impressionistic floatation of air.
Figure 8, Fortune. E., 1923, Summer Morning, St Ives, [oil on canvas], unknown collection
It is very fascinating to see E. Charlton Fortune’s work together with John Anthony Park’s practice. According to David Tovey (2013), a photo taken by Gerard Wagner in 1925 shows Fortune enjoying a picnic with John Park and his wife, leaving us a photographic conjecture that Fortune might be taught under Park as well. John Park is also an en plain airimpressionist and considered a bridge that links two manners of painting, tradition and modern — which in this case, the essay would suggest it is also two perspectives of seeing the landscape of St Ives — among St Ives Society of Artists (John Anthony Park: Borlase Smart John Wells Trust, n.d.).
Figure 9, Park. J., 1922, Summer Tide, [oil on canvas], Harris Museum & Art Gallery
John Anthony Park was trained under Julius Olsson and achieved as one of his most accomplished pupils. He, among other old-fashioned landscape painters, relative to the new generation of abstract artist, “have painted the Cornwall they see as beautifully and vividly as if it is there before their eyes”, interprets the Cornish landscape in a very subjective and idealised way (Baker, 1959). His painting Morning Tide (1922) maintained a very typical impressionistic method of practice. He has put a lot of effort in sensing and visualising the movement of seawater and arranging boats as naturally as possible. Some blurred figures of fishers are working at the front layer, and in the distance is the lighthouse and St Ives Bay. Park documented a silent, peaceful scene of a coastal morning in which each element is orderly arranged.
Figure 10, Park. J., 1940, Snow in the Harbour of St Ives, [oil on canvas], Harris Museum & Art Gallery
During the Second World War, which is also the period after his travel to Europe, he returned to Cornwall. Snow in the Harbour of St Ives (1940) was produced on the same year as he returned to St Ives (John Anthony PARK | Cornwall Artists Index, n.d.). It captures a dim landscape of winter. Boats are either stranded on the shore or aimlessly floating on the water. Two figures are occupied with labouring tasks — probably examining a smaller vessel, and another figure strolls behind them. The images elegantly captured the peacefulness of St Ives, where, was treated as a retreating destination away from the bombing; and upon this scene we could imagine the living environment of those artists who fled from London – Hepworth, Nicholson and Gabo. On the face of it, the town shows a sort of impassive attitude to the raging war; the lack of vitality still indicates the bleak atmosphere of the war years — although the Battle of Britain might have past when the painting was being produced, the second world war was still at its most dreadful period.
Figure 11, Park. J., 1947, St Ives Harbour (to commemorate the visit of HMS ‘Howe’ to St Ives July, 1947), [oil on canvas], St Ives Guildhall
Richness and vibrance eventually returned to his palette, swept away the dismal march of the war. St Ives Harbour (to commemorate the visit of HMS ‘Howe’ to St Ives July, 1947)(1947) pictures the harbour of this fishing town in an unusually atmospheric tone. The air is almost transparent; the seawater is dyed to its typical jade-green under the warmth of the sun. The Island jumps out with a prominent brightness, provides an anchor point for the composition, free of its usual arrangement as a blurred background. A joyful emotion, even a sense of proudness is saturated in the landscape. This scene finally cast off the desolation of the war and witnesses an embracement of another season of hope.
Outsider Artist: Wallis and Pearce
Reference on indigenous Cornish artists often provides a pure and innocent perspective to the county’s landscape and its identity. Especially those who qualified for Dubuffet’s definition of Art Brut - that an artist who does not receive a systematic education of art, and whose artworks are positioned outside conventional, social, artistic or even psychological requirements (Maclagan, 2010). The most representative two St Ives artists Alfred Wallis and Bryan Pearce are often brought up when discussing this subject.
Although Alfred Wallis did not start painting until he was 67, his painting was highly recognised by travelling artists and had substantial influence among them. Christopher Wood mentioned the recognition of Wallis’s influence in his letter to Winifred Nicholson (Whybrow, 1999), Sven Berlin saw his work “largely determined by the circumstance”, and Ben Nicholson was influenced and started to engage in landscape elements after experiencing what Alfred Wallis has narrated with his primitive eyes (Wilkinson, 2017).
A considerable amount of Wallis’s work is repeated depictions of his cottage and the view surrounds it. He imagined different bird view angles, used large blocks of colour and simple strokes to paint the coastal settlement of St Ives. Lack of engagement in professional artist circles and conventional artistic activities such as travelling, life drawing determined that the painter had to find a resource of inspiration from himself, which majorly relies on his daily observation, memory and experience as a sailor. The relatively limited methodology coincidently decided that his interpretation of the Cornish landscape is immune from fashionable art trends and the interference of painting techniques, leaving explicit and austere images as valuable documentations of his perception. This feature also reveals in other formats of his landscape. In 1969, the written title of one of his practice The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach was discovered while dismounting from its original frame (“The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach”, Alfred Wallis, ?c.1932 | Tate, n.d.). The name is so straightforward that it is almost a descriptive sentence, without any rhetoric as his logic in painting-making.
Figure 12, Wallis. A., 1932, The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Mort Mear Beach, [oil on cardboard], Tate Collection
Alfred Wallis is not like other trained artists who interested in pushing the theory or up-to-date concepts of popularity, his work often focuses on events that happened in the surrounding space which in the case, is the sea. In Wreck of the Alba (1938 - 1939) pictures a coal carrier struggle to survive the turbulence of huge waves, captured a real event with his untutored hand and sensitivity to the perimeter. Wallis reminds audiences of the existence of catastrophic incidents and their constant involvement in the county’s history. Wrecks rendered from the swallowing of a raging sea almost transformed a phenomenon into a new landscape without any deliberated exaggeration for a dramatic atmosphere. Daniel, S (2009) once argued that with the correct method, instructive ideas or perspective, restoration of the authenticity of a landscape is feasible. Perhaps we can apply his opinion in the perspective of art. Alfred Wallis’s unalloyed narration certainly brought the possibility to such restoration, provided invaluable information for historians.
Figure 13, Wallis. A., 1938-9, Wreck of the Alba, [oil on wood], Tate Collection
Another iconic outsider artist from Cornwall, Bryan Pearce, could be argued as one of the most crucial naïve artists in post-Wallis art of St Ives. His consistent painting practise for almost fifty years has recorded “subtle changes of St Ives” (Bryan Pearce – Exhibition at Tate St Ives | Tate, n.d.). He attended St Ives School and lived in the environment that other modernist artists may have encouraged him to paint when he was little (Shakespear,n.d.).
Figure 14, Pearce. B, 1975, St Ives from the Cemetery, [oil on board], Tate Collection
Bryan Pearce often constructed his picture with simple colour and fine lines, finishes with a visionary display of elements of his interests. One of the most well-known painting, St Ives from Cemetery (1975), picturesa ship voyaging through an empty harbour that enclosed by vegetated hills with a low-rise stone church and a graveyard. Pearce brought another appearance of his sun-bathing topic into the audiences’ eye. His sensitivity reveals in this capture of the resting place of locales, depicts a sentimental scene from an indigenous perspective. Furthermore, surprisingly, despite Bryan Pearce was not unfamiliar with exhibitions and has become a successful artist in his days, he was unaware of the old fisherman Wallis nor his painting, while comparison between his work and Wallis’s is regular; Pearce’s work maintained an uninfluenced purity while sticking to a primitive way of picturing the landscape, which makes his artwork instinctual (Whybrow, 1999).
Peter Lanyon, another indigenous artist of Cornwall, enjoyed interpreting landscape with his personal experience. Peter Lanyon held a particular interest in demonstrating the grievous, dark side of the Cornish landscape. His identity as an indigenous Cornishmen and his youth in the art-flourishing town of St Ives granted him a distinctive vision regarding Cornish landscape. For example, St Just, stands out of other mine-themed paintings that picture the decline of a quondam industry and lives faded with this history. His family history as mine-owner provided him with an internal perspective to understand the landscape with specific narratives (Laird, 2014). Skilful miners and squalid smoke were once the icon that represents Cornwall as an industrialised region (Deacon, 2001). The productive force changed the natural landscape, embedded mechanical alteration to nature. And the fading of this mining fervour took back the landscape and returned it to an assimilated status. Essentially, economic demands directly result in the change of landscape by human activities (Baker, 1992). Understanding this argument could help us to understand Lanyon’s perspective better. When he experienced a sense of incapability facing the passing of history, the tone and the subject of the painting is determined. From outside perspectives those abandoned mines might be another evidence of underdeveloped infrastructure of Cornwall, however, they evoked memories of Peter Lanyon, and the artist decided to show the public the crucifixion from his point of view.
Figure 15, Lanyon. P, 1953, St Just, [oil on canvas], Tate Collection
Lanyon’s speciality in rearranging a landscape based on personal experience and saturation of rich contexts like culture and history came up as “experiential landscape”. His work entirely relies on observation and personal experience that the industrial outcome detached from the meaninglessness of general abstract art (Cornish, 2016). In order to feel, he chose to fly the glider for a retrospective angle of examining his beloved Cornwall. Fast, changing landscape distorted by the speed is commonly seen in his gliding paintings — almost melt as a whole. There is no longer separated elements that assemble a particular landscape but as an integration, layer by layer, bonding by the artist’s sensuousness.
Figure 16, Lanyon. P, 1964, Glide Path, [oil and plastic on canvas], Courtesy of The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester
Peter Lanyon expressed his concern about losing Cornish identity & landscape. He absolutely sensed the threat of Cornwall transforming into a leisure resort due to the extinction of the former pillar industries of fishing and mining (Lanyon, Lanyon and Feaver, 1983). The irreplaceability of landscape reflects on its embodiment with the history of its people, which could be easily obliterated (Muir, 1998). His devotion to the Cornish landscape as well as his evident belief in social responsibility as an artist (Stephens, 2001) explains his concern and repeated depiction of similar topics.
Figure 17, Lanyon. P, 1947, Stone of Penwith, [oil and pencil on canvas], private collection
Figure 18, Lanyon. P, 1952 - 1958, Landscape of the Stone Leaves, [Screenprint], British Council collection
Figure 19, Lanyon. P, 1957, Standing Stones, [lithograph print on wove paper], private collection
A series of stone study produced after his return from the military also shares a significance in his oeuvre. His Stone of Penwith (1947), Landscape of the Stone Leaves (1952) and Standing Stones (1957) was greatly inspired by prehistory megaliths on the Cornish field. The materiality of these subjects also inspired artists like Barbara Hepworth. The quoits on Penwith Peninsula is prehistory graves or altars, representing those deceased individuals that unknown to the history. When write about megaliths of Bodmin Moor, Christoper Tilley detailedly describes their materiality and significance relation to the landscape, as “a cultural triumph over the sleeping powers of the rock”. Lanyon’s choice of topic reflects his humanism and a strong depiction of culture signature over historical objects (Tilley, 1996).
As Peter Lanyon witnessed the transformation of Cornish society with his distinctive point of view, his interpretation has a particular referential value for us to understand the development of Cornish identity into contemporary times. Artists who consciously or unconsciously recorded the fading of the old landscape and the formation of new ones, their pictorial productions and writings are evidence of their interactions with the Cornish landscape. The essay suggests these artists’ relocation (some might skipped this process) to the region and their intension of searching interested factors for artistic depiction could be considered as a behaviour of foraging, and therefore, what termed “the practice of landscape identity” (Butler and Sarlöv-Herlin, 2019). Although things they identified might not necessarily be material, conducting activities would also allow these outsiders to start building a new connection of site-specific landscape identity (Butler et al., 2017). The alteration of landscape is often determined by cultural and natural forces (Antrop, 2004). Artworks, art critics and artists, in this case, opportunely demonstrated their value as a critical recorder of the transformation of Cornish landscape and identity. Analysing the development of Cornish art holds many promises to studies of landscape identity in related fields.
The essay also believes it is safe to argue that the Cornish identity reflected in the landscape paintings is a continuous assimilation of interpretations and depictions of artists who engaged in this history; therefore, the identity established by the pictorial histories could be considered a collective act of those artists. Being recognised or being accepted as one of their members also played a crucial part in determining the possibility that artworks being recognised as “contribution to the subject”. This recognition could be determined autonomously or externally. Self-isolated artists like Alfred Wallis brought a distinctive example of being a well-recognised Cornish artist, although he was unconscious about his artistic achievement, his works were preserved and brought to the public by other colleagues.
Defining the word Cornish can be flexible and subjective. The essay suggests that we should focus on the identity established by relevant factors when engaging with a particular term, for example, Cornish landscape or Cornish artist. Immersing experiences, real-world and physical engagement of activities that aims for a mutual understanding is fundamentally required for higher recognition of identity and acceptance. “The Cornish people themselves are like their land, an old and knowing race, withdrawn to strangers, living as much in the past as the present; without, as has been said, much creative inspiration yet with a quick response to things of that nature — what one of their own people” (Baker, 1959). Despite subjectivity generally exists in art, to comprehensively comprehend an identity, which, in this case, the Cornish identity, the importance of understanding Cornish cultural signature and the landscape as objective as possible is significant. A personal interpretation of one’s identity based on images of the landscape is tightly connected to the initial way of interrogating the question. Thus, we must be cautious upon any circumstance that might involve with preoccupied impressions.
In conclusion, artists who engaged in the Cornish landscape play a significant part in shaping its regional identity; being accepted as a Cornish artist could determine the degree of recognition in contributing to the subject; a mutual understanding based on immersing experience as well as the objectivity identified during its process is crucial to interpret Cornish landscape identity responsibly.
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