Summer Holiday over and time to look at paintings again. My July “Painting of the Month” has a flavour of the sea to celebrate our recent camping holiday by the beach. A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach, (1884-5) by Stanhope Forbes, is owned by the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, and is one of the most well known works of the Newlyn School.
The Newlyn School appeared in the Cornish village in the mid nineteenth century, presumably benefitting from the new railway connections. Stanhope Forbes background, like most of the Newlyners, included time spent in the European ateliers in Paris and The Netherlands. Like the others he also spent time in Brittany, the hard social realism of that area showing through.
Unlike Walter Langley, Forbes method concentrated on painting outdoors, en plain air, and he introduced the flat brush technique to England. This method, dabbing or stabbing tonal colours onto the canvas with a flat ended brush, he argued allowed the artist to concentrate on the tone or emotion of the scene, rather than being bogged down in detail. The irony of this method for the Newlyn school was its similarity to the ideas of Impressionism, a movement the school was at pains to distance itself from!
The Fish Sale is a fabulous exercise in social realism. Newlyn had a very successful fishing industry as the fleet followed the mackerel and herring shoals through the year, but accompanied by hard work and often tragedy. On the horizon we see the Newlyn fleet of ‘luggers’ just off the coast. The catch was sold on the beach with the auctioneer, who you see in the large group on the right, conducting the sale. Forbes very cleverly directs our eye from the fleet out at sea through the auction on the beach and into the foreground to a pause in the action where a woman in her traditional shawl passes a quiet moment with two fishermen.
The auctioneer, known as the ‘jowster’ would ring his bell to announce the sale and the action would move on swiftly with several hundred sales a day.
The limited palette is painted on a dull day and the light comes from the underside of the fish on the sand. Forbes painted this over a number of days with the models suffering some appalling conditions but how wonderfully he captures the smooth reflections of the receding tide. Note also the beautiful tonal balance of the foreground colours, especially the treatment of the boat.
Finally, compare with Langley’s studio study. Follow Forbes story from the fleet out at sea, through the action of the auction to the foreground silent conversations. What are their thoughts as they gaze airily at each other?