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Important British Pictures
Lot 31: PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE LIMITED COMPANY STANHOPE FORBES, R.A. 1857-1947
SIGNED AND DATED (MAKER'S MARKS)
signed and dated 1909
Despite his own modest disavowal, Stanhope Forbes was acknowledged within his lifetime as the founder and leading light of the influential Newlyn School. From the time of his first arrival in Cornwall in 1884 until his death at the age of ninety, in 1947, the place served as both the artist's home and his most consistent source of inspiration: his "sort of English Concarneau". In the early years of the twentieth century Forbes painted an impressive group of Mousehole canvasses, the majority depicting the harbour of this smaller and precipitous fishing village that hugs the coast a mile and a half south-west of Newlyn and Penzance. The group reveals the artist confident in his command of the brush. During 1909 to 1911 Forbes produced in quick succession a number of pieces, all major salon works, and each of a scale and complexity to merit submission as Academy exhibits. Of the group, A Safe Anchorage is one of the last full-scale and finished works to remain both unseen at auction in recent years and still in private hands - others are currently held in public collections in London, Bristol, Hull and Bradford.
Forbes' first major Newlyn work was A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (coll. Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery), painted in 1885. Its considerable success sparked the growth of the Newlyn 'School' and it provides early evidence of the centrality in his work of the continental tenets of painting sur le motif (see fig.1) and social realism. In the early works figures tend to predominate, often set against a backdrop of harbour or open sea, with elemental earth tones used to underline the hard reality of life in a rural fishing community. The Village Philharmonic (1888, coll. Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery) and The Health of the Bride (1889, coll. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) were interior scenes that cemented Forbes' reputation and continued the social realist theme. These nonetheless remained in considerable part works rooted in the nineteenth century. By the turn of the century Forbes' preoccupations were to shift, prompting a notable change in style.
Plein air principles and fidelity of observation remained throughout Forbes' working life. By 1909 however his palette had lightened and colour began to take precedence over tone. Figures became smaller in relation to the landscape, allowing greater scope for pattern making, the narrative action relegated in importance. It was the fervent desire of many artists, and Forbes not least, to preserve the picturesque qualities of Cornish life that had initially provided strong parallels with their collective Breton experience and hence a powerful lure to the area. Nonetheless, progress rolled on unabated. New houses were built and girls began to draw their hair back in pigtails, or worse still, to cut themselves fringes. As his subject matter looked in danger of being eroded in front of his eyes, Forbes had in fact already recognised the need to look beyond the mere inclusion of such "paintable things" as "a quaint old sou'wester" in order to elevate his scenes: "For beauty lies as much in the light, the atmosphere which surrounds all things, as in their actual form and fashion" (The Treatment of Modern Life in Art, c.1892, quoted in Caroline Fox, Artists of the Newlyn School, Newlyn Orion, 1979, p.66).
Forbes painted a number of sea and harbour scenes in the early 1900s, yet continued to concentrate his compositions around a few figures, drawn at close range: indeed, The Seine Boat (1904, private collection, fig.2), gives even greater space and attention to the central figures than the earlier The Slip (1884, private collection, fig.3). In some of the Mousehole works, such as The Pier Head (1910, whereabouts unknown, see study fig.4) and The Old Pier Steps (1911, coll. Bradford Art Galleries and Museums), a significant human element remains. Yet the majority of these later works, as with A Safe Anchorage, signal a definite move away from the intimate groupings, be these on a boat or on shore, and human interest increasingly takes second place to a wider panorama. Off to the Fishing Grounds (1886, coll. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) was praised by a contemporary critic for possessing "cool harmonious tones founded on French models, the atmospheric effect [and] the freedom from affectation and sensibility", yet was nonetheless criticised for a "want of mastery in rendering perspective, both linear and aerial" (Claude Phillips, The Academy, quoted in Caroline Fox, op.cit., p.25). By 1909 Forbes is able to overcome these early pitfalls with mature confidence. Mrs Lionel Birch summarised this progression, writing just prior to the execution of the present work:
'...One can see how the painter has progressed along the road. His technique, always sincere, may in these earlier works have lain open to the charge of an excessive formality, his brush-work too precise, his colour sad and over-restrained. Here [in the later Mousehole works] he shows a sense more emancipated of the joy of his medium, and a delight in familiar things, seen not prosaically but transfigured by the alchemy of the sun-magician'.
Mrs Birch goes on to discuss the first of the Mousehole scenes - Home Along of 1905 (coll. Bristol City Art Gallery, fig.5) - in terms that could equally be applied to A Safe Anchorage: '[He has] rendered the glamour of the last and the rarest light of day, when the glassy, responsive water gives back the gold of the sky; and the humble folk of every day walk with the last radiance of the fading light on their shoulders and their hair; and the commonplace is merged and lost in the solemn unity of the gathering night' (Stanhope A. Forbes and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, Cassell & Co., London, 1906, p.105).
Both canvasses, painted from very slightly differing view points, show the sweep of the harbour extending away to the east, meeting at the right the join of the harbour wall, reaching back across the entrance to the pool, east to west. The sun is rich and full at the close of day, and the shadows lengthen across the cottages barely seen at the village edge, to the left of the scene, where the Ship Inn still stands. Yet while the young man and woman of Home Along provide principle interest for both the other players in the scene and also the viewer, with A Safe Anchorage just three boatmen remain, smaller in the middle foreground, as the other boats lie stowed for the night. These three lend a compositional stability to the work, both in their triangular positioning in relation to each other, and with the central flash of the young boy's white shirt set as a central accent against the red hull of the Penzance-registered sloop. It is, however, the boats themselves that give the scene its dynamic.
Mrs Birch refers to Forbes' "old love, the harbour with its swinging boats" (ibid. p.104). Here the artist has taken almost the delight of a musician his evocation of visual rhythm and cadence. The boats sit neatly and satisfyingly within sweeping concentric circles, their gunwales lined up along radiating spokes crossing through the diameter of these circular swathes. Any action and chatter is in the far distance, as people gather to catch the last of the sun on the outer harbour wall, looking further out still towards the boats remaining on the white-capped sea beyond. "Cool harmonious tones" of umber, ochre and burnt sienna remain, but are used here more as a setting within which to disburse droplets of bright, primary colour, rather than as an artistic end in themselves. Cadmium yellows, bright greens and clear cobalt blues flicker across the odd hull, half-hidden here and there, reflected and given still greater life in both the water beneath and also in the shadows thrown up the far harbour wall. C. Lewis Hind observed around 1911 that "in the early days [the Newlyn School] painted light rather than colour, but latterly Mr Forbes has shown that when he wills he is a strong colourist" (op.cit.p.6). In this, at this accomplished phase in his career, the links between Stanhope Forbes and the wider world on the Continent are never more apparent. A Safe Anchorage bears relation, for these reasons, to both the work of the Irish artist William Leech, who was at this time producing the best work of his career at Concarneau in Brittany, and also, heading further south through France, to the work of the Fauves, settled by this time at Collioure.
Collection of a Private Bank, Cornwall;
Acquired by the present owner from the above circa 1922;
On loan to Penlee House, Penzance, 1991-2001.
Dimensions: 117.5 by 153cm., 46 1/4 by 60 1/4 in.
London, Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition, 1909, no.108;
Penzance, Penlee House, Cornwall County Council Centenary Exhibition, October 1989.
Royal Academy Pictures and Sculpture (Illustrated), Cassell & Co., London, 1909, p.71, illustrated;
C. Lewis Hind, 'Stanhope A. Forbes, R.A.', The Art Journal, (probably) December issue 1911, pp.21 and 32, illustrated;
Caroline Fox, Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School, David & Charles, Newton Abbott, 1993, p.85.
Medium: oil on canvas
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