Links between Brittany and West Cornwall

Edward Simmons - Jeanne and Guenn, a scene described in Blanche Willis Howard's novel, 'Guenn'
Edward Simmons - Jeanne and Guenn, a scene described in Blanche Willis Howard's novel, 'Guenn'

In 2012, I was involved with the exhibition Another Cornwall / Gens de Cournouaille(s), an unique joint enterprise between Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance and Musée Départmental Breton in Quimper.  In particular, I contributed an article on the artistic links between Brittany and West Cornwall and other material for the catalogue, and ran the Study Day on the exhibition in Penzance. 


The following is adapted from the article that I wrote on the exhibition for The Flagstaff.



 "This ground-breaking exhibition is an unique joint enterprise between Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance and Musée Départmental Breton in Quimper.  The idea for the show started when the Finistère representative on Cornwall County Council (an advanced piece of thinking in itself) suggested that some form of joint exhibition should be arranged, given the links between the two areas.  Not only did they share a Celtic heritage and the same name, but they had enjoyed strong trading links for many centuries, with Concarneau and Newlyn having been twinned for some thirty years.  Alison Bevan, the Director at Penlee House, having always harboured desires, since the exhibition Painting at the Edge, which looked at Britain’s maritime art colonies, to mount a show that compared and contrasted the art colonies of Brittany with those in West Cornwall, soon made contact with Philippe Le Stum at Musée Quimper, and plans for the show gradually evolved.  As it became clear that French artists had shown little inclination to paint in Cornwall, with the notable exception of Emile Vernier, an artist who has been described as the "person who was the real discoverer of St Ives", it was decided that the exhibition should focus on depictions, in each centre, of the activities of the local community.  The period selected was a large one - 1880-1930.


The exhibition, accordingly, introduces a variety of new names into the frame.  Alfred Guillou (1844-1926) was very much the key figure in the art colony at Concarneau, in the way that Stanhope Forbes was in Newlyn.  He painted almost every aspect of the life of the fisherfolk, with understanding and sympathy, but without excess sentiment.  One of the stand out works in the exhibition is his painting, Landing Tuna at Concarneau, a busy scene as a boat, loaded with fish, is hauled close to the quay by men and women together, whilst a mass of women, in their distinctive coiffes, line the steps of the breakwater, as the fish are unloaded.  Achille Granchi-Taylor (1857-1921) is also represented by two depictions of the rough Breton sailors, who spoke only Breton and worked hard, drank hard and fought hard.  Here, one immediately realizes a difference with the Cornish sailors, who, being predominantly Methodist, were teetotal.  Therefore, it seems to have been easier for artists in Cornwall to get adult male fishermen to pose for them, to go out fishing with them and to be invited into their homes.


A painting of women workers in a sardine factory by John Recknagel (1870-1940), an American who settled in Brittany, makes one realize that one does not find similar scenes in Cornwall.  Why did the artists not paint the activities in the pilchard cellars or the salting of the fish?


Another aspect that the two communities shared was a deep reverence for religion, and a further major work in the exhibition is Henri Guinier’s depiction of the Pardon of the Blind at la Clarté, showing locals in splendidly ornate costumes sampling water from the miraculous holy well.  These quaint old Breton ceremonies were beloved by artists, and the pageantry involved is contrasted in the exhibition with William Titcomb’s Rogation Day procession painting, which was inspired by Bernard Walke’s vision for Anglo-Catholicism in Cornwall.


A sub-theme in the exhibition is the importance of the Breton experience for the early Cornish colonists in the development of their art and their approach to painting.  The show includes a series of watercolours done by Walter Langley on his visit to Brittany in 1881, a small oil of a Breton Girl done by Marianne Stokes in 1882, Fair Measures - A Shop in Quimperlé by Stanhope Forbes done in 1883 and early work of Norman Garstin done in Quimperlé and Le Faouet.  There is also the delightful Jean, Jeanne and Jeanette done by Elizabeth Forbes when Stanhope took her back in 1891 to Cancale, where he had worked a decade before.


Of the British artists, who repeatedly worked in the Two Cornwalls, pride of place is given, most appropriately, to Terrick Williams, and the visitor to the Penlee exhibition was greeted first by his massive canvas, Evening, Concarneau dating from 1904, a work which recently set a new world record for a painting by Williams.  A watercolour of Douarnenez shows him equally adept in that medium.


One might have a few quibbles about some of the selections and, given that the majority of visitors will have been completely unfamiliar with the subject, the lack of detail on the painting captions meant that some of the nuances will have been missed, but one cannot help but applaud the vision behind the show and be completely amazed that, in these times of austerity, Penlee House, as always with the backing of a very supportive Council, has pulled off an extraordinary feat in holding such an important, internationally significant, show in Penzance.  Of course, such an exhibition merely highlights all the other topics on this theme that warrant separate treatment, but whether such a cross-border show, with all its additional expense and complexities, will ever be attempted again, is most uncertain."


The Two Cornwalls - Lectures/Study Day


The following were the three subjects covered in the 2012 Study Day, but the highlights from these can be presented as one lecture.


1. The importance of the Breton experience in the formation and development of the Cornish art colonies


During the 1880s, many of the artists, who were early settlers in the art colonies of Newlyn and St Ives, had become friends during time spent working together in the Breton art colonies, particularly those at Pont-Aven and Concarneau. Furthermore, it was their experiences painting out in the open in Brittany that influenced the style of painting adopted both by the figure painters, who became known as the ‘Newlyn School’, and the landscape painters, who practised St Ives Tonalism.  Artists featured include Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes, Edwin Harris, Walter Langley, Ralph Todd and Norman Garstin, who later settled in Newlyn, and Adrian and Marianne Stokes, the Americans, Edward Simmons, Frank Chadwick and Howard Russell Butler, the Frenchman Emile Vernier, Eardley Blomefield, and the Finns Helen Schjerfbeck and Maria Wiik, who later worked in St Ives. 


 2.  The Two Cornwalls - The artists’ depictions of and inter-reaction with the local community


None of the major French artists, who worked in Brittany, came to paint in Cornwall.  However, this looks at the way artists in the various colonies in Brittany depicted the locals at work, at home and at leisure, and compares this presentation with that of the Cornish artists.  It also looks at some of the social historical aspects, such as friendships and courtships, the provision of studios, accommodation, painting materials etc.


3. The continuing appeal of the Two Cornwalls 1890-1930


This looks at those artists who continued to paint in the two areas, once the Paris craze had ended in the 1890s. Artists featured include Thomas Gotch, Frank Heath, Terrick Williams, William Lee Hankey, Christopher Wood and the Australians Hayley Lever, William Ashton and Charles Bryant.