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The paintings of Penzance

Small and intimate, Penlee House is a gallery in tune with its Cornish setting – and the weather

Jim Crace | July/August 2014

We cannot help but be concerned for the woman in the long grey dress and her reluctant dogs. The tide is high; there is a beating wind and sheets of rain—and she has promenaded far too close to the railings shielding Penzance against Mount’s Bay. If she does not turn about or, at least, move to the left into the lee of the buildings, before she reaches Battery Rocks and the quay below St Mary’s Church, there’s a chance the sea will sweep her off her feet. That black umbrella she’s holding over her hat and shoulders will hardly save her from the heavy, white loops of water, ten feet high, which, egged on by a lively Cornish gale, have struck and cleared the defensive walls above the shore.

This is “The Rain it Raineth Every Day”, Norman Garstin’s best-known oil painting and one of the most satisfying assets of Penlee House, the modest, richly parochial gallery and museum in the middle of Penzance which my wife, Pam Turton, and I have visited, on and off, in and out of season, and usually taking refuge from the weather, for 40 years. Our fondness for the place is as old and as cherished as our first holiday near the town in 1974. The setting is a pretty one: semi-tropical gardens with a fine 11th-century granite cross and an historic cider mill, marking the entrance to a plain Victorian merchant’s house with just six smallish exhibition rooms and an orangery (now serving as a café) to house the collection.

Inside, Penlee House is without pretension. It is a space that knows its limitations and its strengths—and makes the most of them. The three ground-floor rooms ring the changes as much as they can with quarterly exhibitions, but they are invariably curated to a local theme in keeping with the gallery’s mission to be at “the artistic heart of West Cornwall’s history”. Nothing east of the Tamar seems to count in here. Devon could be Mars. Even the recent Graham Sutherland show, “From Darkness into Light”, was limited to his work as an official war artist at the Geevor tin mine, a few miles to the north-west. Other recent shows—Edward Bouverie Hoyton’s Cornish etchings, for example, and “In Memoriam”, a display from the stacks of the best gallery bequests—are not exactly narrow in scope but they are determinedly regional. There are two further rooms upstairs with cabinets of Cornish curiosities, assembled with no greater an organising principle than that they are from the neighbourhood. There are cases of Stone Age flint implements (axe-blades, chisels, scrapers, arrowheads), many found alongside burial urns nearby. Even the Bronze Age gold collar or lunula on loan from the British Museum in London has a local provenance; it was found in 1783—under some manure, it is said—in Gwithian, overlooking St Ives Bay. With the pleasing randomness of a bric-à-brac shop, the collar shares its space with railway posters—one promoting “THE CORNISH RIVIERA, land of legend and romance”, 
another “PENZANCE: GATEWAY TO WEST CORNWALL”; a display of locally made Troika pottery, the designs inspired by Paul Klee; and the loggerhead turtle washed up on Sennen beach in 1982.  A couple of paces away, visitors can take equivocal pleasure in the battered fin of a 500kg German bomb which, in October 1940, blew off the foot of the bed in which three generations of the Richards family, plus two evacuee children, were sleeping in nearby Lannoweth Road. (Everyone survived.) Yes, to be devoted as I am to 
these rooms, which guilelessly and evenhandedly 
exhibit both the ephemeral and the momentous, you have to be prepared for lucky-dip.

Up to this point, casual holiday-makers might wonder if they need to be Cornish by birth or at least long-term incomers to truly appreciate the doggedly indigenous displays of Penlee House. “Scraping the barrel” is a phrase that might come to mind. But what a barrel! For the very best is yet to come. The third and final room on the upper floor is the jewel in Penlee’s coronet. This is where the Newlyn School of artists, including Walter Langley, Stanhope Forbes, Frank Bramley and Fred Hall, has its dedicated home. It is a small but stunning collection, packed with feeling, colour and brightness, despite the room’s disorienting lack of natural light. Usually there are as few as 15 paintings on display and two hard cherrywood benches from which to view them. These works by a handful of painters, mostly settlers, record the beauty, sorrow and hard labour of local life from the late 19th to the early 20th century. They might be thought a little sentimental on first encounter, possibly because the landscapes and the seascapes that frame them cannot possess the grim brutality of the industrial north or Midlands. There is no furnace smoke, there are no 
abject slums in these fishing ports; for the most part, the people portrayed look clean and tanned and reasonably fed.  But it is hard to view the work of Langley, the Birmingham-born “Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony” (the title is engraved on his tombstone in Penzance), without acknowledging the moral seriousness with which the best of these artists 
approached their work. His masterful and seemingly buoyant watercolour of 1886, “Departure of the Fleet for the North”, is narratively incomplete until it is compared with its companion piece, the crushingly austere “Among the Missing”, with its weeping mothers and widows; the fishing life was—and is—perilous and punishing for these Cornishmen, no matter how picturesque the sea might be for visitors.

It pays, too, to look closely at the paint itself, especially the oils. Many of the Newlyn colony had travelled on the continent and would have rubbed shoulders with colleagues from the older Barbizon group near Paris; others would certainly have encountered the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the French master of naturalism. So it is no surprise that new techniques were imported into Britain partly via Newlyn and Penzance, including the en plein air conventions of the French school which had the artists standing on location, sharing a plane with their subjects, rather than sitting in their studios, and the expressive flat-brush techniques which add an impressionistic feathering to works of otherwise watchful realism.

There is a further reason why this small room is pleasing, and why for me it provides a pleasure that is both intense and personal. Of all the many paintings I have encountered in all the galleries that an amateur’s lifelong interest in art has led me to, there is not one I know better than “School is Out” by the Canadian Elizabeth Armstrong. Nor is there one more central to our marriage. Visiting it and seeing it, time after time, with increasing frequency, and in each other’s company, has been a bonding experience; galleries are kind to those who want to fall and stay in love.

This is the painting that my wife studied for the degree dissertation she presented to the Barber Institute in Birmingham (another favourite gallery). I ought to call Armstrong by the name Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes because that is the attribution given to the painting by the gallery. But it was painted just before she married Stanhope in 1889 and when she was still an independent woman, full of the promise and achievement that being married and female in prim Victorian Cornwall would rob in later years. Before Newlyn and Stanhope, Armstrong had been a spirited pupil and colleague of Whistler and Sickert in London and she had worked among the pre-Newlyn schools in Munich, Brittany and Holland. Indeed, her 1884 portrait of a Zandvoort fisher-girl, the smallest and most tender painting in the room, is a work of outstanding beauty and the piece that is most often chosen by the staff and docents at Penlee as the one they’d choose to put in their handbags if they thought they’d get away with it. “School is Out” provides exactly what the title promises, a picture of 14 pupils and two junior-school teachers packing up after a somewhat tearful day of study, but it has the added, weighty charm of portraying, almost brushstroke by brushstroke, the artist’s own love of children. It brought us down to Penzance and Newlyn many times as we tried to identify the building shown in the painting (it was, my wife established, an artist’s free amalgam of a couple of schools in Paul) and to put a name to the predominantly red-haired children in the picture, before finding those several surviving relatives still living in this far-flung toe-end of the country.

It’s possible to miss Norman Garstin’s “The Rain it Raineth Every Day”, often hung behind the door as you walk in.  It takes its title from Feste’s song in “Twelfth Night” and records a day familiar to anyone who’s ever holidayed in Penzance, a day of unforgiving showers. It’s hard to imagine how this outspoken, one-eyed Irishman could have completed en plein air his preparatory sketches of this rain-soaked woman in the late 1880s, and then captured her in such vivid detail in oil when the weather was so evidently fierce.

It’s hard to imagine, too, how my wife and I can have been so reckless, during last year’s Christmas storms, as to step outside Penlee House into the very weather we’d come indoors to escape. It is only a few hundred yards down a road lined with palm trees—its front gardens planted with species too tender, one suspects, to survive a winter anywhere an inch farther north—to Garstin’s promenade. His painting had prepared us for the dangers but, just like that woman in the soaked grey dress, we were blind and deaf to them, despite seeing that all the access roads had been coned off to drivers and pedestrians. The front was almost as deserted as it was in the painting. We were the only fools to have parked our car next to the sea wall. We leant into the wind, scarcely able to hold our footing, and pressed our foreheads against the storm. But we were also promenading far too close to the defensive walls. A great white heavy loop of water cleared the parapets above the shore. It did not quite knock us off our feet but it shook and drenched us. We had come through what Garstin’s woman has yet to arrive at, a beating from the sea. It was as if we’d stumbled out of two dimensions into three.

That soaking on the promenade stands for much of what I value most about Penlee. This unassuming refuge from the wind and rain offers more than art, antiquities and archaeology; it encourages a familiarity with the county within its walls and the county beyond them. As we have grown conversant with its hinterland, we have also come to see how almost everything on display suggests a walk or outing somewhere close—when and if the sun comes out, that is. The quays and slipways of the Newlyn paintings are an easy stroll away and almost unchanged; and higher in the lanes of the town the net lofts where the paintings were completed and the slightly grander houses where the artists lived can be hunted, as can their tombstones in the village graveyards.

And then, inspired by the many Neolithic artefacts on display in the curiosity cabinets of Penlee, you can easily go in fruitful search of Stone Age flints yourself, as I have done. Or, seeing the shot and stuffed bittern from the 1840s or the startled-looking chough and vagrant hoopoe in their glass cases, set off in pursuit of the living birds—because the elusive bittern has recently been a winter visitor to the brackish marshes of Marazion, a single lost hoopoe fell exhausted in Church Cove on the Lizard last spring, and choughs are once again inhabiting the Pendeen cliffs. Penlee reaches far beyond its doors.

For all the splendours of the world’s greatest galleries, visitors are likely to be kept at arm’s length, spectators of a world that can seem too rarefied to let them in. There is no reason why the Louvre should be your favourite gallery just because it has the grandest collections in France, any more than Kew should necessarily be a favourite garden because it has the largest assemblage of plants, or Tesco your chosen shop because it has the widest variety of canned beans. Some place small and intimate, like Penlee House, where the associations are personal, private even, is bound to earn a deeper, fonder loyalty.

Penlee House open Monday to Saturday; penleehouse.org.uk

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