We live in an age of equal rights. Female stars of stage or screen, once known as actresses, are nowadays more usually described as actors. While the word ‘seamster’ exists in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, I have yet to come across a male version of a seamstress (though ‘tailor’ is still in use). But ‘hero’ has for some time transcended gender barriers, and I was heartened to see that a number of women, both artists and subjects, are included in ‘Amongst Heroes’. My particular interest in the representation of women in art attracted me to three images from an exhibition which highlights the lives of the ordinary working people of Cornwall over a century ago.
A couple of seamstresses at work stitching a flag under the watchful eye of the harbour master are among the figures depicted in ‘Against Regatta Day’ of 1906 by Stanhope Alexander Forbes. The older of the two is seated, wearied by a life of hard toil. No doubt her many years’ experience is valued by her younger colleague perched on the table, cloth in hand. A young girl, perhaps her granddaughter, stands by the old lady’s chair, looking over her shoulder to learn by observation. This painstaking task is being carried out by lamplight, bringing the workers’ hands into focus, while casting deep shadows onto the figures in the background. The scene fosters a strong sense of co-operation in craftsmanship and pride in the observance of local tradition.
Against Regatta Day
1906 ~ Oil on canvas
141 x 194cm
© The Royal Cornwall Museum
Image reproduced with the kind permission of the Royal Institution of Cornwall
In Walter Langley’s small undated pen-and-ink drawing, entitled ‘Old Fishwife with a Cowal’, an old woman struggles along the quay with an enormous woven basket on her back, supported by a strap across her forehead. The weight of the catch is such that both arms are raised over her shoulders, hands clutching on, in an attempt to ease the load. One can only begin to imagine the damage that this type of labour would have inflicted on the human frame over a period of time. Yet the contribution of the female fish sellers (known as jowsters) in displaying the catch to prospective buyers was vital to the success of the fishing operation, and could make the difference between survival and starvation. The artist, who moved to Cornwall from Birmingham in 1882, manifested in his work an awareness of the struggles experienced by fishermen and their families. It is thought that this drawing was made in preparation for a later painting of three jowsters, ‘The Breadwinners’ of 1896.
Old Fishwife with a Cowal
(undated) ~ Pen & ink
21 x 14.5cm
Penlee House Gallery & Museum
Ruth Simpson, who painted ‘The Milkmaid’, was best known for highly regarded portraits of fellow artists such as Ella Naper, Gertrude Harvey and Frank Verbeck. But, as the female half of an artistic partnership, she struggled to compete with the success of her husband Charles Walter Simpson, whose enormous landscapes and seascapes attracted tremendous popular appeal. ‘The Milkmaid’ employs loose brushwork which suggests that the painting was rapidly executed while the subject had a brief respite in between jobs. Pail in one hand, stool tucked under her arm, the milkmaid possesses an air of dignified resignation which is at odds with her youthful form.
c.1912 ~ Oil on canvas
92 x 61.5cm
Penlee House Gallery & Museum
© The Artist’s Estate
Like Stanhope Forbes’ seamstresses and Walter Langley’s jowster, Ruth Simpson’s milkmaid is an anonymous hero whose representation is rooted in the French Realist movement pioneered by Gustave Courbet. His ‘The Stone Breakers’ of 1849, documenting the harsh reality of life for peasants, was condemned as ‘vulgar’ at the time. Courbet’s followers included the famous exponent of the ‘plein-air’ technique, Jules Bastien-Lepage, who was to have a profound influence on artists visiting the colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany in 1883. Some of these went on to form the nucleus of the early St Ives and Newlyn schools of painting.
It is entirely fitting that this show, first seen at Two Temple Place in London a year ago, should have transferred to Truro’s Royal Cornwall Museum in the spring of 2014. The timing could not have been better, coinciding as it does with the recent announcement that the Cornish have, alongside the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh, been granted minority status. To be placed on an equal footing with other Celtic communities within the UK is an acknowledgement of Cornwall’s individual identity and her distinctive history. We should be proud of our new status, and of our heroes.
© 2014 Helen Hoyle
‘Amongst Heroes ~ the artist in working Cornwall’ can be seen at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro until 4 September 2014.
Grateful thanks to the Royal Cornwall Museum and to Penlee House Gallery & Museum for permission to reproduce selected images.