Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Artist of the Week: Walter Langley

I agonised over my choice of artist this week. I had five or six I'd shortlisted. Then friends on Twitter suggested some excellent candidates including Gillian Wearing and the extraordinary 3D drawings of 17 year old Chilean artist Fredo. In the end I plumped for an artist whose work means a great deal to me and yet you probably haven't heard of him.

It was impossible to grow up in Cornwall with an artistic dad and passionate art teachers and not be aware of the Newlyn and St Ives schools of painting. 'Schools' is maybe too strong a word as there was no real physical grouping of individuals. Rather, they were like-minded artists who formed colonies at around the same time. We use the term 'schools' because what they did wasn't as grand as a movement like cubism or modernism. They didn't change the direction of art. What they did do was demonstrate how different artists can be inspired by and represent the same subject matter in a myriad of different ways. The St Ives school is most famous and featured the likes of sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth, potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Amada, painters Alfred Wallis and Patrick Heron and many others. They came to notice in the late 1930s and achieved great success in the 1950s and 60s. Much of their work is now on display in Hepworth's house and the stunning purpose built Tate Gallery St Ives.
Meanwhile, over near Penzance, the Newlyn school (and the nearby Lamorna group that included Laura Knight, 'Lamorna' Birch and Alfred Munnings) had been working steadily since the 1880s with a stream of artists all drawn to the area for the quality of the natural light. Among their numbers you'll find such people as Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes, Harold Harvey, Norman Garstin and the wonderfully named Albert Chevallier Tayler. They also had Walter Langley.

Walter Langley (1852 – 1922) was born in Birmingham and at 15 was apprenticed to a lithographer. At 21 he won a scholarship to South Kensington and he studied design there for two years. The sometimes highly ornate work is mainly in gold and silver and in a Renaissance style. He returned to Birmingham but took up painting full time, and in 1881 was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. In the same year he was offered £500 for a year's work by a Mr Thrupp (a Birmingham photographer). With this money he and his family moved to Newlyn where he was one of the first artists to settle.

Politically left wing for his era, he was noted for his social realist portrayals of working class figures, particularly fishermen and their families. He was a supporter of Charles Bradlaugh a radical socialist politician. Many of his paintings reflect his sympathy with the working class fisher-folk amongst whom he lived. One of the best known is his 1883 For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep (see next picture) based on Charles Kingsley's poem The Three Fishers (1851).

Although one of the first to settle in the Newlyn artists' colony, Langley initially benefited little from its growing fame, partly because of his working class origins and partly because until 1892 he painted largely in watercolour rather than the more prestigious medium of oils. But his early training in lithography gives his paintings a detail and texture that show his technical skills.

Later in his career his reputation grew. One of Langley's paintings was singled out as 'a beautiful and true work of art' by Leo Tolstoy in his book What is Art? while in 1895 Langley was invited by the Uffizi to contribute a self portrait to hang alongside those of Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt in their collection of portraits of great artists.Today his work is considered vital to the image of the Newlyn School and, alongside Stanhope Forbes, the most consistent in style and substantial in output.

There are several reasons why I love Walter Langley's work so much. Firstly, it's watercolour for the most part. I could never get the hang of oils as a kid - I'm only just coming to grips with them now - but I could use watercolour. What Langley showed me was that watercolours weren't all wishy washy pastel shades and indistinct outlines. His paintings, while muted in colour due to the transparency of the paint, are nonetheless superbly detailed and beautiful. The second reason I love his work is that I could see it every day. I lived in Penzance for a few years and the walk from my house to my best friend's house took me through Penlee Park. There you'll find Penlee House Gallery & Museum and many of his, and other Newlyn School artists', work is on display. It was free and I popped in there all the time. There was, and still is, another gallery in Newlyn itself and that was just a short bicycle ride away. Thirdly, and most importantly, I suppose, the people in his paintings are just so damned real. Yes, there is a degree of romanticising in all paintings but Langley's work doesn't lay it on with a trowel. The people he painted look completely grounded in the visceral realities of working class life in a fishing village. They're so real that I can almost hear them and the locations are all familiar to me; Langley painted in the towns and villages I grew up in.

I have two excellent books about Langley. One is The Shining Sands by Tom Cross which looks at both the Newlyn and St Ives schools in detail. The other - my favourite - is Walter Langley: Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony by Walter's grandson Roger. The latter is a superb catalogue of his work and really quite hard to find. BBC4 has been showing some excellent art programmes in its Thursday 9pm slot for the past few weeks and I understand that soon there will be a show about the Newlyn School. I'll be glued to the set.

1 comment:

Graham Laucht said...

Good news "The Art of Cornwall" will be screened on BBC4 at 21:00 on Thursday 2nd December and again on the morning of the 3rd at 01:45.

I too share your interest in the Newlyn School and particularly of Walter Langley who after all was a fellow Brummie.

A few weeks ago I treated myself to a visit to Penlee to re-aqaint with his "The Sunny South" a picture that still makes me gasp and one my father first showed me over fifty years ago.