Zoe Burkett Talk, The Newlyn School of Artists


This week I managed to get along to Torquay Museum for a talk given by Zoe Burkett of Penlee House Gallery and Museum on the Newlyn School of Artists. Part of a series of public lectures across a broad range of topics and a snip at just £5 to attend, these talks are a true gem in Torbay’s Cultural calendar.

Having travelled to Penzance many times I have to confess that I was unaware of the Penlee Gallery and Museum and my knowledge on the Newlyn School of Artists was also fairly scant. Following Zoe’s talk I would have loved to hop on a train to complete the journey that she had started with her insightful, from the heart talk.

Now located at Penlee House, the museum was first located in the Dome at Market House in Penzance in 1839 and then moved to the newly built St John’s Hall in 1867. At that time, it was first a foremost a natural history museum, established by the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The society organised lectures and an annual excursion which continued into the 20th Century until 1961 when the society ceased to exist.

Penlee House was originally built in 1865 as the home of the wealthy Branwell family and remained in the family until it was sold along with the estate to Penzance Borough Council in 1946. The council initially purchased Penlee Park as a memorial to the dead of World War II, with Penlee House being formally opened as the Penzance District Museum in 1949. In 1974 the ownership of the museum and park passed to Penwith District Council, and since 1985 Penzance Town Council has owned and operated the site.

The collections housed within the museum were originally taken from the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society collection but during the 1990s Penzance Town Council conducted a major refurbishment of the building providing up to date facilities for housing its important and historic art collection which includes the most significant collection of the Newlyn School of Artists work to be held in the UK.

Having given us some background to the gallery and its origins Zoe then went on to tell us that all the Newlyn Artists were not born there but had come to live and work among the people. Newlyn had several things guaranteed to attract artists: fantastic light, cheap living, and the availability of inexpensive models but they were also drawn to painting in what was a new way at that time, capturing ordinary people going about their everyday lives, very different to what was being painted elsewhere. The artists were fascinated by the fishermen's working life at sea and the everyday life in the harbour and nearby villages.

Some paintings showed the hazards and tragedy of the community's life, such as women anxiously looking out to sea as the boats go out, or a young woman crying on hearing news of a disaster All also chose to paint ‘en plein air’ not just for sketching but for an entire piece, even when painting on very large pieces and many adopted the square brush technique and use of a muted colour palette which distinguishes these paintings so well when viewed.

Walter Langley is generally recognised as the pioneer of the Newlyn School of Artists and Stanhope Forbes as the father of it. The later Forbes School of Painting, founded by Stanhope Forbes and wife Elizabeth in 1899, promoted the study of figure painting. Interestingly Elizabeth was vastly outnumbered by her male counterparts but was by far the most successful and all regularly took part in exhibitions and sold work in London with GWR at that time providing a dedicated van for transporting the art.

Although the Newlyn School as a group ceased to exist around 1940, the area still attracts artists with many of the studios built in the gardens of the houses still being used by artists today.

Details of the next museum lecture, Scotching the Stereotypes, Rebecca Tope, can be found here.

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