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Off To the Fishing Grounds, by Stanhope Forbes


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About the artwork

The special impact of this picture is partly explained by the fact that it was painted not in an artists’ studio but on the deck of a Cornish fishing boat at Newlyn near Penzance. The artist paid the fishermen to pose for him.  The boat is a two-masted Cornish lugger. When this picture was painted the Cornish fishing industry was at a peak and no less than 570 such boats were registered in the ports and harbours of Cornwall, employing 3,500 men and boys at sea.  These boats were an average of forty foot in length with a beam of between twelve and fourteen feet. The ‘fishing grounds’ for such boats were inshore waters, where pilchard and herring were caught but boats would also fish for mackerel with drift nets off the south west coast of Ireland, while some boats fished with long lines for ray, conger and turbot, out as far as the coast of Brittany.

Forbes was inspired to paint out-doors and use ordinary people as models by the work of the French ‘plein air’ painter, Jules Bastien-Lepages [1848 - 1884].  Forbes wrote later about this method of working, “To paint the picture entirely and absolutely out of doors, braving all difficulties and relying in no way upon sketches or studies, with which later on the work could be comfortably finished within the walls of a studio….” 

Stanhope Forbes was born in Dublin, his father was a railway manager and his mother Juliette de Guise was French.  His father’s brother, James Staats Forbes was an art collector and a close friend of Joseph Israels, a well-known Dutch artist.  It is generally assumed that Forbes developed a serious interest in art at an early age, through the influence of his uncle.   When the family moved to London Forbes was educated at Dulwich College where he won a prize for drawing and met a fellow pupil who became a life long friend, the naturalist painter, Henry La Thangue. La Thangue’s picture Goats at a Fountain is also exhibited here in Room 11.

With the enthusiastic support of his family Forbes studied at the Lambeth School of Art [1874 – 1876].  After further study at the Royal Academy, Forbes left for Paris to study at the atelier of Leon Bonnat; by the summer of 1881 he was in Cancale, a small fishing village near St. Malo in Brittany, painting ‘en plein air’ with his friend Henry La Thangue. 

After Forbes’s picture A Street in Brittany, also exhibited here in Room 11 had been purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in 1881, he abandoned an earlier idea of making a living as a portrait painter; ‘I must do ‘plein air’ or nothing.  It’s the only way to achieve success.  Stick to one branch of painting and make it your own’.  Despite his success with A Street in Brittany, Forbes found his Breton pictures difficult to sell.  This was one reason why in 1884 he moved to Newlyn a small fishing village near Penzance in Cornwall.  He was attracted by the mild climate; it was possible to paint out-doors throughout most of the year and there is also a special quality to the light at the extreme tip of the Cornish peninsula.  The harbour was full of bright and shimmering reflections; there was an abundance of boats, ropes, sails, nets, and the quaysides were crowded with men and women wearing the traditional clothing of a fishing community.  Such a location was a perfect inspiration for the bold brushwork and careful tonal painting which was the hallmark of Forbes’s work.  He wrote later, “every corner was a picture”.

There were several artists already established at Newlyn when Forbes arrived and no shortage of local people prepared to model for the painter.  He had however the greatest difficulty persuading young women to pose for him in the street.  There was another occasional obstacle.  The people of Newlyn were Methodists and strict observers of the Sabbath.  He once had stones thrown at him when he attempted to paint in the open air on a Sunday.

Off to the Fishing Grounds, was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1886, where it failed to sell.  One writer criticised Forbes’s linear and aerial perspective.  Perhaps the critic was confused by the unusually bold, cropped, snap-shot composition of the painting that appeals so much to people today.  The close-up view of the fishermen and the way in which most of the sail, mast and deck are cut from the composition has a familiar feel; it reminds us of a still from a film.  Such cinematic images were not to be seen until ten years after this picture was painted. The picture was purchased by the Walker Art Gallery from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of 1886 for £350.00.  This price was almost five times the amount paid four years previously for his, A Street in Brittany. The increase in the price of Forbes’s pictures can be explained by the enthusiastic reception and public success of his painting, A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885.

Forbes soon became the leading figure in what was to be known as the Newlyn School of painters.  He got on well with artists and fishermen alike.  A fellow artist Norman Garstin wrote,
“his nature is an unusual compound of enthusiasm and scepticism, of strong opinions and generous deference to the ideas of others, the whole blended and kept sane by an unfailing sense of humour”

In 1899 Forbes married the Canadian born painter Elizabeth Adela Armstrong who worked in St. Ives as well as Newlyn.  Her painting, Blackberry Gathering is in the collection of the Walker but not on show at the moment.  Together they opened a school of painting in Newlyn in 1899.  The school was dedicated to ‘plein air’ principles and the necessity of working directly from the subject.  Elizabeth Forbes died in 1912 and their only child Alec was killed in the First World War in 1916.  Stanhope Forbes continued to paint out-doors up to the end of the 1930s.  He lived on until 1947, dying a few months before his ninetieth birthday.