Cornwall’s ‘Fisherfolk’ – art & artifice || Mary O’Neill

This book has a dual personality, being both art and social history at the same time. If both subjects interest you, that’s not a problem, but if you’re more into the art, you may find the content going off-topic a bit too much for you. Billing itself as “the first book on Newlyn School paintings (as opposed to individual artist monographs) for some years”, it would appear to fill a welcome niche. Indeed it does, and there are plenty of paintings and drawings as well as supporting photographs that set them in context.

However, what’s really (it seems to me) being offered is a documentation of a way of life that uses an excellent variety of available resources and tells a tale that’s not really been told before, and certainly not in this way. Social histories tend to be heavy on the text and light on the illustrations. By convincing itself that this is art history, the approach allows Mary O’Neill to include a large numbers of portraits and group scenes from many different artists (and including, even, Punch cartoons). The accompanying text adds the story behind the images and sets them in context; an analysis of William Holt Yates Titcombe’s A Mariner’s Sunday School appears against an explanation of the importance of Sunday Schools in the development of literacy. If you want to know the full story, this is excellent. I do, and I find it utterly absorbing.

However, if what you wanted was an overview of the development of the Newlyn School and information about its members, this is harder to dig out and it’s the book’s weakness. It’s a shame to have to say this because, as I said, I like the book, but I’m reviewing it as art – it was sent to me as that and that’s how it bills itself. Social historians, on the other hand, ought to grasp it with both hands. I just hope the publisher markets it to them as well.

Cornwall’s Fisherfolk: Art and Artifice

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