The 1894 Nottingham Castle exhibition of Cornish painters was, in its way, ground-breaking. It brought a burgeoning new style and range of subjects to a much wider public and fostered awareness of painters from Newlyn, St Ives and Falmouth.
Much of the work was, in typical Victorian style, both art and social commentary and much of it is romanticised – craggy-faced fishermen gaze knowingly towards the horizon and the young women working on the shore have suspiciously lustrous complexions. There are didactic elements, too, with school-room scenes that reek of “improvement” and an air, once you notice it, of condescension. This sounds like criticism and, in a way, it is. Don’t think, though, that I don’t like Victorian painting. I love its social recording and commentary; I know I have to read between the lines and I’m prepared to do so.
For that reason, I find this a book to treasure and the project that revived the original exhibition, both at Nottingham and the Penlee House Gallery in Penzance, thoroughly worthwhile. Collecting as many of the original paintings together as curator David Tovey has managed to won’t have been an easy task and it inevitably leads you to want more. 1894 saw over 200 works by 50 artists.
This book, which accompanies the present project, reproduces an excellent selection of works and gives a feel for the exhibition for anyone unable to visit. It also painstakingly catalogues all the original works and includes chronological information about the artists. It’s an excellent record although, from a purely artistic point of view, I’d have liked more pictures and fewer words. That’s not really fair though, as there are other books which will do this and the current one would be something other than it sets out to be.
Click the picture to view on Amazon