Victorian painting included a style that one might describe as “sanitised reality”. That is to say, scenes from the life of working people who, when you look at them more closely, live in houses that are in slightly too good repair and wear clothes that are suspiciously clean and unworn. It was a romanticisation of labour that led, amongst other things, to the Arts and Crafts Movement and the impossible futurology of William Morris’s novel News From Nowhere.
Stanhope Forbes is best known for his plein air foreshore paintings of Cornish fisherfolk, and there are plenty of these here. However, there is also a good selection of the artist’s other work that shows him capable of tackling a wide variety of subjects, from rural landscapes to portraiture and industry. In these, he seems more comfortable with the true reality of his subjects – the portraits in particular are sensitive and insightful. Only once does harsh reality creep in, in the very last painting in the book: Their Ever Changing Home, where a traveller family are on the move, the mother’s expression suggesting that this is not, perhaps, entirely voluntary.
Stanhope Forbes was an important figure in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and this book, published to accompany an exhibition at Penlee House Gallery and Museum, includes 50 well-reproduced illustrations that cover all periods of the artist’s life and aspects of his work.
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