Paintings-on-Sea (1): notes

Brief notes from: Rough Seas in Newlyn (1880s) – talk/discussion at The Beecroft Gallery, Saturday 28th January 2017.

Our art-historical road to the Newlyn Artists’ Colony was long and winding as we considered a number of 19th-century paintings – British and French – that suggested contexts/ themes for thinking about the art that developed along the coasts of Britain towards the end of the century, as well as ways of seeing – for these paintings looked at ‘the world’ anew.

Traditionally, the coastline of Britain might have been seen primarily as the edge of the nation – a nation that needed defending, and there are numerous examples of artworks that show naval ships, reflect on wars at sea and symbolise the defence of/ threat to the nation. In the first half of the 19th century this focus was primarily levelled with regard to the on-going Napoleonic wars.

John Sell Cotman (a key artist of the Norwich School): ‘The Mars’ riding at anchor off Cromer (c.1807; Norwich Castle) is a good example – the ship on the horizon; and note the ‘balance’ of war and peace in the sky, cloud vs. clear blue.

(picture c/o Bridgeman Art Library)

Numerous paintigns by JMW Turner also tell of the British story at sea: for example The ‘Victory’ returning from Trafalgar (1806; Yale Centre USA):

(picture c/o Bridgeman Art Library)

Even by the middle of the century there were warnings that, under threat, Britain was vulnerable to attach and invasion – see William Holman Hunt (1827-1910): Our English Coasts, 1852 [Strayed Sheep] (1852, Tate Gallery):

(picture c/o Tate Gallery)

Yet whilst the Victorians might have been feeling vulnerable to invasion, they were also vulnerable in a perhaps more fundamental way. William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay (1859) is an extraordinary adventure into the intellectual debates of an increasingly scientific society that begins questioning God and religion.

There is a brilliant analysis of the meanings that may or may not be attributed to this painting at

Fundamentally, the painting seems to highlight the geological strata of the cliffs; the collecting of shells might focus the interest in collecting fossils -each, in the context of Darwin’s theories of evolution, at least questioning biblical truths. Yet we must note that central to the painting – very difficult to see in reproduction – is Donati’s comet – a bright, brief light in the sky, right in the middle. Again this might accompany the geological cliff face – whilst the strata reveal the age/s of the earth, so the comet suggests the vastness of the universe. However, it may also echo the Star of Bethlehem and, as Pegwell Bay is the area where St Augustine landed in 497 AD on his mission to convert the English to Christianity, belief may remain in tact yet.

Other troubling changes were also afoot at the seasides of Victorian Britain – the developing fashion for ‘taking the sea air’ saw the development of coastal holiday resorts, and new trainlines up and down the country meant travel was becoming easier – this was the early age of day-trippers and tourists, as we see in William Powell Frith (1819-1909)’s Ramsgate Sands – Life at the Seaside (1854; from The Royal Collection):

It was no doubt highly troubling to the Victorians that here, on the beach, the classes might mix together sociably as they dabbled toes in the sea.


Much, then, was changing along the coasts of Britain.

And yet we would be wrong to consider the coastline as simply an “edge”; the coasts are a porous boundary for coming and going, physically and mentally.

Whilst artists in the early 19th century may have been frustrated that they were unable to travel easily – the traditional Grand Tour to Italy, for example – by the middle of the century, continental Europe was open to them again, and it was now France that often called them to visit. For there, art was changing: artists were beginning to reject The Academy with its rules and ideals for History Paintng. Instead they were looking to the life of the countryside and taking up rural residences.

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) was one of the first. A hugely influential artist, he founded The Barbizon School near the Forest of Fontainebleau, and his subject matter – painted with clear realism – was everyday rural life, the workers of the fields. Perhaps his best-known work  is: The Sower (1850)

(picture c/o Bridgeman Art Library)

Here the sower is a monumental figure silhouetted against the skyline as he works his way across the field.

Among the second generation of innovative French artists was Jules Bastien Lepage. His subject matter was also the working life of the countryside: Haymaking (1877, Musee d’Orsay, Paris)

And what was so inspiring – and controversial – about Bastien Lepage’s paintings was not just the subject mater, but the style in which they were painting. Note how detailed the foreground is, in particular the ‘portrait’ of the young woman – she immediately feels close to us; whilst as we move back into the picture, the brush strokes are looser, freer and textured – there is an extraordinary sense of light, open air. Many British artists flocked to work with Bastien Lepage – the Glasgow Boys in particular should be noted – including Henry Herbert La Thangue whose painting The Return of the Reapers (1886; Tate Gallery) is a perfect example of the technique:

Note the design: strongly vertical, the two figures seeming to be moving directly towards us, both finely painted yet the ‘background’ is much freer – Bastien Lepage’s “square brush” technique.


Coming up in the next few days: art and artists during the early years of the Newlyn Art Colony…

In the meantime, books that might be of interest:

“British Impressionism” by Kenneth McConkey (Phaidon; 1989)

“Painting at the Edge – British Coastal Art Colonies 1880-1930” edited by Laura Newton (Sansom & Co.; 2005)


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring "The Art & Artists of Russia (1850s-present) currently, and please see the A History of Art in England series; looking forward to discussing "British Art Groups (1930s)" when we can have live group meetings again! Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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