This months’s Mystery Painter is Stanhope Alexander Forbes, founder of the Newlyn School of painters, who lived a long and productive life between 1857 and 1947.
This picture shows Florence Munnings (known as Blote), wife of the successful and famous painter Sir Alfred Munnings who lived close to Stanhope Forbes. Later on in the same year that this picture was painted, the model took her own life.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I knew next to nothing about Stanhope Forbes until very recently.
I think I’d deliberately dismissed all the art produced by the Cornish painters from St Ives and Newlyn during the first half of the 20th Century from my mind, and written it off as “Provincial”.
What a mistake.
Here’s Stanhope Forbes’ self portrait. This first version is the normally printed version, just as the artist painted it.
But because any self portrait is flipped left to right, this second version (below) is a truer portrayal of the artist as others would have seen him.
This particular self portrait looked disgustingly dirty, so I’ve taken a liberty and brightened it up a bit too.
(I think that many of the old paintings available online have often not seen the restorer’s hand, and they frequently show the accumulation of many years of tobacco smoke, atmospheric pollution and industrial grime that give them a dirty yellow-brown sheen. We are being poorly treated by some of these online collections.)
Back to our subject: Stanhope Forbes was born in Dublin in 1857. His father was a railway inspector and his mother, Juliette de Guise, was French. The family moved to England and young Stanhope Forbes went to Dulwich College in South London and later to the Lambeth School of Art in London’s East End. His art master at Dulwich was John Sparkes who later headed the important Kensington Schools and Forbes also met his life long friend and fellow student, the naturalist painter Henry La Thangue at the college.
He later went on to the Royal Academy Schools (Just off Piccadilly in central London) in 1876 where he studied under such heavyweights as Leighton and Alma-Tadema, and in 1880 he went to Paris where he attended the studio of the painter Leon Bonnat.
Forbes was greatly influenced by the open air painter Jules Bastien-Lepage who had achieved success with his pictures of the everyday lives of agricultural workers.
Forbes’ friend La Thangue (who was a star pupil of Gerôme at the Ecole des Beaux Arts), first encouraged Forbes to paint in the open air when they went on a painting trip in Brittany together to escape the hot Parisian summer.
It’s probable that La Thangue introduced Forbes to the ‘square brush’ technique that he was to develop and perfect in his French and early Newlyn work. But the major change for Forbes was working out of doors, under the open sky directly in front of the subject, that revolutionised his work at this time.
At the time he said “It was paramount to obtain that quality of freshness, most difficult of attainment by any other means and which one is apt to lose when the work is brought into the studio for completion”.
After Forbes sold this painting to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 1882, he declaimed “I must do plein air or nothing. It is the only way to achieve success. To stick at one branch of painting and make it your own”.
In December 1883 Forbes took thea train from London to Cornwall and after searching around for likely areas, settled near Penzance in the fishing village of Newlyn, in January 1884.
His name would become inseparably associated with Newlyn from then on.
Newlyn became a sort of artist’s colony, similar to many that were being established around that time in Britain, France and elsewhere.
Stanhope Forbes’ presence in Newlyn quickly made it the focus of the ‘plein air’ movement in Britain.
Although Cornwall was a very amenable place for a painter with its mild climate, astonishing light and abundance of picturesque scenery, Forbes kept his eye on the main prize which was to be gained in the Royal Academy shows in distant London.
After about a year of work, this is what he wowed them with at the Academy in 1885 –
Here’s a little study he made for the Fish Sale
Forbes was a master of restraint and could exercise a really cool and controlled handling of colour.
Here’s a couple of interiors that show his skill with tonality.
Forbes was very fond of tonal works and he took particular delight in trying to capture the effects of the setting sun and the evening glow. Remember he was doing this as a dedicated open air painter which meant he would have to work on a canvases over many short sessions at the same hour of the day to get the light exactly right.
This was easier to achieve in the controlled indoor light of the blacksmithy.
A couple of evening exteriors:
Whatever you might think of the rest of Forbes’ work, this next picture must be ranked as his masterpiece. Just slow down and let your eyes drink in this view.
In 1899 Forbes and his wife, Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes, founded the Newlyn Art School (It closed 1938).
Forbes was also one of the founder-members of the New English Art Club (NEAC) in 1886, and was elected a Royal Academician in 1910.
Elizabeth pre-deceased him by many years, dying in 1912 at the age of 52, and their only child William was killed on the front in France in 1916.
The nearby Penlee House Gallery and Museum has a very informative website dealing with the Newlyn school of painters, many of whose paintings are held in their collection.
Below the “More” you can find an article written by Stanhope Forbes that appeared in The Cornish Magazine, entitled “A Few Reminiscences Of Newlyn.”