Penlee House Museum Presents Walter Langley and the Birmingham Boys

Penlee House Museum presents Walter Langley and the Birmingham Boys an exhibition on view through 10 September 2011.

In the late 19th Century, one of Britain’s foremost art movements centred around the tiny fishing village of Newlyn, on Cornwall’s far western shores. According to the Magazine of Art in 1898, “It was Birmingham that first discovered Newlyn”, and the acknowledged pioneer of the ‘Newlyn School’ was the Birmingham born and trained artist Walter Langley, who first visited in 1881. Langley was just one of many West Midlands artists who were to spend time in Newlyn, and this summer, Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance is mounting the first ever survey of their contribution to this important artists’ colony.

Walter Langley, Between the Tides, Penlee House

Walter Langley may not be a household name today, but in his day, he was greatly acclaimed. He was the only British artist of his generation invited to contribute a self-portrait to the Uffizi’s famous collection of portraits of great artists, where it hangs alongside those of Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt. Proving that he appealed across the board, he was also singled out by Leo Tolstoy in his 1897 publication ‘What is Art?’ for producing works of art that were ‘beautiful and true’.

Born in Birmingham in 1852, Langley initially trained at Birmingham School of Design before winning a scholarship to study at the South Kensington Schools, London. By 1879, he had become a professional artist and travelled to Newlyn in 1880 in search of artistic inspiration, which he found aplenty – a later arrival, Henry Scott Tuke, described it as “simply reeking with subjects”. Still known today as a vibrant fishing port, Newlyn at that time was full of picturesque charm, with the fishing and farming communities living their lives in the same way as their forebears, barely touched by the industrial revolution which had so radically changed Langley’s hometown.

1880 saw terrible storms along the Cornish coast, and many fishermen lost their lives. The worst incident involved the fishing lugger ‘Jane’ from the Newlyn’s neighbouring village of Mousehole, which was lost with all hands within sight of the village. As with the Penlee Lifeboat disaster in 1981, this not only devastated the local community, but also moved people across the country, and a national campaign to aid fishermen was launched.

In 1881, Langley received a commission from a wealthy Birmingham patron – perhaps stirred by the ‘Jane’ disaster – to spend the following year in Newlyn, documenting the difficult lives of the fisherfolk. Coming from a very poor, working class background himself, Langley was particularly touched by the hardship faced by the fishing community. His paintings are filled with tales of tragedy and loss, painted with an astonishingly accomplished watercolour technique, capturing the full emotion of his subjects as well as their physicality.

For much of the early 1880s, Langley divided his time between Birmingham and Newlyn, returning to exhibit his works at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and continuing to play a leading role in the city’s artistic life. Artist friends and acquaintances soon learned of Newlyn’s charms and fellow members of the Birmingham Art Circle (which Langley co-founded in 1880) started to make the trek to the far south west. Close friend Edwin Harris had accompanied Langley on one of his earliest Newlyn trips, and others including William Wainwright, William Banks Fortescue, William Breakspeare and Frank Richards followed on to become recognised members of the School.

The exhibition ‘Walter Langley and the Birmingham Boys’ brings together a large selection of work by Langley with examples of works by some of his fellow Birmingham Newlyners. The show includes much-loved works from public collections across the UK, together with virtually unknown works from private collections. As with many of the exhibitions at Penlee House Gallery, the show will give a rare opportunity for paintings that have seldom been on public display to be seen ‘back home’ in Cornwall, in the context of the landscape and community which inspired them.

Also on show is a selection of Newlyn School paintings, including works by Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes, Frank Bramley, Marianne Stokes, Harold Harvey and S.J. Lamorna Birch.

Penlee House Gallery and Museum
Morrab Road
TR18 4HE
Telephone: +44(0)1736 363625
Fax: +44(0)1736 361312
email: [email protected]

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