The good and simple life

A FEW DAYS AGO, we visited the Penlee House Gallery in the Cornish town of Penzance. After admiring its fine collection of art by painters who worked mainly in Cornwall during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially by members of the Newlyn School, I noticed a moss-covered stone in the gallery’s attractive gardens. It mentioned two twinned towns: Penzance and Concarneau.

St Ives Arts Club

Concarneau is a French fishing port in Brittany. Although I was probably less than ten years old at the time, I have some recollections of the family holiday we spent there along with our general medical practitioner, Dr C, and his family. Two memories of that holiday linger in my brain. One is of the excessively lengthy luncheons we had in our hotel’s dining room. Being a poor eater in my childhood, these meals with many courses did not appeal to me. I remember whiling away the time playing with discarded crab and lobster parts from which the adults had extracted the edible flesh. The other memory is of an unfortunate accident that occurred on the beach. Dr C was showing my young sister a sea urchin. Accidentally, it slipped out of his hand and fell onto my sibling’s bare foot. For many years, she remembered this painful experience.

Concarneau is remembered on the stone at the Penlee House Gallery because some of the artists, who spent much time painting in Newlyn, a fishing port next to Penzance, also painted in Concarneau. The French port, like Newlyn, also attracted French artists. Both places were home to ‘artists colonies’ at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries (for some details, see: http://www.stivesart.info/brittany-links/). St Ives, which is near Newlyn and Penzance, was also home to a thriving artists colony in that period. Today, one of the attractions of St Ives is the fact that serious artistic activity continues there. Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947), a highly accomplished artist based for much of his life in Newlyn, wrote that this close neighbour, almost continuation of, Penzance was his:

“…sort of English Concarneau.” (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2003/important-british-pictures-l03123/lot.31.html)

The artists colonies that existed all over Europe and also in North America at the same time as those in Newlyn and St Ives became the subject of research for my friend, the art historian and travel writer, the late Michael Jacobs (1952-2014). For some unknown reason, Michael never learned how to drive. As a result, he depended on public transport and his friends to get him around the many places that he visited. In about 1984, two years after I had gained my driving licence, I agreed to drive him to Cornwall where he was researching its two artists colonies. We stayed both in Newlyn and St Ives in bed and breakfast accommodation. I enjoyed accompanying my friend whilst he made his enquiries.

An organisation in Newlyn let Michael the notebooks (or diaries) of Stanhope Alexander Forbes, who lived from 1884 onwards in Newlyn and died there. Trustingly, the keeper of these original handwritten notebooks gave them to Michael to peruse overnight. He hardly slept that night because he spent most of it feverishly trying to read as much as possible of this source of information about life in Newlyn’s former artists colony.

Michael was a sensitive fellow, who never wanted to upset anyone. This admirable characteristic of my friend backfired the following day. Our landlady provided us with a lavish full English breakfast. The table was covered with an ocean of food, piles of bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, fried bread, toast, black pudding, fried tomatoes, and much more. After we had both eaten, there was still a vast amount of food on the table. Michael said to me that we should not leave it uneaten as that would upset our kindly hostess. I said that I could not manage any more. So, Michael, not wishing to risk offending our landlady, managed to consume the huge amount of food remaining. Thoughtful as this was, it was not without consequences. For much of the rest of the day, poor Michael kept clutching his stomach that was not grateful for the load of food with which it had to deal.

We stayed in St Ives. The bed and breakfast place that we had booked was on a steeply sloping narrow street in the old part of the lovely town. Driving my car through streets like these, barely wider than my vehicle and often dangerously steep, was no joke. After that, my first trip to St Ives, I promised myself never to attempt driving in the old part of the town. I have stuck to that promise.

Our visit to St Ives was made special because Michael had to interview various artists in their studios and members of the St Ives Arts Club. The latter, which is housed in an old warehouse, was founded in 1890. Its early members included the artists Sir John Arnesby Brown, Sir Leslie Stephen, Adrian Strokes and W Titcomb. The Club’s informative website notes:

“All but one of the original Committee hung at the Royal Academy.” (www.stivesartsclub.org/copy-of-history).

I do not recall whom we met there, but we were permitted to enter parts of the Club not normally accessible to non-members.

While we were in St Ives, we did not visit the Barbara Hepworth Museum (first opened in 1976) and the Tate St Ives was not yet in existence; it opened in 1993.

By the time that Michael and I visited the two towns in western Cornwall, my friend had already done a great deal of research about artists colonies abroad. What struck him at the time was that in each of the former artists colonies that he visited in a number of different countries including France, Russia, USA, and Germany, he met experts who could tell him much about the colony in which they specialised but few of them were aware, as Michael had become, of how much the artists moved between the different colonies.

Michael’s research culminated in the writing of his book “The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America” that was published by Phaidon in 1985. Sadly, I have mislaid, I hope temporarily, my copy of this book, in which I am sure that he wrote a personal inscription. When we visited the Penlee House Gallery in September 2020, I looked at their bookstore to see if they stocked Michael’s book. It was not there and also the otherwise informative gallery staff had never heard of it, which is a great pity because it shows how the Newlyn and St Ives colonies were part of an international artistic network or community.

It was the visit to the Penlee that brought us to Penzance, a place that we had not considered visiting before. I am pleased that we went to the town because it offers many delights that exceeded our prior expectations.

Michael passed away six years ago. Although in the last few years of his life we saw him less often than previously because he was often away travelling or spending time in his home in Spain, a country which he loved, we think of him often with great affection.

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