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.

Make a bigger splash

UNLIKE MANY PLACES IN ENGLAND, Penzance in Cornwall did not get a mention in the Domesday Book published in 1086 although there is archaeological evidence of a bronze age settlement in the area. The first written mention of the town is in a document dated 1284, when it was listed as ‘Pensans’. The etymology of the town’s name derives from the Cornish words ‘penn sans’ meaning ‘holy headland’.

We discovered recently, on our first visit to the town, that Penzance in the far south-west of the British Isles is very pleasant and full of interesting buildings and other attractions. One of these is the long seafront promenade from which the visitor can see nearby Newlyn in one direction and St Michael’s Mount, Britain’s answer to France’s Mont St Michel, in another. Incidentally, Penzance is further west than anywhere in mainland France.

A row of poles carrying large flags, on which pictures of a diving ladies, dressed in old-fashioned blue striped bathing dresses, were printed, attracted our attention. The flags were fluttering vigorously in the strong breeze. They were placed next to the wall surrounding a large triangular open-air swimming pool two of whose walls project out into the sea. The pool was divided into two sections, one with a greater area than the other. Plenty of people were swimming in both parts. The design of the pool immediately made us think that it had elements suggestive of the art deco style that was popular in between the two World Wars.

The pool is known as the Jubilee Pool. A plaque at its main entrance informs that the pool was opened on the 31st of May 1935 (during the year of the Silver Jubilee of the reign of King George V), confirming our suspicion that it was built in the era of art deco. A website (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1221190) contains the information that the pool was built to the designs of the Borough Engineer Captain F Latham, and it adds that the pool:

“… is now the finest surviving example of its type with the exception of the Saltdean Lido in Brighton (listed grade II). In Europe, lidos such as the Piscine Molitor in Paris of 1929 were the first to adopt the modernist style in order to embody the worship of sunlight and physical fitness. The seaside lido manifested the transformation of sea bathing in the 1920s from a predominantly health activity into a leisure activity, and because it was freed from the constraints in planning of more conventional pools it presented local authorities with the opportunity to emulate Continental fashions.”

The water in the two sections of the pool differs in temperature. In the lager part of the bath, it is unheated but in the smaller part, it is heated. Currently, a bather pays up to £4.25 to swim in the unheated section, and up to £11.75 to swim in the ‘Geothermal Pool’, whose water is between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius (https://jubileepool.co.uk/tickets/). Despite locals receiving a discount on ticket prices, many choose to swim in the sea amongst the Battery Rocks that surround the pool and the extension of the promenade that runs along the eastern edge of the bath. One local, who was dressed in a wet suit and had just been in the sea thought the ticket prices were a bit steep and told us that during September, the end of summer, the sea is actually quite warm.

The Geothermal Pool is filled with salt water heated by geothermal energy. The idea of installing this feature derives from Charlie Dixon, who in 2010:

“…had just returned from a trip to New Zealand where he had bathed in geothermal pools … Ten years and a £1.8m funding package later (not to mention an incredible amount of work by the Jubilee Pool Directors and staff) the first geothermally heated pool of its kind in the UK opens to the public on 1st September 2020 …

… The system operates by extracting warm water from one geothermal well (410m deep – the height of one and a half Eiffel Towers!!), taking heat out of that water using heat pumps and distributing it to the pool via a heat exchanger, before re-injecting the cooler water back into the ground.  This combined system means that the temperature of the pool can be sustained with a very low carbon footprint. The initial pool heating results suggest that it’s about 80% geothermal but ultimately all the energy is coming from our geothermal well. We are using the heat pumps to concentrate that energy to the exact temperature required for the pool.” (https://jubileepool.co.uk/pool-info/geothermal/).

Although the Jubilee Pool geothermal system is the first of its kind in the UK, it was not the first pool or lido to use naturally heated water. The Romans heated the water at Bath with naturally warm spring water.

We wandered along the eastern side of the pool towards a carved stone obelisk that overlooks the triangular pool and the expanse of Battery Rocks. It stands on the site of a gun battery that was built in 1740 when Britain’s relations with Spain deteriorated. The obelisk, a war memorial, was designed by Sir Edward Warren and erected in 1922. It was unveiled by Mrs Bolitho on the 14th of May 1922. She was the wife of Thomas Bedford Bolitho (1835-1915), a Cornish politician (Liberal Unionist MP), banker, and industrialist, of Trewidden (Cornwall). Bolitho is a western Cornish surname and that of a prolific writer and biographer, Hector Bolitho (1897-1974), whose biography of Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan, was published in 1954. Hector was born in New Zealand and migrated to the UK in about 1924. Hector’s grandfather emigrated from Cornwall to New Zealand. It would be interesting to know whether Hector and Thomas were related, even remotely.

We saw plenty of folk bathing in the sea near the pool. They sheltered behind towels that flapped about in the breeze whilst they slipped in and out of their bathing suits. None of them, with whom we spoke, complained about the water’s temperature. In addition to humans enjoying the environment I spotted several cormorants contemplating the sea from their perches on the rocks. The Jubilee Pool and the rocks near it are some of the lovely features that make a visit to Penzance delightful.

The Egyptian House

WE WERE NOT EXPECTING to see anything like it when walking down Chapel Street in the centre of the Cornish town of Penzance. What we saw immediately recalled the pseudo-Egyptian, art deco Carerras Building near Mornington Crescent in London. The building in London is far larger than that we found in Penzance, the Egyptian House. The Carreras Building was built in 1926-28. The Egyptian House was built far earlier, in 1835-36. Admittedly, the two buildings hardly resemble each other but when I saw the one in Chapel Street, I immediately thought of the structure in Mornington Crescent.

The Egyptian House is a regularly shaped building with an extraordinary façade. The front of the building is decorated in colourfully painted bas-relief with ornamentation that evokes thoughts of Ancient Egypt. The windows of this three-storey building are not rectangular. Each of them is framed in isosceles trapezoids (the top and bottom of each frame are parallel, the top being shorter than the bottom, and the sides of the frames form truncated isosceles triangles). All three layers of windows are framed in a large decorative isosceles trapezoid. This creates the illusion that the façade is tapering rather than rectangular. An informative merchant, who spoke to us from his shop across the road from the Egyptian House, pointed out that although the windows on the three floors look different in size, this is also an illusion; they are the same size on each floor.

The decorative features on the building include pillars with lotus capitals, sculpted human heads, a royal coat of arms and an eagle. Above the centrally located front door there is yet another feature, which I will describe soon. But first, a little bit of history.

Numbers 6 to 7 Chapel Street, the building now known as the Egyptian House, stands on the site of an earlier building that had been pulled down by 1835, when John Lavin (1796-1856), a Cornish mineralogist, purchased the site.  According to one source (https://medium.com/the-history-of-collecting/the-sir-russell-collection-of-cornwall-mineral-collections-439cfdb2ae2d) Lavin was:

“… was a stationer and bookbinder in Penzance, Cornwall, who was also dealing in minerals by 1830. Such was his success that he was able to build the famous Egyptian Hall, “Lavin’s Museum”, in Chapel Street in 1835–36.”

The building he created was typical of the early 19th century craze for building in the ‘Egyptian style’. It is said to resemble the now long-since demolished Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly and the Oddfellows Hall in Devonport (constructed 1820s). Also, some of the tombs in the older, spookier, part of London’s Highgate Cemetery were designed to evoke the architecture of Ancient Egypt.  When Lavin died, his son Edward sold his father’s collection to Baroness Burdett-Coutts for £3,500.

The building became neglected and fell into disrepair. By the 1960s, the façade was in a poor state, In the 1970s, the building was restored, and its original colouring reproduced. Now, it is maintained by the Landmark Trust, which rents out rooms within it to visitors at a high price, so we were informed by a local.

The decorative feature that intrigued me most is on the lintel above the front door. It is a bas-relief depicting two outstretched wings attached to a centrally located sphere from which a pair of bird’s heads each, on their own curved necks project. The bird’s heads are shown in profile with their beaks pointing in opposite directions, one to the left and the other to the right. The style of the depiction of the birds is pseudo-ancient-Egyptian as are many other of the ornaments on the building.  As I am fascinated by the double-headed eagles that are used as the symbols of many places including, for example Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Russia, and Karnataka, I was immediately curious as to whether what is above the doorway is a depiction of a double-headed eagle (‘DHE’).

Greatly simplifying matters, the earliest archaeological evidence of the DHE is in sites in Ancient Mesopotamia (3000-2000BC). The civilisations that thrived there were contemporary with Ancient Egyptian civilisations. Although DHE motifs have been discovered in Ancient Egyptian sites, they are not as prevalent there as in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates. Without getting bogged down with the history of the usage of the DHE, I want to speculate on why Lavin included the two-headed bird decoration on his Egyptian-style building.

Was the centrally located motif simply chosen for its decorative symmetry or was John Lavin aware of some connection of the DHE with Ancient Egypt? Or was he making some reference to Cornish families, such as the Killigrews and the Godolphins, that included the DHE in their coats of arms? Sadly, I have no answer to these questions yet.

Our ‘discovery’ of the Egyptian House in Penzance was just one of many lovely things we saw during our brief first visit to the town. I have already written about the Turks Head pub in Chapel Street and I hope to reveal more of the town’s interesting sights in the near future.

The Turk’s Head

WE DROVE TO CORNWALL along the A3, a main road that connects London with Cornwall. Soon after it leaves the capital, the road passes close to Royal Holloway College (at Egham in Surrey), a part of the University of London. The campus at Egham was founded in 1879 and officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1886. The college at Egham was founded by a philanthropist named Thomas Holloway (1800-1883).

Holloway was born in Devonport (near Plymouth in Devon). His family moved to Penzance in the 1820s. There, they ran a public house (‘pub’) called ‘The Turk’s Head Inn’. He became a manufacturer and seller of patent medicines. He was highly successful at promoting his business by advertising in newspapers. Between 1837 and 1842, he had spent more than £5000 on advertising, and as he neared the end of his life, he was spending over £50,000 per year on promoting his products. The advertising paid off. He became one of the richest men in Britain during his life. His products were clinically of dubious value, but they sold well. After his death, some of his products were taken over by Beechams Pills.

Holloway was generous with his wealth. He is best remembered for funding and building the Holloway Sanatorium near Virginia Water (Surrey) and the Royal Holloway College. The college was opened for women only. It was not until the 1960s, that it began admitting male students. It had links with Bedford College in London, where my wife’s grandmother studied in the 1920s, having sailed over from India.

Today, we visited Penzance and walked past the Turks Head Inn, which is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) pubs in the town. It is thought that this pub was first established in 1233, following the Turkish (probably Moorish) pirates attacking Penzance during the Crusades (www.picturepenzance.com/pages/Penzance-History). The pub claims to be the first in England to be named The Turks Head. The building was damaged by fire during the 16th century. What we see today is a modification of what was built after the fire.

We had travelled almost 280 miles from Egham to Penzance, mainly along the A30 (a road about which I hope to write more). Thomas Holloway must have covered this distance many a time in the past. It was fascinating to stumble across his childhood home in Penzance and thereby discover why The Royal Holloway College, which I have known of for ages, came into existence.