«Tim Martindale Thesis submitted to the Department of Anthropology of Goldsmiths, University of London, for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, ...»
The memorial came about when a group of local people decided that after the loss of so many fishermen’s lives at sea, a monument should be erected in their memory.
It is intended as ‘a place where relatives and friends could go to pay their respects and take time to remember their loss’. The experience of the sea it evokes is therefore one of danger and tragedy, and its function is less that of a monument to a past episode or way of life, than of a memorial personally and directly meaningful to those engaged in an ongoing way of life. Yet it has other less localized meanings too.
The opening ceremony, attended by Princess Anne in the presence of the local RNLI lifeboat and two fisheries patrol vessels, symbolised the long association between Cornwall, the monarchy, the navy and seafaring communities.
The contrasting features of this seafront, symbolise, in my view, different ways of perceiving the sea and dwelling upon its shores. These ‘ideal-types’ can be described in the following terms: as a distinction between the coast as a site of work and production, and as a site of leisure and consumption; as a source of livelihood and as an object of reverie, contemplation and romance; and as something that is known, familiar, and something that is seen or looked upon. These are only ideal-types. With the decline of Cornwall’s mining, fishing and other maritime industries and the growth of tourism, there was a shift from the former to the latter kind of seascape as the dominant experience, in which late nineteenth century developments in photography played an important role (Fig.70). However the transition is far from clear-cut, linear or one-directional, and interplay between these different ways of experiencing and constructing littoral space has defined the fishing communities of West Cornwall.
Urry uses the example of the seaside village (2002), to explore the encounter between the gaze of the tourist and that of the working fishing community. He notes that this mutual regard is underlain by an unequal power relationship as it is normally the tourist enterprise that will usurp and displace the fisherman. Walton (2000a) provides examples of such dispossession, citing the clearances of parts of the fishing quarter of St Ives in the 1930s and post-war periods. However, as Walton points out, seaside tourism is also an industry and one that has also undergone decline. Furthermore he finds some common ground between tourism and traditional maritime communities in their occupation of the seaside as a realm of the informal – the beach standing as an archetypal symbol and space for liminality, the carnivalesque, and freedom from the constraints of society conventions.
Dual (and sometimes competing) perspectives on the sea, meeting within a common, informal littoral space provide the dominant theme for this and the penultimate chapter. These deal with ‘art and craft’ and ‘heritage’ respectively (although the two subjects are really extensions of one another and overlap a great deal in practice). My view is that heritage, art and craft are all practical and expressive activities. Rather than being merely forms of representation, creativity or leisure/hobby activities divorced from livelihood or production, they embody and extend concrete knowledge, experience and labour. Nonetheless I am concerned to explore the interactions and points of difference between the various practices these may incorporate, including different ‘perceptions of the environment’ (Ingold 2000).
I also extend Ingold’s attempt to extricate hunter-gatherer totemic and animistic depictions from the assumptions of a universal category of art as ‘representation’ (2000: 111-131). One line of difference I pursue is between a landscape perspective with roots in a western painterly perspective implying distance and detachment (Hirsch and O'Hanlon 1995) – in this context a view of the picturesque coastal scene – and perceptions rooted in an experience of place, entailing a more embodied, sensuous engagement with the environment and also suggesting a different role for memory (Gray 1999, 2000). This is not a new interpretation of the subject of place and landscape but a foray into areas where it has not been much applied (i.e. a maritime rather than pastoral context). Furthermore I am interested in the links with experiences of, commentaries on, and adaptations to, rural social change. I focus in particular on case studies of two contemporary fishermen-artists which I foreground within the historic context of interactions between fishing and art at Newlyn and St Ives.
In the previous chapter I examined notions of craft and craftsmanship as part of the practice and implicit ideology of commercial fishermen. In this chapter ‘craft’ is explored as an expressive and economic activity involved in the shifting relationship between fishing, tourism and wider communities. This brings me to the final theme of the present chapter which is the role of fisher engagements with art and craft as forms of economic pluralism. I am dealing specifically with craft as an activity involving making things by hand, rather than generically, to have skill in carrying out one’s work. I also draw attention to modern meanings of craft as identified by Greenhalgh (1997), in particular the elements of the vernacular and the politics of work. Tracing the history of craft meanings and practices Greenhalgh highlights nineteenth century political economy critiques (such as those of Marx, Ruskin and Morris) of loss of control of the work situation and ‘creativity’ through constraints of the machine and the mechanised division of labour. This stimulated an interest in the ‘vernacular’ – ‘the cultural produce of a community, the thing collectively made, spoken and performed’ (p.31). The influence of some of the latter writers on the Newlyn Art School points to how the politics of rural labour has marked the ground upon which trained professional artists and fishermen-artists and craftsmen have interacted.
Fishing and art in Newlyn and St Ives: historicinteractions
Adopting the narrative style of the Pre-Raphaelites and a realist approach of painting direct from nature, many of the Newlyn School works (1880-1930) are focused on a romanticised view of shore-side life and labour, including the drama and pathos of the anxious fisher-wife and the grieving widow, and the melancholy charm of tranquil and ordered domestic scenes (Figs. 73, 74). As Cross describes the
The Great Exhibition of 1851 celebrated the triumph of the machine, but absolute faith in the virtues of manufacturing industry was already faltering. As the dehumanising effect of the factories became apparent, more than half the population lived in towns and rural life appeared increasingly attractive. The countryside was valued as never before in art and literature: a dream landscape, removed in time and space, peopled by a folk society, closely bound by tradition and shared hardship. This dream became symbolised in paintings that reflected the ordered life, that industrial
progress was seen to be destroying. Here was the true satisfaction sought by Ruskin:
“To watch the corn grow, and the blossoms set; to draw hard breath over ploughshare or spade” (2008: 14).
The Newlyn School artists were extremely interested in the vernacular aspects of Cornish labouring culture, and some especially in the crafts of fishing. In Chapter Three I explained how Cornish fishing villages developed within a particular merchant capitalist and colonial Atlantic economy which consolidated and then declined in the late industrial era. Their distinctive peak was a direct result of processes linked to the expansion of the railway which precipitated the arrival of the artists and the subsequent ‘discovery’ of Cornwall, not only by artists and writers, but by tourists too.
Vernon provides an excellent account of how these ‘border crossings’ shaped, and were shaped by, the ‘ambivalent position of Cornwall in the English imagination, and of England in the Cornish imagination – of the Cornish as English, but not English ’ (1998: 153). The impossibility of demarcating lines in these encounters is tellingly illustrated by the lasting legacy of the Newlyn School in the fishing communities of West Cornwall. For example, artists of the school were instrumental in setting up the Newlyn Industrial Class (est. 1890) to teach craft skills to out of work fishermen. Some became adept at working with copper and the same workshop in which they practiced remains a workshop for making world renowned ‘Newlyn Copper’ today (Fig.75). In the 1930s, Penzance gentry and town councillors took advantage of a nationwide slum clearance campaign to petition for fisherman’s cottages in Newlyn to be demolished. There had long been rivalry and hostility between the two places and elites in Penzance regarded Newlyn as squalid, smelly and unsanitary. Whilst the fishing community in Newlyn was divided on the desirability of moving to modern social housing built on the top of Paul Hill (now the Gwavas Estate) members of the artists’ community strongly opposed the clearances. They helped organise and sponsor a number of fishermen to take a fishing boat, the Rosebud, to Westminster by way of protest – a now famous story (Fig.78). Other signs of their lasting legacy remain in sail lofts preserved in some form by their change in use to studios, street names in Newlyn like ‘Rue de beaux arts’, plus generations of artists form fishing backgrounds including Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) and the Mousehole born fisherman’s son Jack Pender (1918-1998).
In a recent BBC TV programme ‘The Art of Cornwall’ (2010) the presenter
described the Newlyn School as follows:
They depicted scenes of hardworking men and god fearing women, together enduring with stoic fortitude the trials of Cornish land and sea. They appeared to offer an authentic and definitive image of Cornwall. But this wasn’t the real Cornwall; it was a fantasy, a make-believe – mawkish, patronising, a masterful piece of Victorian mythmaking.
The Newlyn School works were certainly romanticised depictions of fishing communities producing a ‘visual ideology masking social forces and relations of production, exploitation and alienation’ (Tilley 1994; see also Cosgrove 1984).
However the above interpretation misses several key social aspects of the Newlyn
1) The extent to which members of the fishing community of Newlyn actively participated and performed in the construction of their representation, serving as models, landlords, and interested onlookers;
2) The social and political background in which various social classes in Cornwall and across the Cornwall-English border had for some time preceding the arrival of the artists been engaged in producing images and narratives of Cornish identity, place and nationality (Vernon 1998);
3) The extent to which the Newlyn School became socially embedded and its lasting legacy including more ‘indigenous’ or ‘vernacular’ traditions of art and craft;
4) The political dimensions to the Newlyn School in which artists (including the socialist Walter Langley) sought to depict traditions of rural craft and labour practices that they felt contrasted with emerging urban ways of life and capitalistic forms of production - although the artistic impulse and consumption by audiences had conservative as well as socialist aspects (Payne 2007).
In sum, by assuming that there was a ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ Cornwall that preceded the arrival of the Victorian artists and was somehow threatened by it, the BBC’s interpretation merely reproduces a standard and inaccurate narrative about Cornish primitivism.
This is not to say that the relationship between these overlapping communities was (or is now) without its tensions and conflict, both within, and between the artists’ and fishers’ communities. These are captured poetically in Sven Berlin’s The Dark Monarch (2009) – a semi-fictionalised account of life in St Ives in the years immediately following the second world.
In Cuckoo Town, everybody knew everybody: no one could live in the town for more than a week without being gutted like a herring and spread out in the sun to dry and for all to see. But if you stayed a month, that would bring upon you the same fate as the great mucus-covered ray from the night fishing, with which the fishermen dealt on the promenade during the hours before lunch. One by one the still living monsters were first gaffed, held aloft in one hand, and with a few expert strokes of the knife disembowelled and castrated in one act, leaving a kind of window through the body.
The parts were then thrown to the gulls, who screamed down like birds of hell, diving into the harbour, fighting one another, tearing the sunlight to ribbons (34).
Berlin was a writer and artist who after returning from the war lived in St Ives until 1953. The figure of the ‘Dark Monarch’ represents an ‘overseeing force of darkness, destruction and death’ (Stephens 2009: 5). Like other post-war British artists, Berlin identifies this malevolent force with the ravages and psychological after-effects of the war, with a sense of elemental forces in the mythical landscapes of the West, with the social decay and fragmented communities he found in St Ives (or ‘Cuckoo Town’ as he called it in the book) amidst the clash of forces of tradition and modernity and finally in the potentially destructive force an artist must embrace in order to create 64. Stefens (ibid) also views it as a sharp reflection of upheaval and erosion of the very fabric of the traditional working community of St Ives.
These themes were explored in the Tate St Ives Exhibition ‘The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art’, 10 October 2009 – 10 January 2010.