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That Nigel didn’t really enjoy making the withy pots initially (this came later) and his emphasis on apprenticeship and the traditions of a community corresponds with Sennett’s view on craft (2009). Sennett is keen to extricate a broader meaning of craft from the more specific and modern associations with a counter-culture that contrasts ordinary consumerism with DIY or hobbies involving ‘arts and crafts’ (making and mending etc). He finds in the latter too much emphasis on craft as a source of creative pleasure for the individual. The working classes have always had to do ‘DIY’ he says because they could never afford to employ professionals. He attempts to distance himself from the term ‘creativity’ because it carries an awful lot of ‘class-baggage’ 68. Craft is not always pleasurable; indeed it can be frustrating and laborious. Rather what distinguishes it is the dedication and compulsion to learn to do something well over time. Sennett is attempting to counter a notion of ‘skill’ that he believes has become common-place in contemporary Britain and America as the mere execution of a procedure, together with the notion of skill as an individual property, an outcome of competition and intelligence which can be measured through tests of the kind common in schools.
By continuing a tradition of craft-making and economic pluralism Nigel is maintaining and remoulding a memory of his own ancestral community as well as contributing to the maintenance of a contemporary community through fishing and Sennett made this comment on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Craft and Community’ (an edition of Thinking Allowed 2 May 2011).
attracting tourism. The willow baskets are ‘craft’ rather than ‘art’ objects in that their design relates to a use-function and speak more of a community of practitioners than individual personality. Commenting on museum displays of vernacular material culture MacDonald (2002) argues that fetishisation of these kinds of artefacts, made sacred by being taken out of current circulation as functional objects, has meaning because of the former uses (skills and ways of life) they reference. Laviolette (2006) makes a similar argument about contemporary maritime art in Cornwall that makes use of recycled and salvaged material. For their audiences and consumers, as no doubt for their makers, they stand for local resourcefulness and self-sufficiency in a time when these aspects of locality are seen to be eroded. The peculiar properties of materials and techniques are significant here but should not be overemphasized.
Although Nigel’s beautiful withy pot label tags (Fig. 90) say ‘withy pot making is a dying craft’ and indeed there are only a handful of people in Cornwall left who make them, Nigel does not himself fetishise materials, nor does he hold a static view of community. We will recall from Chapter Four that in Nigel’s view the fishing community at Cadgwith had not changed very much. The fishermen use different gear, and boats are no longer built with wood but steel and fibre-glass. Meanwhile on shore, houses are no longer occupied by fishermen but rather holidaymakers, secondhome owners, and a small percentage of in-migrants who live there all year round.
Despite all this, what mattered to Nigel was that there was still a working fishing community whose members shared resources and had to rise above inevitable petty squabbles in order to work together to launch and land their boats and help each other out when there was a problem.
Speaking on a radio documentary 69, Nigel was surprisingly open and positive about the onshore residential changes that had occurred at Cadgwith as across Cornwall and elsewhere. Whilst the documentary highlighted issues specifically connected to the impact of second-home owning, Nigel was in general accepting and optimistic about the cultural and economic benefits of influxes of migrants. One influence of the cultural ‘mix’ he celebrates is presumably that of the artists as he himself is also a painter. Therefore he belongs to an ancestral community of artists in Cornwall as well as an ancestral community of traditional labour and craft. His BBC Radio 4, Picturing Britain, Episode 4, ‘The Fisherman’s Tale’, 26 January 2012 pictures demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the sea and of ship design and rigging.
Some of his works recall those of Alfred Wallis – painted on salvaged materials such as pieces of driftwood and slate. However in content their style is different – more reflecting a tradition of impressionistic marine painting and concerned to capture a mood rather than tell a story. Asked if he was motivated to paint primarily for economic reasons Nigel said the art came first – he enjoys painting and if someone wants to buy his work it is an added benefit. His subject matter is always the sea and boats – he doesn’t paint anything else, and they portray a universal theme. All the boats are pictured moving from right to left in his pictures which from Nigel’s
perspective means they are coming home to port:
You’ll get a lot of artists who’ll say the sea is romantic and it’s fantastic, and it really isn’t romantic, it’s just wet and cold, and it hurts people and it’s very rough. So you know it’s a load of old nonsense really. A fisherman – it’s a hard job. Some of them are away for a long time and you only hear about the good catches, you don’t hear about the bad times. And it’s a nice feeling when you’re bringing the last dan [buoy] aboard and you’re heading for home 70.
Martin Ellis (aka Nutty Noah) My encounter with another Lizard-based, fisherman-artist – Martin Ellis 71, reinforced my impression that art was both a practical means of economic survival for these particular fishermen and a means through which they extend and express their relationship and engagement with the sea and boats – their love affair, like pastoralists who compose odes to their cows. For Martin whose paintings were more narrative in form than Nigel’s, it was also a way of telling his story, which was perhaps especially important to him given that he was no longer fishing.
Martin, or ‘Nutty Noah’ as he is widely known, was a large man with big hands – slightly wild looking and a mischievous twinkle in his eye (Fig. 100). He picked me up in his car in Ruan Minor village at the top of the hill that leads down to Cadgwith Cove. We drove to a small disused farm in Lizard (Village) where Martin had to pick up some iron that he was taking to the scrap merchants to make a bit of cash. It was then that I was struck by the parallels between Martin Ellis and Alfred Wallis (fisherman, chandler, ‘rag-and-bone’ man, and painter). Of course Martin did not Quoted by BBC (ibid).
Martin Ellis one of the ‘Cadgwith Primitive Painters’ featured in an exhibition in London with Nigel Legge (see Fig.29) salvage metal all the time for a living but he described a varied and pluralistic life – fisherman, digger-driver, chainsaw-man, rabbit hunter and now artist. He said it depressed him that he was a grown man without means, having to scrape a living anyway he could. He wanted to be an independent ‘working man’ again – he was getting old he felt and ‘owned nothing’. This honest admission could not hide an indomitable spirit and sense of optimism. A story emerged of adventurous risktaking and misfortune that had in the end forced him out of fishing. He was now trying to remake himself into an artist and he had been willing to speak to me because he thought I might be useful to him somehow in the future. ‘That’s how it works isn’t it?’ he said, ‘I help you, you help me’.
It transpired that Martin had been influential in the revival of the Cornish pilchard fishery. In tour-guide mode he took me to Church Cove where seining for pilchards was once conducted. He showed me a building where the pilchards had been pressed and salted (Fig.95) instructing me on how to compose a nice photo and telling me about how the building would have been used (a scene he recreates in one his paintings). He explained how large the seine net would have been (as deep as the cliffs were high) and pointed to where the warps would have been tied that were used to haul the net towards the shore once it had been encircled around the shoal.
He also told me the story of how in the 1980s he had experimented with fishing with a ring-net. After talking to Joe and Jimmy Madron, two old fishermen from Mousehole who used to work a big ring-net in the 1960s and 70s he started trying for pilchards. Nick Howell had lent him some money to buy Joe and Jimmy Madrons’ boat, the Renevil. Nick was a fish merchant and owner of the Cornish Pilchard Works – salting, curing and pressing pilchards for a family of Italian buyers that had been buying pilchards from Cornwall for over a hundred years. He was trying to revive a domestic market by rebranding the Cornish caught pilchards as the ‘Cornish sardine’.
Martin’s first catch weighed in at 360 stone. He mortgaged his house and brought a new boat called the Penrose, using the same ring-net. ‘When the net was set it was as deep as a church tower is high and nearly half the size of a football pitch’. The net could enclose up to four or five hundred stone of fish. On his last night aboard the Penrose, he was joined by two Newlyn fishermen keen to see a sonar and ring-net worked together. It did not take them long to find a shoal of sardines and encircle them.
I can remember that I brought a powerful torch and had shone it on the fish, which were in the net in their thousands. They made a hushing noise as they swam everywhere and anywhere to try and find a way out... The crew pushed the brailer net into the thousands of pumping, splooshing, noisy, beautiful little silver darlings... The noise of all those little fish was really quite loud as there were hundreds in the air at a time. The smell was such a pure, oily smell, something quite sweet and pleasant. The surface of the sea for at least 200 yards was like glass from the oil of the pilchards...
Although it was dark, our deck lights showed us a little way out and the hundreds of gulls – all looking like they had eaten more than enough, like they did not want to fly... Gannets are very large, white seabirds, with a six feet wingspan and they fall from the sky like an arrow into the sea. During their dive they always tell the ones below they are on their way down: “cadalla, cadalla, cadalla” repeated quickly and a sromping as they enter the fish they’d had their eyes on. If they had not gone down far enough they actually fly under water like penguins. There were always a lot of gannets as well as gulls in the black sky.
He phoned Nick Howell to say that they had about five hundred stone on board and reported that the sea was flat calm but the wind was getting up a little. Their position was about three to four miles off Mousehole and they were on their way in.
Half an hour later the coastguard called to check on them (perhaps knowing Martin’s risk-taking nature Nick Howell had already informed them that Martin and crew were at sea). Martin reported that they were okay but the wind was rising and asked them to call again in half an hour. Soon after, as the waves were getting bigger, it was apparent they were taking on water. The scales of the pilchards had blocked the scuppers over which Martin had placed a mesh to stop the pilchards escaping. As they donned life-jackets, he said to his crew ‘I don’t like this, men’.
As there had been a series of larger than normal waves coming over the bow, and a lot of water in the deck, I decided to slow down just a little. That was it – our realization
of our situation was easy to read on all of our faces. There was only one word for it:
As the horizon rose before them and the boat began to list, they decided it was time to abandon ship. They had been able to free and inflate the life-raft and the three of them managed to slip into it from the water, Martin just managing to slip off a rope that had tangled itself around his leg and which might have dragged him down along with his boat. Receiving no reply to their follow-up call the coastguard marshalled the Penlee lifeboat and a Sea King helicopter from Cauldrose. Martin
recalls the moment of their rescue as a happy and funny memory:
A big hand came in towards me on the end of a long arm and then another which I caught hold of – and out I came from that wet, flapping life-raft door like a cow having a big calf! And then one of the [lifeboat] crew saw Patch [one of the Newlyn fishermen who was also a member of the lifeboat crew] and he said: Bloody typical!
We’ve been on standby, wondering where you were and you’re out here already!” Patch is now the Coxswain of that lifeboat.
After Martin had shared this and other stories, and his artworks with me, we shook hands and I took my leave. As we did so, he said ‘so there you are, that’s my past’. Indeed he was painting his past, from his depiction of the rescue in Three in the Sea (Fig. 96), to the different boats and harbours he has worked in Nutty’s Past (Fig.97), to his fishing skills in My Qualifications (Fig.99), and his various occupations and enterprises in Giving it my best shot 72, including looking for treasure. Now that fishing is no longer a financially viable occupation for him, he is now trying to make himself known as an artist. Martin said he resents the economic demands of modern life and just working to pay the bills. He sees himself as a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ character and this is how he would ideally like to live – selfsufficient and free – perhaps an archetype for many a fisherman. In his own words: 73 Too many days he had steamed off our shores, Not catching enough to pay for the stores.
No pack of hounds to follow their scent, So Nutty Noah's money all gone and spent.
And now he's an artist, some people might say, And the ones who are looking may become his prey.