A Brief Discussing Regarding the Lost of Cornish Identity
Art Colonies on Penwith Peninsula and Their Substantial Impact
The article briefly introduced the establishment of Cornish identity since the establishment of art colonies in Penwith peninsula. It argues that Cornwall is still in a primitive stage of reclaiming its voice as well as political demands in the Brexit era. The writing reviewed this theme through art and compared similar culture output of other regions of the United Kingdom.
In The Dark Side of Landscape: The Rural Poor in English painting 1730 – 1840, John Barrel argues that idyllic landscape paintings of artists like Constable were projections of an idealised orderly system of their clients. Landlords, nobles and factory owners would benefit from a highly disciplined stable labour source. The accumulation of social wealth provided fertility for the growth of the art market in which landscape paintings reflect natural and rural sceneries was highly appreciated. To some extents, this preference reflected a nostalgia of traditional lifestyles of the past; it also revealed anxiety of the unpredictable future that industrialisation brings.
In St Ives Art Pre-1890: The Dawn of the Colony, historian David Tovey points out that Cornwall was barely known to the public eyes due to transport limitations and its remoteness (Tovey, 2008). Famous towns in contemporary time like Penzance, Newlyn and St Ives were “discovered” by up-country artists and gentleman painters. Through communications conducted by email, Tovey pointed out that it was JMW Turner, Joseph Farington and William Daniell’s journeys to Penwith brought the unique Cornish sceneries to the public appreciation. Some sketches painted by these artists, and engravings that reproduced after their visit significantly promoted the fishing town of St. Ives in the field of Art (Figure 1). After their trips, the construction of the Great Western Railway provided convenience for artists to travel. It gradually turned towns in Penwith into art colonies and cultivated the foundation for the region’s international reputation.
Newlyn School was art society equally notable as the art colony of St Ives. It attracted painters who were fascinated by rural landscapes and sceneries to left Paris and this remote land. A significant amount of genre paintings reflect fishing lives were produced by its artists.
Two representative features of St Ives School and Newlyn School are the outdoor tradition of en Plein air and impressionistic influence. Painters majorly worked outside their studio, wandering in nature, on the streets, capturing the flow of air and natural light. Brush works of theirs gradually unrestrained from academic preciseness cultivated an open-minded foundation which encouraged freewheeling exploration and radical experiments.
“There are very few indigenous Cornish artists prior to the 1930s. They can be counted on little more than one hand”, Tovey wrote. Scattered art colonies formed by outsiders contributed significantly to the art-appreciated tradition of Cornwall. As the reputation grew, more and more travelling painters were lured to the peninsula. For example, James McNeill Whistler from the United States, Anders Zorn from Sweden, and Helene Schjerfbeck from Finland. Their pictorial impressions decisively shaped the way art field reviewed Cornwall and kept attracting visitor even till the last day of Julius Olsson (Baker, 1959).
A painting made by Helene Schjerfbeck, View of St Ives, 1887 pictures the little fishing town at its early days as an art colony (Figure 2). The image of St Nicholas’s cottage on the Island and the unique shape of Godrevy Point in the distant can be quickly recognised by people who are familiar with St Ives Bay. Two child figures placed at the front layer brought vitality and idyllic peace which formed a dramatic contrast with stereotypical impressions like “poverty, harshness and undeveloped” of Cornish fishing town. The painting reminds us of the true essence of Cornish life and the landscape where this scenario occurs. Schjerfbeck was one of the earliest artists to visit St Ives. She was deeply attracted by its landscape and constantly mentioning its beauty in letters. Despite the fact that the artist was widely known of her abstract portrait paintings after her returning to Finland, View of St Ives has promoted the landscape of St Ives internationally. It celebrates a soulful moment as well as a romantic voyage of a young female artist on the other end of the European continent.
One of the critical factors that transformed west Cornwall into a centre of art in the 1940s was its remoteness. Artists like Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson fled to St Ives to avoid bombing in London. Their significant contribution not only stimulated the flourishing of art in Cornwall but also brought the latest fashions in fine art, which pushed formats of Cornish art to vary. Before their arrival, there was Christopher Wood, who returned from Paris and decided to follow his Cornish origin; Alfred Wallis, an indigenous Cornish fisherman, freely picture his understanding of the region without any training. They formed the artist group which was labelled the St Ives school, one of the most creative and internationally reputable movement in 20th-century British art. It is safe to argue that the pictorial attractiveness of Cornwall to artists was established by their travelling predecessors. The pursuit of an idealisation of lifestyle and landscape at the very beginning ultimately supported the county of Cornwall in becoming an art colony and encouraged the development of indigenous artists like Peter Lanyon who started to discuss the true essence of the Cornish landscape. In The Art of Cornwall (BBC 4, 2015), Dr James Fox argues that Peter Lanyon devoted a considerable proportion of his career to exploring landscapes that only Cornish people understand. The essay believes this transformation of perspective marked growth in Cornish people’ exploration of their own identity – a healthy and supportive environment which started to see local artists depict their own culture.
Visitors play a significant part in Cornwall’s financial capability. Tourism occupies £1.8 billion of the total amount of £9 billion in its annual economy (Vergnault, 2018). Statistics provided by Visit Britain shows St Ives has an average holiday spent of £91 million from 2016 to 2018 as the top 20 visited town in England. This data was even contributed by British residents only. Achievements in the movie industry explained screen tourism’s value to £60 million of the county’s economy (Trewhela, 2019). Images of the landscape are there still central to the region’s appeal and a power driver of its economy. However, the growing movie industry also rose the concern of a post-colonial manipulation regarding scenic picture’s potential of rewriting history. Peter Lanyon’s work St Just (1953)(Figure 3) was a memorial to a devastating mine disaster on 20th Oct 1919. The painting had occasionally been referred to as his crucifixion, shows Lanyon’s unique understanding of a landscape that thoroughly influenced by a narrative (Laird, 2014). With the speciality in the theory of “heritage dissonance”, researcher Alex Rowe, has been motivated to investigate whether images in TV series like Poldark would dilute the landscape’s cultural meaning to Cornish people (Hards, S, 2019).
In an interview, Malcolm Bell stated that immigrants often choose to move to Cornwall due to their fondness of the region; however, conversely, a considerable amount of locals may take their heritage for granted (Leitch, 2017). In the context of post-colonialism, it is not difficult to see the regional isolationism that Cornwall has been demonstrating recently. A considerable amount of opinion believes immigrants turn indigenous residents into minorities, which raises the concern of losing Cornish identity, among the various challenges the county is facing (Fleet, 2008). New immigrants and seasonal tourism massively impact on local concern for their community, highlighting the importance of the problematic situation in Cornwall. Generally speaking, English regional policy priorities economic growth whilst ignoring the uniqueness of Cornish culture. As well as the pattern of population relocation, such political flaws further disadvantaged the county’s dilemma when compared to regions like North-East (Sandford, 2006).
Evidence reveals the term Cultural Conservatism: an overwhelming emotion concerning Cornwall’s contemporary identity as anxiety over the threat of the disappearance of, or irreversible changes to its traditions and culture (Scruton, 2017). The accumulation of negativities eventually caused severe radicalness. In 2017, the Metro reported that Rick Stein’s Porthleven restaurant had been firebombed in a terrorist attack related to radical Cornish nationalism (Figure 4). In a statement following the attack, the Cornish Republican Army claimed to have “thirty volunteers in active service units”, and said that in the past fifty years, all that had been achieved was “an ethnic cleansing of the people of Kernow” (Mills, 2017).
One year before the assault, Cornish film director Mark Jenkin produced an experimental piece of his, The Essential Cornishman (2016). It was described as a discussion about the connections between local fishers and the landscapes, which demonstrates the touristic impact on the traditional industry (Moseley, 2019). Jenkin pushed his exploration in Cornish identity further after three years. The film Bait (2019) powerfully pictures the county’s uncertain future in a rapidly modernising society and was successful in bringing this problem to public attention (Figure 5). It was highly complimented and rewarded, eventually became an icon of the self-determined voice of the contemporary context.
This writing would suggest that Cornwall is still in a primitive stage of reclaiming its voice. Unlike Welsh, Scotland and Ireland, the post-colonialism weakened the identity awareness of Cornishmen while centralising power for the administrative organ more effectively. Other regions of the United Kingdom has been producing works reflect cultural identity earlier and more radical.
Welsh artist Iwan Bala described the concept of Welsh landscape as “romanticised, painted and tamed by touring artists”, and as “being colonised by art” (Bala, 2005). His statement caused resonance and was posted on the website of Artcornwall. Robert C. Morgan argues that “Culture is not made through consensus or imposition. It is made through ideas that are strongly felt; undeniable feelings were one acknowledges the course of history in relation to the present.” (Robert, 1998). Michael F. Brown suggests that “Culture was an abstraction distilled from behaviour and shared understandings. It served as a shorthand way to talk about the habits and attitudes that give each society a distinctive signature”, a contemporaneous statement argues (Brown, 2004). Elsewhere, Still (The) Barbarians, curated by Koyo Kouoh (2016)(Figure 6), for EVA International Biennale, Limerick in April 2016. The symposium investigates the post-colonial status of Ireland. In Scotland, artists such as Ross Sinclair in works such as Real Life Rocky Mountain (1996) (Figure 7), discuss the idealised Scottish identity and landscape (Ross Sinclair, n. d.). Exhibition Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland, responded to the awakening of national identity after the Scottish referendum.
The essay suggests the understanding of the true essence of the Cornish landscape could not be properly displayed in a respectful manner without any immersing experience and field investigation. Consequences of continuously ignoring Cornwall’s regional voice may become increasingly radical. A mutual understanding and respect to the distinctiveness of another cultural identity should be achieved by an objective confrontation to the history, which is colonialism in this context. Picturing and examine Cornish landscape from an ivory tower is historically responsible for the dilution of its regional identity. This conclusion could be referable when challenging a stereotypical interpretation of a specific landscape.
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20. Vergnault, O., 2018. The Real Effect Millions of Tourists Have on Cornwall. [Online] cornwalllive. Available at: <https://www.cornwalllive.com/news/cornwall-news/real-effect-millions-tourists-cornwall-1565889> [Accessed 8 April 2020]
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