The Transformation of Cornish Landscape Identity in the Perspective of Landscape Painting

I felt that this essay is essential to future academic progression as it has determined the field of my interest and major research direction. The essay was a part of the final assessment at Camberwell College of Arts, written in Sept, 2020.


This essay introduces the term landscape identity in the historical

context of Cornish art. While selecting specific cases, the writing briefly

addresses how images of the landscape were used to define identity

respectively in each example. It discusses how impressions of Cornish

identity were shaped as an integration, with case studies of listed artists

Frances Hodgkins, Euphemia Charlton Fortune, John Anthony Park,

Alfred Wallis, Bryan Pearce and Peter Lanyon. The essay described

how these artists’ interpretations developed due to a variety of factors,

including art trends and personal experience, critically analysed

historical examples. In the end, the essay identifies the value of artworks

for researching landscape identity in Cornish context. It also made

suggestions regarding how to interpret the landscape and its identity

responsibly, introduces potential directions this subject may contribute.


Cornish, Identity, Landscape, Art, Painting

Pre-Art Colony Era

The key date of artists’ discovery of Cornwall was 1859, determined by

the completion of construction of the railway bridge over river Tamar,

Saltash. However, before the arrival of the majority of artist visitors, there

were etchings firstly depicted the town of St Ives, as the shown example

produced by Joseph Farington (Tovey, 2008).

Figure 1, Farington, J, 1813,  St Ives, [Etching], unknown collection

Despite the fact that the reputation of art colonies in Cornwall became

internationally aware which ultimately led to the establishment of, for

example, Newlyn School and St Ives School, Cornwall has been

engaging in travelling artists’ activities for nearly a century. Integrating

into a collective society of fishers can be sometimes tricky. It was also

pointed out by Bernard Deacon’s research Imagining the fishing: artists

and fishermen in late nineteenth century Cornwall (2008). He described

the difficulty of visiting artists about to be accepted by locals, argued that

cultural and class difference was the main factor that caused such

division. And after their residential and working condition was ensured,

travelling artists were forced to focus on the pressure from the field

before their works become influential (Deacon, 2001).

Figure 2, Durand-Brager, J., 1862, St Ives, [Etching], unknown collection

Based on the drawing of French marine painter Jean Baptiste Henri

Durand-Brager, Cordier engraved an image which documented the

mining activities of St Ives. Although it was published in 1862 (Tovey,

n.d.), this industrial mining scene represents one of three perspectives of

interpreting Cornish landscape at the beginning of the nineteenth

century as Bernard Deacon suggested in his resourceful dissertation.

The other two readings, one is considering the landscape as an agent of

human activity, which reflects the visual evidence of Cornwall’s

economy, urban planning and social class structure; the other is the

natural landscape of the county which often being pictured as an image

of anti-urbanisation and anti-industrialisation (Deacon, 2001).

Interestingly, as Mr Deacon emphasised the vital part that imagined

image played in territorial identity, the latter two perspectives motivated

artists who expected to run into a region with traditional lifestyle and

medieval romance as well as idyllic beauties, to search this promised

land after the Barbizon school. Imaginations of the region and Cornish

residents significantly shaped the county (Paasi, 2001). It was enhanced

by paintings and etchings brought back by up-country gentleman artists

in its pre-art colony era. These works opportunely satisfied the art

market’s demand for a preindustrial countryside, very similar to Darby’s

theory of “unpeopled landscapes” (Darby, 2000); they also attracted

more peers to gather.

Labelling preoccupied impression of an idyllic rural area substantially

influenced the way artists depicting Cornwall for decades. Moreover,

imaginations about Cornwall gradually transitioned from an industrialised

civilisation into a remote and marginal land which preserves Celtic

culture heritage, bringing hybridity to Cornish identity (Deacon, 2001).

Stobbelaar and Pedroli (2011) defines landscape identity as “the

perceived uniqueness of a place”. After travelling artists’ intension

ascertained to identify the “Cornishness”, landscape identity would be

shaped unavoidable when their works were brought into public


Hodgkins, Fortune and Park

Word of mouth sometimes does interesting effects on artists in their

small circles. We could assume it is a very efficient way of publicity at

that time. New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins, after her travel to

Europe and enrolling in a London art school, in 1902, she joined a

summer school in Brittany led by artist Norman Garstin. Norman Garstin

moved to Newlyn in 1886 and relocated in Penzance years after. It is

safe to argue that he is, to some extends, familiar with different aspects

of Cornwall. In both May and November 1902, Hodgkins talked about

the weather and climate of Cornwall in her letters. The same year, a

photo shows Garstin and his company on their way back from Helston

Furry Dance, indicating Hodgkins has started engaging in Cornish

culture and humanity. There are a few sketches of Cornish landscape

made by Frances Hodgkins in 1902; she mostly interested in drew tall

trees and overgrown trails, being fascinated by the wild vegetation and

settlements within. In 1903, a conventional watercolour painting Newlyn,

Cornwall was produced. She pictured fishing boats and small houses

that usually built right next to the seacoast in West Penwith.

Comparing to Newlyn School painting which prefers the realistic image about the

hardship of life, this work is much more lively and brighter, even gives a

sense of contemporary watercolour practice.

Figure 3, Hodgkins, F, 1903, Newlyn, Cornwall, [Watercolour on Paper]

Combining with Frances Hodgkins’s frequent visits to Cornwall, we can

retrieve many interesting scenes from her letters. Judging from her

social circle and artworks from the late stage, her immerse in Cornish life

is hard to ignore, despite complaints also occupies a great proportion. In

the letter to her mother dated 14th Jan 1915, Hodgkins complained local

cheese’s manufactural process and its tastelessness along with meat,

said she had to have Australian honey and butter from New Zealand for

their cheaper and tastier. However, in her myriad grumbles and a

subdued chronicle of troubles, the work of the painter still maintained the

enthusiasm and a sense of freshness to the region. Another watercolour

practice of Hodgkins depicts the town of St Ives in vivid colours.

Illustrative cottages were arranged on the side of the stone path; two

ambiguous figures bring an uncertain development of narrative to the

composition. A stranded boat on the sandy shore and the

conspicuous The Island introduced the location of the landscape

straightforwardly. In 1918, she wrote about wrecking’s presence in

Cornish cultural and tradition, although she wrote that she had no love to

Cornishmen, she still described locales as “a powerful, virile race”.

The controlling of brushwork for Frances Hodgkins became increasingly

loose while her style developed. Her membership of the Seven and Five

Society indicated the existence of the influence of other Cornwall-based

artists. In 2004, a gallery label described her 1931 painting Wings over

Water “a typical Seven and Five artists in its depiction of a table-top still

life set before a window”, and “evokes her memories of Cornwall where

she had settled in 1914” (‘Wings over Water’, Frances Hodgkins, 1930 |

Tate, 2020). Although the painting was very likely finished in her London

studio, the image represents an impactful moment of her settlement in

Bodinnick-by-Fowey (Townsend and Hillary, n.d.).

Figure 4, Hodgkins, F, 1931, Wings over Water,[Watercolour on Paper], Private Collection

Under the financial pressure, Hodgkins temporarily left London and

relocated in Bodinnick. One year after, her famous piece Bodinnick,

Cornwall was produced. Many typical maritime elements of Cornish

harbour town— boats and their serried masts, stuccoed cottages, wildly

growing bushes — are composited in the image however divided by the

gate painted by black, heavy strokes. The painter observed this view

behind the window, a sense of retreat was added to Hodgkins’s Cornish

landscape considering this specific period of her life.

Bodinnick, Cornwall, the essay suggests, symbolised a new interpretation of

Cornwall by the artist; the county transitioned from an unpremeditated

journey to the arcadia that away from real-life pressure and worldly


Figure 5, Hodgkins, F, 1932, Bodinnick, Cornwall, [watercolour on paper], Tate Collection

Euphemia Charlton Fortune is an American Impressionist. She travelled

to St Ives during a six-year tour in Europe. Her wide sight and openminded

aesthetic standard mixed demonstrated bright depiction among

images of St Ives. Her utilisation of colour, as one of the most

representative features of her painting, added a Mediterranean vividness

to the hard labour of fishing scenario. In 1922 a well-regarded painting

Scavenger was finished. It pictures a massive number of hovering

seagulls in bright colouration, rhythm the painting with an agile


Figure 6, Fortune. E., 1922, Scavenger, [oil on canvas], unknown collection

The painting distinguishes from a gloomy, Strindberg-like description of

ordinary fisher sceneries of that time; but also distinctive from an almost

cinematic rendering of optimistic and idealised capture like Olsson’s

Moonlit Shore (1919). E. Charlton Fortune’s skilful control of brushwork

impressed the public. A similar painting was produced the next year. In

1924, Summer Morning, St Ives was awarded a silver medal in the

French Salon (Beebe, 2006), further introduced the presence of St Ives

art society to the West Europen academics. Comparing to the

Scavenger, the proportion of seagulls decreases when the painter’s

focus shifts to figures. The choice of paint grew more boldly. Fortune

applied solid Prussian blue to individualised labouring figures and sailing

vessels, and blend the roaming seagulls into an impressionistic

floatation of air.

Figure 7, Fortune. E., 1923, Summer Morning, St Ives, [oil on canvas], unknown collection

It is very fascinating to see E. Charlton Fortune’s work together with

John Anthony Park’s practice. According to David Tovey (2013), a photo

taken by Gerard Wagner in 1925 shows Fortune enjoying a picnic with

John Park and his wife, leaving us a photographic conjecture that

Fortune might be taught under Park as well. John Park is also an en

plain air impressionist and considered an important bridge that links two

manners of painting, tradition and modern — which in this case, the

essay would suggest it is also two perspectives of seeing the landscape

of St Ives — among St Ives Society of Artists (John Anthony Park:

Borlase Smart John Wells Trust, n.d.).

Figure 8, Park. J., 1922, Summer Tide, [oil on canvas], Harris Museum & Art Gallery

John Anthony Park was trained under Julius Olsson and considered one

of his most accomplished pupils. He, among other old-fashioned

landscape painters, relative to the new generation of abstract artist,

“have painted the Cornwall they see as beautifully and vividly as if it is

there before their eyes”, explained the Cornish landscape in a very

subjective and idealised way (Baker, 1959).

His painting Morning Tide (1922) maintained a very typical impressionistic method of practice. He

has put a lot of effort in sensing and visualising the movement of

seawater and arranging boats as naturally as possible.

Some blurred figures of fishers are working at the front layer, and in the distance is the

lighthouse and St Ives Bay. Park documented a peaceful scene of a

coastal morning in which each element is orderly arranged.

Figure 9, Park. J., 1940, Snow in the Harbour of St Ives, [oil on canvas], Harris Museum & Art Gallery

During the Second World War, and it is also the period after his travel to

Europe, he returned to Cornwall. Snow in the Harbour of St Ives (1940)

was produced on the same year he returned to St Ives (John Anthony

PARK | Cornwall Artists Index, n.d.). It captures a silent landscape of

winter. Boats are either stranded on the shore or aimlessly floating on

the water. Two figures are occupied with labouring tasks — probably

examining a small boat, and the other one strolls behind them. The

images elegantly captured the peacefulness of St Ives, where, was

treated as a retreating destination away from the bombing. On the face

of it, the town shows a sort of impassive attitude to the raging war; but

the lack of vitality still indicated the bleak atmosphere of the war years —

although the Battle of Britain might have past when the painting was

being produced, the second world war was still at its most dreadful


Figure 10, Park. J., 1947, St Ives Harbour (to commemorate the visit of HMS ‘Howe’ to St Ives July, 1947), [oil on canvas], St Ives Guildhall

Richness and vibrance eventually returned to his palette, swept away

the dismal march of the war. St Ives Harbour (to commemorate the visit

of HMS ‘Howe’ to St Ives July, 1947) (1947) pictures the harbour of this

fishing town in an unusually atmospheric tone. The air is almost

transparent; the seawater is dyed to its typical jade-green under the

warmth of the sun. The Island jumps out with a prominent brightness,

provides an anchor point for the composition, free of its usual

arrangement as a blurred background. A joyful emotion, even a sense of

proudness is saturated in the landscape. This scene finally cast off the

desolation of the war and witnessed an embracing of another season of


Outsider Artist: Wallis and Pearce

References of indigenous Cornish artists often provide a pure and

innocent perspective to the county’s landscape and its identity.

Especially those who qualified for Dubuffet’s definition of Art Brut – that

an artist who did not receive a systematic education of art, and whose

artworks are positioned outside conventional, social, artistic or even

psychological requirements (Maclagan, 2010). The most representative

two St Ives artists Alfred Wallis and Bryan Pearce are often brought up

when discussing this subject.

Although Alfred Wallis did not start painting until he was 67, his painting

was highly recognised by travelling artists and had substantial influence

among them. Christopher Wood mentioned the recognition of Wallis’s

influence in his letter to Winifred Nicholson (Whybrow, 1999), Sven

Berlin saw his work “largely determined by the circumstance”, and Ben

Nicholson turned to started to engage in landscape elements after

experiencing the pictorial narration of Alfred Wallis (Wilkinson, 2017).

A considerable amount of Wallis’s work is repeated depiction of his

cottage and the view surrounds it. He imagined different bird view

angles, used large blocks of colour and simple strokes to paint the

coastal settlement of St Ives. Lack of engagement in professional artist

circles and conventional artistic activities such as travelling, life drawing,

determined that the painter had to find a resource of inspiration from his

memory, which majorly relies on his daily observation and experience as

a sailor. This relatively limited sight coincidently decided that his

interpretation of the Cornish landscape is immune from fashion art

trends and the interference of painting techniques, leaving explicit and

austere images as valuable documentations of objectivity. This feature

also revealed in other formats of his landscape. In 1969, the title of one

of his practice The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear

Beach was discovered while dismounting from its original frame (“The

Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach”, Alfred

Wallis, ?c.1932 | Tate, n.d.). The name is so straightforward that it is

almost a descriptive sentence instead of the title for fine art.

Figure 11, Wallis. A., 1932, The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Mort Mear Beach, [oil on cardboard], Tate Collection

Alfred Wallis’s work avoids the significance in the change of landscapes,

perhaps it was decided by a specific period in the history; his depiction

often focuses on the events that happened in the surrounding space

which in the case, the sea. In Wreck of the Alba (1938 – 1939), he

pictured a coal carrier struggled to survive the turbulence of huge waves,

capturing a real event with his untutored hand and sensitivity to the

perimeter. Wallis reminds audiences of the existence of catastrophic

incident and their constant involvement in the county’s history.

Wrecks rendered from the swallowing of a raging sea almost formed a new

landscape without any deliberated exaggeration for a dramatic

atmosphere. Daniel, S (2009) once argued that with the correct method,

instructive ideas or perspective, restoration of the authenticity of a

landscape is feasible. Perhaps we can apply his opinion in the

perspective of art. Alfred Wallis’s unalloyed narration certainly brought

the possibility to such restoration, provided invaluable information for


Figure 12, Wallis. A., 1938-9, Wreck of the Alba, [oil on wood], Tate Collection

Another iconic outsider artist from Cornwall, Bryan Pearce, could be

argued as one of the most crucial naïve artists in post-Wallis art of St

Ives. His consistent painting practise for almost fifty years has recorded

“subtle changes of St Ives” (Bryan Pearce – Exhibition at Tate St Ives |

Tate, n.d.). He attended St Ives School and lived in the context that

other modernist artists may have encouraged him to paint when he was

little (Shakespear, n.d.).

Figure 13, Pearce. B, 1975, St Ives from the Cemetery, [oil on board], Tate Collection

Bryan Pearce often constructs his picture with simple colour and elegant

lines, finishes with a visionary display of elements of his interests. One

of the most well-known painting, St Ives from Cemetery (1975), pictured

a ship voyaging through an empty harbour that enclosed by vegetated

hills with a low-rise stone church and a graveyard. Pearce brought

another appearance of his sun-bathing topic into the audiences’ eye. His

sensitivity reveals in this capture of the resting place of locales, depicts a

sentimental scene from an indigenous perspective. Furthermore,

surprisingly, despite Bryan Pearce is not unfamiliar with exhibitions and

has become a successful artist in his days, he was unaware of the old

fisherman nor his painting while comparison between his work and

Wallis’s is regular; Pearce’s work maintained an uninfluenced purity

while sticking to a primitive way of picturing the landscape, which makes

his artwork instinctual (Whybrow, 1999).

Peter Lanyon

Peter Lanyon, another indigenous artist of Cornwall, enjoys interpreting

landscape with his personal experience. Peter Lanyon shares a

particular interest in demonstrating the grievous, dark side of the Cornish

landscape. His identity as an indigenous Cornishmen and his youth in

the art-flourishing town of St Ives granted him a distinctive vision

regarding Cornish landscape. For example, St Just, stands out of other

mine-themed paintings that pictured the decline of a quondam industry

and lives faded with this history. His family history as mine-owner

provides him with an internal perspective to understand the landscape

with specific narratives (Laird, 2014). Skilful miners and squalid smoke

were once the icon that represents Cornwall as an industrialised region

(Deacon, 2001). The productive force changed the natural landscape,

embedded mechanical manipulation to nature. And the fading of this

mining fervour took back the landscape and returned it to an assimilated

status. Essentially, economic demands directly result in the change of

landscape by human activities (Baker, 1992). Understanding this

argument could help us to understand Lanyon’s perspective better.

When he experienced a sense of incapability facing the passing of

history, the tone and the subject of the painting is determined. From

outside perspectives those abandoned mines might be another evidence

of underdeveloped infrastructure of Cornwall, however, they evoked

memories of Peter Lanyon, and the artist decided to show the public the

crucifixion from his angle.

Figure 14, Lanyon. P, 1953, St Just, [oil on canvas], Tate Collection

Lanyon’s speciality in rearranging a landscape based on personal

experience and saturation of rich contexts like culture and history came

up as “experiential landscape”. His work entirely relies on subjectivity,

observation and personal experience that the industrial outcome

detached from the meaninglessness of general abstract art (Cornish,

2016). In order to feel, he chose to fly the glider for a retrospective angle

of examining his beloved Cornwall. Fast, changing landscape distorted

by the speed is commonly seen in his gliding paintings — almost melt as

a whole. There is no longer separated elements that assemble a

particular landscape but as an integration, layer by layer, bonding by the

artist’s sensuousness.

Figure 15, Lanyon. P, 1964, Glide Path, [oil and plastic on canvas], Courtesy of The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Peter Lanyon expressed his concern about losing Cornish identity &

landscape. He absolutely sensed the threat of Cornwall transforming into

a leisure resort due to the extinction of the former pillar industries of

fishing and mining (Lanyon, Lanyon and Feaver, 1983). The

irreplaceability of landscape reflects on its embodiment with the history

of its people, which could be easily obliterated (Muir, 1998). His devotion

to the Cornish landscape as well as his evident belief in social

responsibility as an artist (Stephens, 2001) explains his concern and

repeated depicting of similar subject.

Figure 16, Lanyon. P, 1947, Stone of Penwith, [oil and pencil on canvas], private collection
Figure 17, Lanyon. P, 1952 – 1958, Landscape of the Stone Leaves, [Screenprint], British Council collection
Figure 18, Lanyon. P, 1957, Standing Stones, [lithograph print on wove paper], private collection

A series of stone study produced after his return from the military also

shares a significance in his oeuvre. His Stone of Penwith (1947),

Landscape of the Stone Leaves (1952) and Standing Stones (1957) was

greatly inspired by prehistory megaliths on the Cornish field. The

materiality of these subjects also inspired artists like Barbara Hepworth.

The quoits on Penwith Peninsula is prehistory graves or altars,

representing those deceased individually that unknown to the history.

When write about megaliths of Bodmin Moor, Christoper Tilley detailed

describes their materiality and significance relation to the landscape, as

“a cultural triumph over the sleeping powers of the rock”. Lanyon’s

choice of topic reflects his humanism and a strong depiction of culture

signature over historical objects (Tilley, 1996).


As Peter Lanyon witnessed the transformation of Cornish society with

his distinctive point of view, his interpretation has a particular referential

value for us to understand the development of Cornish identity into

contemporary times. Artists who consciously or unconsciously recorded

the fading of the old landscape and the formation of new ones, their

pictorial productions and writings are evidence of their interactions with

the Cornish landscape. The essay suggests these artists’ relocation

(some might skipped this process) to the region and their intension of

searching interested factors for artistic depiction could be considered as

a behaviour of foraging, and therefore, what termed “the practice of

landscape identity” (Butler and Sarlöv-Herlin, 2019). Although things

they identified might not necessarily be material, conducting activities

would also allow these outsiders to start building a new connection of

site-specific landscape identity (Butler et al., 2017). The alteration of

landscape is often determined by cultural and natural forces (Antrop,

2004). Artworks, art critics and artists, in this case, opportunely

demonstrated their value as a critical recorder of the transformation of

Cornish landscape and identity. Analysing the development of Cornish

art holds many promises to studies of landscape identity in related


The essay also believes it is safe to argue that the Cornish identity

reflected in the landscape paintings is a continuous assimilation of

interpretations and depictions of artists who engaged in this history;

therefore the identity established by the pictorial histories could be

considered a collective act of those artists. Being recognised or being

accepted as one of their members also played a crucial part in

determining the possibility that artworks being recognised as

“contributed to the subject”. This recognition could be determined

autonomously or externally. Self-isolated artists like Alfred Wallis

brought a distinctive example of being a well-recognised Cornish artist,

although he was unconsciously about his artistic achievement, his works

were preserved and brought to the public by other colleagues.

Defining the word Cornish can be flexible and subjective. The essay

suggests that we should focus on the identity established by relevant

factors when engaging with a particular term, for example, Cornish

landscape or Cornish artist. Immersing experiences, real-world and

physical engagement of activities that aims for a mutual understanding is

fundamentally required for higher recognition of identity and acceptance.

“The Cornish people themselves are like their land, an old and knowing

race, withdrawn to strangers, living as much in the past as the present;

without, as has been said, much creative inspiration yet with a quick

response to things of that nature — what one of their own people”

(Baker, 1959). Despite subjectivity generally exists in art, to

comprehensively comprehend an identity, which, in this case, the

Cornish identity, the importance of understanding Cornish cultural

signature and the landscape as objective as possible is significant. A

personal interpretation of one’s identity based on images of the

landscape is tightly connected to the initial way of interrogating the

question. Thus, we must be cautious upon any circumstance that might

involve with preoccupied impressions.

In conclusion, artists who engaged in the Cornish landscape play a

significant part in shaping its regional identity; being accepted as a

Cornish artist could determine the degree of recognition in contributing

to the subject; a mutual understanding based on immersing experience

as well as the objectivity identified during its process is crucial to

interpret Cornish landscape identity responsibly.


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Figure List

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[Accessed 25 Aug 2020]

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