Artistic licence: misrepresenting (Cornish) history

Last week the temperature under my collar was raised twice over. Both times it concerned a poor representation of the past. One probably down to lazy journalism (but with no real excuses) and the other possibly down to poor editing choices and an over-reliance on a ‘pat narrative’. Here I discuss the first of these, a review of a new exhibition of Newlyn school paintings. In my next post, I will discuss the omission of Richard Trevithick, the over-emphasis on Watt’s achievement, and the deeply selective portrayal of British engineering history currently being shown by the BBC in Genius of Invention.

Amongst Heroes: the Artist in Working Cornwall

This exhibition, curated by budding art historian Roo Gunzi, brings together a wide range of paintings from the Newlyn school at the unlikely venue of Two Temple Place, a neo-gothic confection situated on London’s Embankment. The exhibition was made possible through partnership with the Royal Cornwall Museum and significant loans were made by Penlee House Gallery and Museum, home to Cornwall’s pre-eminent collection of west Cornish and Newlyn art. Roo herself was a Hypatia Trust, Jamieson Library scholar last summer, as part of her research itinerary.

So far, so good. This exhibition marks the first time in a while that a significant number of Cornish paintings from a variety of locations have been brought together outside Cornwall, and highlights the work of the west Cornish art communities, including those based in Newlyn. Unfortunately it has been the reporting and reviewing of this exhibition that has somewhat deflated the balloons of those of us who champion Cornish history and heritage.

The biggest culprit is a review by Telegraph newspaper and online journalist Rupert Christiansen (21 Jan). The review came to my attention via Twitter when someone tweeted the link to a letter written to the Telegraph from J Garry Mitchell of Portmellon (23 Jan). In this letter response, Mr Mitchell wrote:

Too often Cornwall gets portrayed as a tourist destination with no substance, but it has always produced clever creators.

The letter took particular umbrage to Christiansen’s flippant comment that Cornwall was by the end of the nineteenth century “largely untouched by industrialism.” The nine, mainly inane, comments that follow this letter are indicative of the deep ignorance that prevails about Cornish culture and history, judged as it so often is, through the eyes of holiday-makers who consume without discernment the Cornwall of inconceivably beautiful sandy coves and ‘quaint’ fishing villages so beloved of Caroline Quentin.

I read the review. I thought it said more about the writer’s preconceptions or misconceptions about Cornwall and Cornish history than it did do justice to reviewing the exhibition.

Here is my rebuttal of Christiansen’s review. As you will read, I didn’t even get around to introducing the reviewer to the coming of the railways in the 1850s, nor did I dwell to take issue with his mindless comment that “What they [the Newlyn paintings] characteristically depict – in a style influenced by masters of the naturalist Barbizon school such as Millet and Corot – is the daily life of peasants and fisherfolk, recorded with an absence of special pleading.”

My criticism

“Around the end of the 19th century, Cornwall remained an undiscovered part of the country, largely untouched by industrialism and not a holiday destination or romanticised by Daphne du Maurier.”

I find it extraordinarily lazy of the reviewer that he should make such an erroneous comment. Or perhaps it has escaped his notice that the mining landscapes of Cornwall and West Devon, largely shaped during the 19th century, are designated as a World Heritage Site? I’m not sure that would be the case if Cornwall had been untouched by ‘industrialism’.

Whether you are of the opinion that the now chocolate-box (or tinned fish) images of working life depicted in Newlyn school paintings are real or romanticised, they only show one tiny part of Cornish life, then as now.

Hardly ‘undiscovered’, then.

Hard rock mining had a profound impact on Cornwall, as did other forms of industry. The towns of Penzance, Camborne, Redruth and St Austell were bustling centres of commerce and banking. Before the London Metal Exchange was established in the 1870s big money wheeling and dealing in tin, copper, lead and other metals took place in Cornwall (and also in Swansea). Cornwall even had its own Stannary Parliament to oversee the financing and taxes levied on tin (yes–it was _that_ important). Cornish mines traded directly and indirectly in a highly globalised economy in metals, particularly copper and tin.

Hardly ‘undiscovered’, then. Did you know that Porthcurno in the far south west of Cornwall, now the site of an excellent museum, was the centre of  Britain’s transatlantic and overseas telegraphy? Operators from all over the world came to Cornwall to be trained in telecommunications until relatively recently.

Camborne School of Mines was world famous and again people from all over the globe came to Cornwall to be trained in mining engineering, surveying and other scientific skills throughout the nineteenth century and twentieth century.

The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall will be celebrating its bicentenary next year, is one of the oldest geological societies in the world.

It was the hotbed of technological innovation and the demands of a cutting edge mining industry that provided the right environment for engineers such as Richard Trevithick to invent the high-pressure steam engine (a feat far more impactful than Watt’s earlier effort) and scientists such as Humphry Davy to identify important rare metals, and solve serious safety problems by inventing the miner’s safety lamp.

This review is typical of the huge assumptions people make about Cornwall as a place that is on the margins rather than at the centre. Certainly concerning nineteenth-century innovation, science and industry quite the opposite was true.

/ends

I circulated the link to the review and my letter to colleagues and this in itself elicited a variety of responses, many of them more astute than my own criticism. The consensus was that we ought to be doing more to get good history out there and much more easily accessible. We live in a world now where most people turn to Google rather than the local library to answer their most pressing questions. We have to respond to it. I should like to reproduce an excerpt of a further criticism, this time related to how the Newlyn school is portrayed, worth pondering:

“I also take issue with the persistently isolationist approach of British ( and probably other) curations of such exhibitions which too often suggest that such movements sprang up by chance through largely local factors. Newlyn was not found by accident – it was deliberately searched for and found by artists seeking somewhere in Britain to compare with the Breton centres such as the famous Pont Aven or the lesser known Cancale, Le Faouet etc,  which themselves were part of the wider European movement of rural art schools inspired by Barbizon.”

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Artistic licence: misrepresenting (Cornish) history

  1. Mike Robinson 2 February, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    In addition to the details of earlier industrialisation, we have mining going back to the times of King John, from the Lizard to the Tamar for Copper, Tin, Lead and Silver. The only restrictions were Water in the deep mines. This was overcome by the Newcomen Atmospheric Steam Engine pumping the water out and allowing for deeper mines in the 18th Century. Trevithick found his inspiration from this source. Most great Steam Engines used in mines were Cornish built and we led the way in mining expertise which brought about the Davey Safety Lamp and Trevithick Traction Engine for coal mines. We had direct access to coal transported by sea.

    Rumour has it, that Cornwall was known to the Middle East and North Africa as the Land of Tin and Copper before the Romans invaded Brittania and also that Joseph of Arimathea was a Tin Trader who deserted Judea and settled in the South West of England. His Daughter was a healer, later known as Anne of Cornwall according to genealogy trails.

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