It was impossible to grow up in Cornwall with an artistic dad and passionate art teachers and not be aware of the Newlyn and St Ives schools of painting. 'Schools' is maybe too strong a word as there was no real physical grouping of individuals. Rather, they were like-minded artists who formed colonies at around the same time. We use the term 'schools' because what they did wasn't as grand as a movement like cubism or modernism. They didn't change the direction of art. What they did do was demonstrate how different artists can be inspired by and represent the same subject matter in a myriad of different ways. The St Ives school is most famous and featured the likes of sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth, potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Amada, painters Alfred Wallis and Patrick Heron and many others. They came to notice in the late 1930s and achieved great success in the 1950s and 60s. Much of their work is now on display in Hepworth's house and the stunning purpose built Tate Gallery St Ives.
Walter Langley (1852 – 1922) was born in Birmingham and at 15 was apprenticed to a lithographer. At 21 he won a scholarship to South Kensington and he studied design there for two years. The sometimes highly ornate work is mainly in gold and silver and in a Renaissance style. He returned to Birmingham but took up painting full time, and in 1881 was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. In the same year he was offered £500 for a year's work by a Mr Thrupp (a Birmingham photographer). With this money he and his family moved to Newlyn where he was one of the first artists to settle.
Although one of the first to settle in the Newlyn artists' colony, Langley initially benefited little from its growing fame, partly because of his working class origins and partly because until 1892 he painted largely in watercolour rather than the more prestigious medium of oils. But his early training in lithography gives his paintings a detail and texture that show his technical skills.
Later in his career his reputation grew. One of Langley's paintings was singled out as 'a beautiful and true work of art' by Leo Tolstoy in his book What is Art? while in 1895 Langley was invited by the Uffizi to contribute a self portrait to hang alongside those of Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt in their collection of portraits of great artists.Today his work is considered vital to the image of the Newlyn School and, alongside Stanhope Forbes, the most consistent in style and substantial in output.
I have two excellent books about Langley. One is The Shining Sands by Tom Cross which looks at both the Newlyn and St Ives schools in detail. The other - my favourite - is Walter Langley: Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony by Walter's grandson Roger. The latter is a superb catalogue of his work and really quite hard to find. BBC4 has been showing some excellent art programmes in its Thursday 9pm slot for the past few weeks and I understand that soon there will be a show about the Newlyn School. I'll be glued to the set.