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'A Street in Brittany', 1881, by Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947)


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About the artwork

Stanhope Forbes was born in Dublin in 1857. His father was a railway inspector and his mother, Juliette de Guise, was French. When the family moved to England Forbes was educated at Dulwich College and later at the Lambeth School of Art. He continued his art education at the Royal Academy Schools in 1876 and in 1880 went to Paris where he worked in the studio of the painter Leon Bonnat. Forbes was greatly influenced by the painter Jules Bastien-Lepage who had achieved success with his pictures of the everyday lives of agricultural workers.

Bastien-Lepage worked 'en plein air', that is he painted outdoors, directly from nature and used ordinary people as his models. Forbes wrote later about this method of working, "To paint the picture entirely and absolutely out of doors, braving all difficulties and relying in no way upon sketches or studies, with which later on, the work could be comfortably finished within the walls of a studio..."

Stanhope Forbes went to work in Cancale, Brittany from June to October 1881. Cancale was a small fishing village near St Malo. Forbes clearly wished to follow in the footsteps of Bastien-Lepage, as he later wrote, "I was wild to attack this great problem of the open-air effect myself." During this stay in Cancale he painted "A Street in Brittany". He worked in the street that is now named Rue Kitchener and had the usual problems experienced by 'plein air' painters, changing sunlight, wind, dust and over-curious children.

His principal model was a young girl from the village called Desiree. She had worked in the hotel in which he was staying but had been dismissed for stealing. Forbes wished to pay her only when the picture was completed. Desiree sensibly struck a deal and insisted on a daily payment. Forbes was forced to agree and seemed well satisfied with her work. He wrote to his mother "she grows more perfect every day and seems to be as charming as she looks". Desiree is holding an implement used for making or repairing nets, possibly making a string bag. The other women in the street are knitting. Forbes declared himself pleased with the picture but in a letter to his mother said "I fear from certain peculiarities it won't go down at all well with the British public".

He was possibly referring to the fact that the foreground figure appears out of scale to the rest of the figures in the street, or to the highly visible and distinctive brush-work. This method of working with a flat square brush was one adopted by Bastien-Lepage and was not well received by many people. The overall blue tone of the picture was also unusual and a critic writing later in The Pall Mall Gazette accused Forbes of seeing nature through blue spectacles.

'A Street in Brittany' was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1882 and later in the same year at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition from where it was bought by the Walker for seventy guineas, £73.50. This was a bold decision as the artist was completely unknown to the general public in 1882. This sale encouraged Forbes to establish himself as a 'plein air' painter of working people rather than relying on the conventional career of a portrait painter.

However, Forbes found his Breton pictures hard to sell and not very popular. This was one reason for him moving to Newlyn, a small fishing village near Penzance in Cornwall. He moved there in 1884 attracted by the mild climate, the quality of the light and the generally picturesque environment. It was not unlike similar villages in Brittany. There was a harbour full of bright and shimmering reflections, an abundance of boats, ropes, sails, nets, fish and a quay crowded with men and women wearing the traditional clothing of a fishing community. Such a place was a perfect inspiration for the bold brushwork and careful tonal painting which was the hallmark of Forbes' work. He wrote later, "every corner was a picture".

There were already several artists established in Newlyn when Forbes arrived and no shortage of local people prepared to model for the painters. He had however the greatest difficulty persuading young women to pose for him in the street. There was one further occasional obstacle. The people of Newlyn were Methodists and strict observers of the Sabbath. He had stones thrown at him when he attempted to paint in the open air on a Sunday.

Forbes soon became the leading figure in what was to be known as The Newlyn School of painters. He was successful in selling his work at the annual exhibitions of The Royal Academy in London, his picture 'Off to the Fishing Ground' was bought by The Walker from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1886. He got on well with artists and fishermen alike. A fellow artist Norman Garstin wrote, "his nature is an unusual compound of enthusiasm and scepticism, of strong opinions and generous deference to the ideas of others, the whole blended and kept sane and wholesome by an unfailing sense of humour."

In 1889 Forbes married the Canadian born painter Elizabeth Adela Armstrong who worked in St. Ives as well as Newlyn. Her painting 'Blackberry Gathering' hangs on the opposite wall in Room 11 in the Walker. Together they opened a school of painting in Newlyn in 1899. Elizabeth Forbes died in 1912, their only child Alec was killed in the First World War in 1916. Stanhope Forbes lived on until 1947 and continued to paint outdoors up to the end of the 1930s.