Cornwall’s Pilchards – An Empathy

When visiting the gem of a gallery in Cornwall recently (Penlee House Gallery and Museum) it occurred to me that despite all the staging, drama and technical skill, why I didn’t especially identify with two works in particular. Indeed – Cornish Pilchards – An Empathy – ?

Stunning to look at, enjoyable to cast a gaze at, but leaving me with no warmth towards them.

So what was going on with these pictures and indeed me to give me a feeling not of involvement but antipathy.

The two pictures are:

‘Hevva Hevva’ (1889) and ‘Tucking a School of Pilchards‘ (1897), two paintings by Percy Robert Craft (1856-1934).

When pilchards were spotted off shore, a lookout would alert the villagers with the cry ‘hevva hevva’. The villagers would then rush to the sea and help the fishermen bag the catch.

Percy Robert Craft ‘Hevva Hevva’ 1887
Percy Robert Craft ‘Tucking a School of Pilchards’ 1879

Bagging the catch. Maybe, maybe not: Cornish Pilchards – An Empathy

Percy Robert Craft is not a well known artist despite the drama, intensity, reality and representational skill he employed.

So why is he and his works not up there with the likes of other Cornish artists of the time such as Forbes, Tuke, Langley?

Sourcing from Wikipedia, Craft is described as an English impressionist and ‘genre’ painter (painting of scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people in work or recreation, depicted in a generally realistic manner). So not avant-garde and certainly not kitsch. Almost a draftsman with lifelike accuracy.

He married in 1885 (wife’s name – cannot find it on Google or Wiki) and moved to Newlyn, Cornwall where he worked alongside Walter Langley and Stanhope Forbes (Newlyn School of Art).

These two paintings are quite typical of the genre works produced by émigré artists moving to Cornwall in the late 19th Century and many of their works are excellently displayed by Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Penzance.

Despite exhibiting at the Royal Academy, Craft sold very little of his works despite the Victorian predilection for images of working people in remote areas such as Cornwall. The more fraught with inviting sympathy and maybe even schadenfreude by depicting danger or distress, the better.

Cornish Pilchards - An Empathy
Walter Langley ‘Among The Missing’ 1884
Cornish Pilchards - An Empathy
Walter Langley ‘Disaster Scene in a Cornish Village’ 1899

However, Craft’s works illustrated here, whilst very ‘genre’ and illustrative of a way of life quite in contrary to that of sophisticated Victorian society, they miss out on sufficient emotional involvement to entice viewer involvement ‘a feeling into’ beyond a basic gaze. Compare for instance with:

Elizabeth Forbes ‘School is Out’ 1889
Frank Gascoigne Heath ‘A Game of Cutthroat’ 1909
Marianne Stokes ‘Lamplight’

Cornish Pilchards - An Empathy
Henry Scott Tuke ‘Dinner Time’ 1883

Why is this? Why do I keep using the word ’empathy’? Read on further, but first let’s explore a more fundamental reason perhaps why Craft sold little.

In terms of the works’ market potential, a mitigating factor is their size (approx. 5’x4’). Who or what institution would have sufficient wall space for such pieces? Certainly not in my living room. Paintings such as these would generally be found adorning the walls of a civic centre, of a merchant’s store, of a gallery, but probably not a private residence unless of course of a wealthy person with wall space to spare. So for Craft the market was limited.

Thank you Penlee House for supplying a note regarding the works’ provenance. They were donated to the House around 1959/60 by a ‘Mr H Tidy’. I’ve Googled ‘H Tidy’ but can find no reference to him and it would be interesting to track him down to see if indeed he represented an institution or business whose premises would be large enough to accommodate such size pieces, or indeed if he was wealthy enough to have the necessary wall space at home.

Let’s now consider subject matter and narrative.

Many genre paintings are not pretty or even remotely comfortable to look at. They represent ordinary life which with poor and working people of years ago, may not invite attractive viewing. In many cases this was probably the point of the artist for example social commentaries such as Kennington’s ‘The Pinch of Poverty’.

Thomas Kennington ‘The Pinch of Poverty’ 1891

In respect of producing an appealing social commentary, compare Craft’s genre approach with Pieter de Hooch’s almost comforting works…

Pieter De Hooch ‘A Courtyard in Delft’ 1660s
Pieter De Hooch ‘A Woman Peeling Apples’ 1660s

and with Constable and Turner where the latter either leave working figures out altogether or make them so small they remain alienated from us.

John Constable ‘The Hay Wain’ 1821
John Constable ‘Flatford Mill’ 1816

Avoid all proximity to the labouring class thought Constable, but we do have need of them albeit firmly in the background, unidentifiably small. Let’s keep the working classes in their place. We can then simply feel ourselves into the land and seascapes without the interruption of the lower classes.

In Victorian times, the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) came closer to ‘aesthetically appealing representational truth of the working population’ as especially evidenced in Ford Maddox Brown’s ‘Work’.

Ford Maddox Brown ‘Work’ 1852

So in terms of size and subject matter, Craft’s two works featured here would not necessarily have been that attractive to the person in the street sufficient enough to part with hard earned income. To view out of curiosity maybe but not to part with a good sum of money for. And this is before we consider the works’ form, composition and other aesthetic features.

Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968) …

… art historian and author of ‘The Meaning of Art’ wrote ‘I do not believe that a person of real sensibility ever stands before a picture and, after a long process, pronounces himself pleased. We either like it at first sight or not.’  ‘A work of art moves us.’ ‘It’s an instantaneous nature of aesthetic appreciation.’ ‘Empathy not sympathy’ is the key. The extent to which we can absorb into the work, how much we identify with it. The German term ‘Einfühlung’: empathy means ‘feeling into’, ie when we contemplate a work of art, we project ourselves into the form of the work and our feelings are determined by what we find there and its impact upon us.

Taking this argument further, as humans we strive for order and harmony. Most of us identify with nature ie beauty and the pleasure of being  a part of the natural world.

The most successful artists recognise this and apply it to their works in respect of form, composition, colour, aestheticism and indeed of course subject matter.

In the 13th Century the Italian Fibonacci

… introduced to the world a sequence of numbers subsequently called ‘the Fibonacci Sequence’. 1,1, 2 etc etc. This sequence of numbers has been used throughout the centuries for mathematical, financial, geometric and all sorts of other clever calculations. In respect of art, we can consider the ‘Fibonacci spiral and ratio’.

Look to see how this spiral relates to many of the most pleasing examples of nature.

And now apply it to some famous works of art.

JMW Turner ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ 1838
Berth Morisot ‘The Cradle’ 1872
Hiroshige ‘The Wave’ 1858

Given our intrinsic visceral propensity to identify with examples in nature of harmony and balance, a top artist can employ this empathy with nature in the form and composition of their work. Or not – if deliberate disharmony is the intention. For example Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Turner’s ‘Storm’.

Pablo Picasso ‘Guernica’ 1937
JMW Turner ‘Snow Storm’ 1842

We are fundamentally constructed of these eurythmic symphonies of form woven into the very fabric of our existence, as illustrated by Leonardo’s ‘Vitruvian Man to connect and resonate with the patterns of nature within which us as humans fundamentally fit.

Leonardo ‘Vitruvian Man’

In addition, we like the reassurance of structure and solidity. In technological, engineering, physics terms this is usually the triangle, the square, the rectangle.

Balance, order and again harmony being obviously and subliminally desired by most of us humans, this can be achieved by the artist’s use of horizontals, verticals and diagonals, bringing structure and stability to their work.

Raphael ‘School of Athens’

Or again, deliberately not. Look at these examples.

Jackson Pollock 1949
Umberto Boccioni ‘The City Rises’ 1910

The results are achieved by lines going up and down, left and right etc as well as the painting being proportioned into the ‘golden ratio’ based again upon the Fibonacci sequence. And in addition we have the ‘golden triangle’.

Giovanni Bellini ‘Madonna’ 1505
Pieter Bruegel ‘Peasants’ Wedding’ 1567

So let’s return again to the two works by Craft in question.

In terms of skilled representation, Craft has obviously pulled it off. The pictures are realistic in their portrayal of the characters and settings.

However, do we empathise with the characters? Obviously a personal subjective feeling. Do we sympathise with them. Again it’s personal of course. But these factors are implicit in how we regard the paintings. Personally I do not empathise but I do sympathise for them.

(Cornish Pilchards – An Empathy)

Let’s now consider the Fibonacci spiral affect. 

It is difficult to apply it with comfort and satisfaction. The pictures are disharmonious. Is this deliberate given the subject matter and narratives? We’re viewing and experiencing disharmony. Urgency, action, movement. But do they appeal to our inner desire for natural empathy with nature? It’s difficult to rest comfortably with them. Irrespective of their size I’m not sure I’d want them in my lounge.

Cornish Pilchards – An Empathy

However, in terms of balance, solidity and structure, ‘Hevva Hevva’ has it.

Cornish Pilchards - An Empathy

Look at the verticals, horizontals and the Fibonacci golden ratio and the golden triangles. This is Craft acknowledging sturdy, dependable Cornish village folk.

Cornish Pilchards - An Empathy

With ‘Pilchards’, in respect of Fibonacci spiral harmony we have the opposite: deliberate disharmony, we are after all at sea, motion, rocking, intense movement and even danger.

Cornish Pilchards - An Empathy

But look at the golden ratio and triangles: we have here Craft’s success at depicting an unstable scene populated by solid, stable, hearty, salt of the earth fisherfolk. Craft has made us feel uncomfortable, awkward even but totally in sympathy with the characters portrayed.

Cornish Pilchards - An Empathy
Cornish Pilchards - An Empathy

He’s done it.

Apparently the average time spent looking at a painting in a gallery is 28 seconds. With Craft it’s easy to stand and stare for a few moments and enjoy the spectacle. Empathise perhaps, sympathise maybe. But it can also be just as enjoyable to gaze at the pictures and work out how the artist has successfully pulled it off, or not.

Percy Robert Craft deserves a reassessment in respect of his contribution to Cornish and British art.

Cornish Pilchards – An Empathy

Cornish Pilchards – An Empathy