Stanhope Alexander Forbes 1857-1947
“I had come from France and, wandering down into Cornwall, came one spring morning along that dusty road by which Newlyn is approached from Penzance. Little did I think that the cluster of grey-roofed houses which I saw before me against the hillside would be my home for many years. What lode-some of artistic metal the place contains I knew not; but its effects were strongly felt in the studios of Paris ..." Stanhope Forbes recalling his arrival in Newlyn in 1884.
Stanhope Alexander Forbes was born in Dublin on 18th November 1857. His father, William and his uncle were both railway company senior managers. William ran the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland, and Stanhope’s brother, continuing in the family tradition, ultimately led the new London Underground, a pioneering endeavour for which he was knighted. But it was Stanhope’s mother, Juliette Forbes (neé de Guise), who nurtured his artistic interest encouraging him to draw as he recovered from illness in France at the time of the Franco-Prussian war. Juliette was ambitious for both sons and appears to have been a source of the artist’s liberalism and social conscience, which pervaded much of his life’s work and effected his sense of social purpose.
Forbes was educated at Dulwich College studying art under John Sparkes who subsequently taught at the South Kensington School of Art and instilled in the young Forbes the value of working from careful observation. Later, with his father now working for the Luxembourg Railway, Forbes moved to Brussels where he was educated by private tutors, affording him time to draw and paint. Returning to England, Forbes initially entered the Lambeth School of Art and then in 1876, attended the Royal Academy Schools (until 1880) under no less than Sir Frederic Leighton and Sir John Millais. Contemporaries at the RA included Arthur Hacker and Henry Herbert La Thangue. Forbes’ first exhibition was in the Royal Academy, at the age of 18; a portrait of his doctor’s daughter Florence. This RA exhibit was an experience he was to repeat with considerable gusto many times and in the short term led to some more very welcome portrait commissions.
In 1880, encouraged by his early training and RA acceptance and supported by his father, Forbes travelled to Paris where he entered the Atelier of Léon Bonnat in Clichy, Paris. Arthur Hacker joined Forbes at Bonnat's Atelier and Henry Herbert La Thangue came to Paris, studying at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.
In the summer of 1881 Forbes and La Thangue travelled to the growing artists’ colony in Cancale, Brittany, an oyster fishing harbour, where they were caught up in the fervour of the young French en plein-air painters for the new 'naturalism'. There Forbes worked obsessively on one particular painting, ‘A Street in Brittany’ 1881. ‘Always the same beautiful girl, she grows more perfect every day.’ She was later dismissed for theft from Forbes’ hotel but the painting was bought by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, further encouraging the artist in his chosen career and idiom.
Back in Paris, Forbes, emboldened by his long summer in the Cancale and recent commercial success, made himself a student of the methods and work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the leading plein-air naturalist painter who by the mid-1880s, had many devotees.
Bastien-Lepage believed that committing oneself to a specific place was a necessary ingredient for success in the en plein-air oeuvre. Forbes spent the next few summers on a road of discovery and self-improvement in Concarneau, Quimperle and Cancale. Fired up by these summers travelling the coastal colonies of Brittany and the new doctrine of naturalist realism, Forbes determined to pursue the en plein-air principles in his home country and to “set up easels in country districts where we could pose our models and attack our work in sunshine or in shadow, under the open sky.” (Forbes writing in the Annual report of Falmouth’s Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, 1901).
And so in January 1884, Forbes took what was to be a life changing train journey from London to Falmouth in search of his British ‘coin de terre’. From there he travelled to the end of the line; Penzance and walked the short distance along to Newlyn. Forbes had some prior knowledge of the green shoots of a Concarneau-type colony in Newlyn. “I had come from France and, wandering down into Cornwall, came one spring morning along that dusty road by which Newlyn is approached from Penzance. Little did I think that the cluster of grey-roofed houses which I saw before me against the hillside would be my home for many years. What lode-some of artistic metal the place contains I knew not; but its effects were strongly felt in the studios of Paris and Antwerp particularly, by a number of young English painters studying there, who just about then, by some common impulse, seemed drawn towards this corner of their native land... There are plenty of names amongst them which are still, and I hope will long by, associated with Newlyn, and the beauty of this fair district, which charmed us from the first, has not lost its power, and holds us still.”
In Newlyn he met the Birmingham pioneers, Walter Langley and Edwin Harris who had already been joined by Thomas Cooper Gotch and Ralph Todd, amongst others.
Whilst ‘The Slip’ was Forbes' first painting made in Newlyn, the artist colony received national attention with the Royal Academy exhibition of Forbes’ works in 1885. 'A Fish sale on a Cornish Beach’ (Plymouth Art Gallery & Museum) was celebrated as the gem of the 1885 RA Summer exhibition and Henry Tate later bought another exhibit, ‘The Health of the Bride’ in 1889; now in the Tate Gallery in London. Forbes’ success at the 1885 Royal Academy’s annual show was a national talking point. The notoriety that this provoked, his dogmatic belief in the necessity of painting in the open air and the extraordinary quality of his work drew the attention of young, ambitious artists across the country to the fledgling Newlyn colony. As the school acquired a public presence in London exhibitions, Forbes came to be regarded as its leader. He publicly protested against being given the title ‘Father of the Newlyn School’, “Newlyners are followers of no-one—simply a body of artists who paint in the open air.” His modesty aside, Forbes had quietly but effectively assumed the mantle of lead promoter of the self-styled ‘school of artists’.
And unsurprisingly, this ambitious, remarkably gifted artist had a very busy and successful end of the century. In 1886, Forbes was one of the founders of the New English Art Club (NEAC) although he continued to view the Academy as his main exhibiting avenue. He married fellow artist, Elizabeth Armstrong in 1889 assisted financially and appropriately by the sale of ‘The Health of the Bride’ and became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1892 (and a full Royal Academician by 1910). Elizabeth, born in Ottowa, had moved with her mother to London where they lived next door to Dante Gabriel Rosetti. She also studied at the South Kensington Schools, where she had been one of the youngest students. The couple bore a son, Alexander and commissioned a wonderful arts & craft home at Higher Faughan. In 1895 Forbes was the founding chairman and trustee of the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery in Newlyn. With Elizabeth, in 1899 he founded the Newlyn Art School. The school nurtured many next-generation artists such as Ernest and Dod Procter, Harold Harvey and Frank Gascoigne Heath.
Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, an artist of talent and vision that in many ways equalled her famed husband, and a wonderful ally and partner to Stanhope in all that they achieved together for and in Newlyn, sadly died prematurely in 1912. Later Forbes remarried a former pupil of the school and close friend of the family, Maudie Palmer. Tragedy struck again in August 1916, when Stanhope’s son Alec died in the front line serving in France in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
Forbes buried himself in his work. In 1924 he designed a poster for the LMS Railway ‘project’. The ‘Round the Studios’ reporter (The Artist, 1932) commented that Forbes was ‘still enthusiastic about out-of-doors painting, to which he had religiously adhered since 1882 when he joined his friends Henry La Thangue and Arthur Hacker in France and found that painting en plein air was the only way “to depict nature as she is”.'
Forbes became a member of the St Ives Society of Artists in 1928 and in 1933 was made a Senior Royal Academician.
Stanhope Forbes, the 'Father of the Newlyn School', died in Newlyn on 2 March 1947, age 89.
In 2000, one of Forbes’ acknowledged masterpieces, ‘The Seine Boat’, painted in 1904, a year before ‘Home-Along: Evening’, was sold at auction for £1.2m, establishing a world record for the artist and the Newlyn School.
Birch, Lionel (1906) Stanhope A. Forbes A.R.A., and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, A.R.W.S., Cassell. Facsimile reprint, Kessinger Publishing, 2010.
Fox, Caroline (1993) Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School, Knowles, David & Charles
Knowles, Elizabeth (2017) Stanhope Forbes: Father of the Newlyn School – Samson & Co
Hind, Charles Lewis (1911) Stanhope A. Forbes, Royal Academician. London: Virtue & Company