Painted the year that Langley settled in Newlyn, 'A Nautical Question' is a fine work with an unusually whimsical and innocent narrative; an old fisherman has been mending nets. A child has posed 'a nautical question.' A young woman, possibly the boy's older sister, looks down on the lad. One has the sense from her expression that he's been nagging her with the same question all morning.
Following two exploratory trips, Walter Langley arrived in Newlyn in March 1882, taking up residence with his young family in Pembroke Lodge overlooking Mounts Bay. The artist was by now an established watercolourist and arrived in Newlyn with his confidence boosted by a £500 commission to produce what were ultimately 43 works for the Alltrop family in Birmingham. A Nautical Question, painted in 1882 and possibly 1 of the 43 Alltrop works, is a fine Newlyn work with an unusually whimsical and innocent narrative for Langley; an old fisherman, or possibly a retired Newlyn pilot, has been mending nets in a courtyard, a tackle cellar behind him. A young boy has presented him with a model boat and we know from the title on the verso in the artist's hand, if it wasn't already clear from the painting, that the child has posed 'a nautical question.' The old man has paused in his work to examine the boat and consider the child's question. A young woman, possibly the boy's older sister, looks down on the lad. One has the sense from her expression that he's been nagging her with the same question all morning and she has brought him to an 'expert' to quell his curiosity. She is clearly busy, juggling childcare with chores and holds the evidence of a large but empty terra cotta jar under her arm, suggesting she is probably on her way to the village pump. Whilst the painting has neither the high drama nor tragedy that we see in some Langley works, there are familiar themes. The different generations of the fishing community, the tireless work of the women in that community, the constant task of mending nets which was left to the women and old men, and even the subject of a model boat (first seen in Tuke's early Newlyn artwork, 'Ship Builders' but repeated in paintings by Forbes, Harvey and others) and of course the relative poverty (relative that is to Langley's wealthier patrons in Birmingham and elsewhere for whom the painting is intended). The old fisherman has at least 4 patches on his trousers and the child is barefoot wearing trousers he's grown out of years ago, or never fit. But there is civility, dignity and warmth in this simple interaction and clearly in the relationship between the three subjects. As well as his great skill in constructing a multi-layered and emotionally charged narrative within a static image, Langley's remarkable mastery of the medium of watercolour, and adept draftsmanship with the human form, are all much in evidence.