When we imagine the Penwith peninsula in the 19th century it can seem almost as if the cliff tops, beaches and harbours must have been overrun with artists at their easels. So many were attracted here by the mild climate, the beautiful landscapes and that famous ethereal light that Cornwall, especially the far west, developed into one of the most significant and influential artist communities in the British Isles.
Away from the well-known artistic centres of St Ives and Newlyn the tiny picturesque inlet of Lamorna Cove became another quieter haven for writers and painters. The Lamorna set were drawn by what is still today a picture-perfect Cornish cove. Backed by a beautiful wooded valley, a fast-flowing stream rushes to the sea and the coast is a jumble of boulders and bizarre rock formations.
The blossoming community was encouraged by Colonel Paynter of the Boskenna estate who owned the cove. Paynter was looking for a way to bring new life and income to the area as many agricultural workers began to move away to the cities after the First World War in search of better wages. He saw an opportunity and converted old barns into studios for them and began renting the estate cottages to artists.
“They brought colour, intellect and style to the remote community and Paynter was happy to build and adapt properties for their use. In this way he had a strong influence on the early development of Lamorna as an artists colony.”Austin Wormleighton, A Painter Laureate, 1995
Not everyone was thrilled with their arrival however.
On one occasion in about 1909 the artist Laura Knight had a ‘gentlemen’ posing naked for her on some rocks beside Lamorna Cove, he had just a handkerchief covering his ‘dignity’ when two elderly ladies came walking along the coastal path. The ladies had planned on a picnic and were so shocked at the scene that they complained very loudly, saying that they were going to tell the Colonel and put a stop to such behaviour. Apparently when they went to Col. Paynter however he told them gruffly: “Laura Knight can do as she likes – that piece of shore belongs to me.”
Another of the artists that Colonel Paynter was particularly fond of was Samuel John ‘Lamorna’ Birch. Birch arrived in Cornwall in 1892 and was to remain in Lamorna until his death more than 60 years later, becoming a well liked member of the community.
Soon after dawn most mornings a man with a neat pointed bread and small round spectacles was often seen cycling the quiet lanes near Lamorna Cove. Birch was an early riser and liked to begin his work soon after dawn. He was known by the local farmers to store his half-finished canvases in their barns so that he didn’t have to carry them home with him on his bicycle.
His dress was fairly distinctive, the heavy tweed suits and Knickerbocker style breeches that he wore gave him the appearance of a well-to-do country doctor rather than an artist, but he became a well-liked and admired figure in the local community. And he found seemingly endless inspiration in the Cornish countryside.
Birch’s early life was in sharp contrast to the place where he was to spend the happiest years of his life. Born into acute poverty Birch spent most of his early years in Manchester. He was one of nine children and left school at twelve to start work in the James Helme oilcloth factory in the city. The long days of work left him little time for art but he had a natural ability which fortunately his mother, Elizabeth, encouraged. Birch recalled that when he was 8 or 9 years old she told him, ‘Carry on like that my lad and who knows, one day you may become an RA’. Birch was very pleased, thinking that RA stood for ‘Real Artist’ rather than the somewhat more prestigious ‘Royal Academician’. Her words were providential though as Birch was just fifteen when he had his first exhibition at the Manchester City Art Gallery.
By the 1880s however working in the oilcloth factory was taking its toll. A recurring chest infection meant that Birch had to move to the Lune valley in Lancashire for his health. He did continue to work for the Helme family at their mill for a time and they too began to recognise his artistic talents inviting him to create some designs for their cloth. Birch continued to paint as much as he could to improve his abilities and while the landscape of the Lune valley was the first place to captivate him it was in Cornwall that he found his true artistic home.
It was perhaps his shame of the hardships and humble beginnings of his youth that caused Birch to keep himself a little apart from other artists at first. He was apparently embarrassed by his lack of formal training. So when he made the move to Cornwall in 1892 rather than join so many other artists in St Ives or Newlyn he chose to live in the peaceful, more secluded Lamorna Cove.
He was to spend 63 years of his life there, first at Boleigh Farm and then later at Flagstaff Cottage with his wife Emily, who was also an artist. At some point he even added ‘Lamorna’ to his name as a soubriquet, partly to show how fondly he felt about the place and partly to distinguish himself from another local artist with a similar name.
In 1893 Birch exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time but despite this success he had always felt self-conscious about his lack of a formal artistic education. Most of the Newlyn artists had had some kind of art training but Birch was almost entirely self-taught. At the suggestion of Stanhope Alexander Forbes, the founder of the so called Newlyn Art Colony, Birch decided to go and study in France and in 1896 spent a few months at the Académie Colarossi in Paris.
What he lacked in training he made up for in energy and natural talent. Birch was extremely prolific, he produced a staggering 20,000 pictures over his lifetime.
Much of his work was done ‘en plein air’, a style first made popular in France, which simply meant that the painting was completed outside on location, with just minor adjustments made in the studio. Birch was surrounded by endless inspiration.
The steep wooded valley leading to Lamorna Cove has a tumbling stream where Birch would often paint or fish, and his studio at Flagstaff cottage on Tregurnow cliff above was within full sight and sound of the ocean. Birch was fascinated by the power of the sea, its changing moods and the movement of water in, around and over rocks. Perhaps his greatest achievement as a painter was his ability to depict the reflections and languid fluidity of water.
It has been said that Birch painted water with both the eye of an artist and the understanding of a fisherman.
Trout fishing had been a passion of his since his time living in the Lune valley and Birch asked Colonel Paytner if he could widen the river in front of his studio to create a trout stream. This was done with the help of some of the estate staff and the other artists and involved them levering some of the huge boulders out of the way. The scene that was so special to him and became the subject of many paintings is still recognisable today.
Over the years many other artists were drawn to Lamorna. They soon formed a loose association known as the Lamorna Group and Birch, his wife and their two daughters became the centre of this artistic society in the valley.
Further afield Birch’s success was also secure. By the 1920s he was exhibiting paintings every year at the Royal Academy and was elected a member of the Royal British Colonial Society of Artists in 1905, and the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours and the Royal West of England Academy in 1914, and became an ARA in 1926 and an RA (as his mother predicted) in 1934.
Birch continued to paint until the age of 86. In the 1940s and 50s his depictions of Cornwall were reproduced thousands of times on postcards and calendars. When he died in 1955 he was laid to rest in the graveyard at Paul, not far from his beloved Lamorna and the sea.
A visit to Lamorna Cove can feel like a step back in time, many of the views painted by Birch and the others in the Lamorna Group are still easily recognisable today.
The cove has changed hands over the years since it was sold by the Paynter family in the 1950s and in recent years it has been advertised for sale again. We can only hope that whoever buys it preserves this idyllic spot for future generations to enjoy.
If you want to see some of Lamorna Birch’s work and many other wonderful local artists you can find some of their paintings on display at the Penlee House Gallery in Penzance, which has a truly wonderful collection of art work.
Note: there is car parking at Lamorna Cove but be very careful not to overstay as there seems to be a rather aggressive parking policy with hefty fines. Just a heads up.