Walter Langley the Social Realist painter and the Newlyn Art Colony

Walter Langley, from a chalk drawing by Hubert Vos. From Newlyn and the Newlyn School, Magazine of Art, 1890

In eighteenth century France, Rococo was the popular style of art. Painters such as Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher had given art lovers a highly ornate and decorative form of art with its elegant, delightful, if somewhat voyeuristic, depictions of the good life. There was a playfulness about the depictions and all thoughts of seriousness was substituted by eroticism. The minority who were able to live the lifestyle shown in the Rococo paintings were pleased with what they saw but of course this was not real life for many of the citizens. Change had to come, and it did in the form of Realism. One of the leaders of this movement was the French artist, Gustave Courbet and he set out a manifesto, La Réalisme which stated that art should be about truth and depictions must be objective records. Realism was to be an art in which the painter put on his canvas what he saw, “warts and all” and not be concerned as to whether it was appropriate or inappropriate. This new form art was to move away from bourgeoise tastes.

The Artist’s Studio by Gustave Courbet (1855)

Probably Courbet’s most famous painting was pure Realism. It was entitled The Artist’s Studio, which he completed in 1855. The work baffled many, so much so Courbet clarified the ideas behind the depiction, declaring:

“…It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death…”

The group to the right……..

The painting depicts two groups of men and women. In the first group on the right, there is the bearded profile of the art collector Alfred Bruyas, and behind him, facing us, the philosopher Proudhon. Jules François Felix Fleury-Husson, who wrote under the name Champfleury.  He was a French art critic and novelist, and a prominent supporter of the Realist movement in painting and fiction, and is seated on a stool, while the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire is absorbed in a book. In the right foreground we see a couple who exemplify a pair of art lovers, and in the background, near the window, we see a couple unashamedly wrapped in a loving embrace and they have been included to symbolise free love.

…………….and to the left

However, the group on the left symbolise the reality of life. There is a priest, a merchant, a hunter, and even an unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolising poverty. These last two insertions were controversial. Look on the floor by the dog and you will see a dagger, a guitar and large hat with a black plumed feather. Courbet added these items alluding to what was often seen in Academic art.

Courbet and the landscape painting

In the centre, Courbet sits at his large-scale painting of a beautiful landscape with its blue sky and verdant background and this is in direct contrast to the depiction of his grimy and crowded studio. This is a reminder of the difference between real life and an idealised life. This work was destined to be exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition but was rejected on the ground of it being too big but maybe it was because it was too controversial. Courbet, however, was determined that the work should be seen by the public and so, not to be deterred, Courbet, at his own expense, built a Pavilion of Realism close to the official Universal Exhibition site and showed this work and thirteen others including his famous A Burial at Ornans.

Hope by Frank Holl (1883)

From this eighteenth century Realist movement came Social Realism which developed to pictorially arouse concerns about the squalid living conditions suffered by urban poor, and farming and fishing communities. In Britain, artists such as Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer, Frank Holl, and William Small were at the forefront of this movement. In America the beginnings of Social Realism started life with the Ashcan School painters, who in the early 20th century depicted through their art, the everyday, stark, and unglamorous truths of city life. Artists such as John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and George Luks were prominent members of this diverse group who painted scenes from everyday life.

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1870-1873)

In Russia, Social Realism came in the form of paintings by Ilya Repin who declared that the reason for his art was to show and criticize all the monstrosities of our vile society of the Tsarist period.  One of his most famous Realist paintings was his 1883 work entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga.

Waiting for the Boats by Walter Langley (1885)

The reason for this introduction regarding Realism and Social Realism is that the artist I am looking at today is an English Social Realist painter. His name is Walter Langley. He was born in Birmingham, England on June 8th, 1852. Although attending normal school, because of his interest in drawing and painting and artistic ability, at the age of ten, he was also enrolled for evening classes at the Birmingham School of Design. He left school at the age of fifteen and was taken on as an apprentice to a lithographer, August Heinrich Biermann, but still continued with his classes at the School of Design. Langley began to teach himself to paint, and first exhibited three water colours at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in 1873. His wish was to become a professional artist and that year, at the age of twenty-one, he won a scholarship to the National Art Training School in South Kensington, now known as the Royal College of Art. It was there that he took part in a two-year design course and began to exhibit his works of art.

Photographic portrait of Clara, Walter Langley’s first wife, taken in the studio of Robert Preston photographer

It was also around this time that he married Clara Perkins, with whom he had four children.

Hard Times by Hurbert von Herkomer (1885)

In 1875, when his course had ended he had to decide whether to stay in London or return home. The decision was made for him as August Biermann, his former employer, offered Langley a partnership in his lithographer business and so he returned to Birmingham to resume his career as a lithographer. However, Langley did not give up his love of painting and, because he decided that he needed to make progress with his artwork, he enrolled in classes firstly at the Midland Art Guild and then at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. It was during this period that Langley became influenced by the works of Realist painters and one who had his works exhibited at the Birmingham Society  was the German-born British realist painter, Hubert Von Herkomer, who took a realistic approach to the conditions of life of the poor.

A Reverie by Walter Langley (1883)

Langley would have probably continued his career as a lithographer but in 1876 the demand for such items fell drastically and he soon realised that his artwork was needed to bring him a living wage. In 1877, Langley married Clara Perkins and the couple went on to have four children. In 1879 he left Biermann’s lithographer business and concentrated on his art. In his early years Walter Langley painted rural scenes close to his home in Birmingham and it was not until the summer of 1880 that he first visited Newlyn in Cornwall with his friend William Pope whilst on a sketching holiday.

Memories by Walter Langley (1906)

In 1881 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, which is one of the oldest Art Societies in the United Kingdom. The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists played an important part in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and Sir John Everett Millais and Sir Edward Burne-Jones both served as presidents. Other eminent presidents were the painters, Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Between the Tides by Walter Langley (1901)

Whilst plying his artistic trade in Birmingham a well-known and wealthy Victorian photographer, Robert White Thrupp, approached him and offered him a commission of £500 to go to Cornwall and paint a series of twenty pictures of the local Newlyn scenes and so in 1881 Langley left his wife and family behind in Birmingham, and rented a property, Pembroke Lodge. The Penwith Local History Group wrote about Langley’s new home:

“…Pembroke Lodge was a grand house that had been home to bankers and gentry since it was built in 1791.Langley’s first year’s rent of £62 (payable in advance) gave him two parlours, two kitchens, a dairy, pantry, four good bedrooms, and a dressing room. It also had a studio in the garden. The house was a good size for Langley, his wife Clara and their four children who moved into their new home in March 1882. Clara had not long given birth to her fourth child, a son Cecil born in February that year. The other children were son Lorraine (born September 8, 1877), daughter Eleanor (born March 15, 1879) and son Gabriel (born November 21, 1881)…”

Thoughts Far Away by Walter Langley

Once settled in, Langley began to paint local scenes and portraits featuring the people of Newlyn, most of which depicted the women and their role in the community. Langley could empathize with the plight of the fishermen and their families because 0f his own working-class origins in Birmingham and his socialist beliefs.

Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves, by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his first paintings he completed after his arrival at Newlyn was his 1882 watercolour work entitled Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves. It is a depiction of a local woman, believed to be Grace Kelynack. It is a portrait of great compassion and one that detects Langley’s understanding of the plight of the elderly. There is a sense of loneliness and solitude in this depiction of the woman as she ponders the hardships she has had to endure during her long life. In the painting we see her sitting at a table, with her right elbow on an open Bible. She rests her cheek on her fist as she gazes downwards, lost in her own thoughts. It was the first work that Langley exhibited in London and was widely acclaimed by both critics and the public. The watercolour painting led to Langley being elected to the prestigious Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour.

The Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Forbes (1885)

Walter Langley soon became a leading figure in the Newlyn School, which was an art colony of artists based in or near Newlyn. Another of the founding members of the Newlyn School was Stanhope Forbes who arrived at the Cornish fishing village in 1884.

Amongst the Missing by Walter Langley (1884)

Like other artist colonies such as the Barbizon and Skagen Schools, as well as the artist colonies scattered along the coast of Britany, the attraction of Newlyn was its fantastic light, and mild climate which made it an ideal location for plein air painters. It also provided many opportunities to paint seascapes, and for the Realist painters, the chance to record the harsh life endured by the fishing community. Another attraction was the ability to live there cheaply and employ local people as models at much lower rates than would have been the case in big cities. This magnetic pull towards Newlyn was summed up in the Victorian writer, Mrs Lionel Birch’s 1906 book, Stanhope A. Forbes, and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, in which she quotes Stanhope Forbes’ take on 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 know 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…”

The Old Book by Walter Langley

Walter Langley was always an advocate of the working class and was noted for his left-wing views. Whilst a young man in Birmingham, he was influenced by the stance taken by the firebrand politician and advocate of trade unionism, Charles Bradlaugh, a radical socialist who fought for the rights of the working class. It was these strong-held beliefs of Langley that ensured he empathized with the harsh life of the Newlyn fishing folk and their families. It was through his paintings depicting their hard life and their worries that classed him as a Social Realist painter.

For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his most poignant paintings is a watercolour entitled For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep which he completed in 1883 and focuses on the plight of wives and mothers who are left behind when their husbands and sons head out to sea. The title of the painting comes from a line of a poem by Charles Kinsley, The Three Fishers:

Three fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Though the harbour bar be moaning.
Three wives sat up in the light-house tower,
And they trimm’d the lamps as the sun went down;
They look’d at the squall, and they look’d at the shower,
And the night wrack came rolling up ragged and brown!
But men must work, and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
And the harbour bar be moaning.
Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
For those who will never come back to the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep—
And good-by to the bar and its moaning.

Old fisherman at Newlyn Harbour (c.1906)

Newlyn was a mix of the good and the bad. The good was the picturesque landscape and the bad was the terrible poverty suffered by the local people who struggled to eke out a living from the fish they caught. Add to this the ferocious storms and tumultuous seas which brought death to many of the fishermen and made widows out of many of the women.

His one-year commission was completed at the end of 1885 and he moved back to Birmingham to be with his wife and children. He returned for a brief visit to Newlyn in 1886 to complete his unfinished watercolour which was shown at the Institute’s Spring Exhibition that year. In the Spring of 1887, Walter Langley, along with his family, moved permanently to Newlyn,

But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand by Walter Langley (1888)

Another title of one of Langley’s paintings was based on a poem. His 1888 work, But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand was a line from Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break which he wrote in 1835 and was about his sorrow at the death of his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Hallam, who tragically died at the age of twenty-two:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead,
Will never come back to me.

Fradgan, Newlyn in 1906

On his return to Newlyn with his family, he was unable to secure suitable accommodation in Newlyn and decided to live in Penzance but as his work and models lived in Newlyn he bought a small cottage in Fragdan, the old part of the coastal village, which he converted into his studio.

Cornish Light, The Nottingham 1894 Exhibition

In June 1890, he brought his family back to Newlyn, and took a two-year lease on Pembroke Lodge. When the lease expired Langley moved his family to Penzance. In 1894, along with other Newlyn artists, he exhibited his work in the exhibition Painters of the Newlyn School at Nottingham Castle. In David Tovey and Sarah Skinner’s 2015 book, Cornish Light – the Nottingham 1894 Exhibition Revisited they discuss the exhibition:

“…The 1894 Nottingham Castle exhibition of Cornish painters was, in its way, ground-breaking. It brought a burgeoning new style and range of subjects to a much wider public and fostered awareness of painters from Newlyn, St Ives and Falmouth.
Much of the work was, in typical Victorian style, both art and social commentary and much of it is romanticised – craggy-faced fishermen gaze knowingly towards the horizon and the young women working on the shore have suspiciously lustrous complexions…”

This was the high-point of the Newlyn Colony’s achievements.

Self-portrait by Walter Langley
Courtesy of Archivi Alinari, Firenze

In 1895, forty-three-year-old Langley was invited, by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, to contribute a self-portrait to hang alongside those of Raphael, Rubens, and Rembrandt in their Medici Collection of portraits of great artists.

That same year, Langley’s wife Clara died at the young age of 45. This left Langley a widower with four children. Two years later, Langley married his second wife Ethel Pengelly in St Johns Parish Church Penzance on June 24th, 1897. The couple went on to have one child. During 1904 and 1905, Langley made visits to Holland and a trip to Belgium in 1906.

Walter Langley in his studio

Walter Langley died in Penzance on March 22, 1922, a couple of months before what would have been his seventieth birthday. Today his work is described as being fundamental to the representation of the Newlyn School and he was, together with Stanhope Forbes, the most unswerving in style and his large output of works depicting life around Newlyn.


Besides the normal internet sources I gained a lot of information from the websites of the Penlee House Museum and the Penwith Local History Group.

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