Inventive century

Words by Mercedes Smith


Newlyn Society of Artists consider their prestigious past, and promising future, in their 125th.


This autumn, Newlyn Society of Artists, one of the longest-standing and most respected groups of professional artists in the UK, celebrates 125 years since its founding in 1896. To mark the occasion the Society will present NSA125, an exhibition of work by current members, inspired by the society’s history and curated by Threadneedle Prize winning artist Lisa Wright. The show, at Tremenheere Gallery, Penzance, will include an ‘in conversation’ event by a panel of arts writers, educators and curators, and is a must-see exhibition for anyone with an interest in both the history and the progression of fine art in Cornwall.

Julia Giles - ‘Drift’ Found objects

Feather on paper

The Newlyn Society of Artists was established in the late 19th century by painter Stanhope Forbes and artists including Walter Langley, Dod Proctor and Dame Laura Knight, all of whom challenged turn-of-the-century artistic convention by painting the social and economic realities of everyday Cornish people in real-life settings. Later, artists such as Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Ithell Colquhoun, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Terry Frost, Sandra Blow and Kurt Jackson brought new ways of working to the NSA, including Surrealism, Modernism, 70s Pop Art and Modern Expressionism.


Susan Kinley - ‘Home' Glass construction with photography

Today the NSA has close to ninety member artists who continue to challenge the parameters of fine art and create innovative work across disciplines including painting, printmaking, sculpture and film. Since 2017 the society has had a unique relationship with Cornwall’s beautiful Tremenheere Gallery and Sculpture Gardens on the outskirts of Penzance, which hosts twice yearly mixed exhibitions of NSA work.

“Dr Neil Armstrong [founder of the sculpture gardens] invited the NSA to make its home at Tremenheere,” says member artist Martin Grimshaw. “Subsequently, Neil built the gallery where we now hold our exhibitions, and this has attracted attention and a whole crop of talented new artists, meaning a new chapter in the history of the Newlyn Society of Artists is already being written.”


Left: Charlotte Turner - ‘Dream a little dream of me’

Mixed media on board panel


Right: Charlotte Turner - ‘In the flow’

Mixed media on board panel


NSA artists either live in Cornwall or have close links to the area, and the members selection process is rigorous in order to keep the quality of work consistent. “Work in the NSA is of the highest standard,” says member artist Julia Giles. “You don’t get to be a member unless you can show evidence of reflective practice and consistently strong work.” Diversity of practice, adds photographer Ingrid Newton, is also key to the society’s ethos: “The NSA promotes a wide variety of contemporary work – not only painting, sculpture and ceramics but also video, performance and book arts.


Mike Newton - ‘Edna St Vincent Millay’



“It is one of the few local arts organisations to take photography seriously,” she adds, “and for me that was an important consideration.” Julia Giles agrees, saying: “There is no ‘house style’ or look, and I think the range of media used and the diversity of work created by NSA members is its strength. Whatever the theme, innovative work will be the thread of continuity in any NSA show.” For each of its bi-annual mixed exhibitions, the NSA agrees an overarching theme which members are invited to respond to in whatever way they wish, and this themed approach is one that aims to bring variation and individuality to their shows. “I think at their best, themed shows present a challenge and get artists working in a different way,” says artist Patricia Wilson Smith, “and if the show is well-curated it can carry ideas and new ways of looking at the world way beyond the white walls of the gallery.” Ingrid Newton explains: “A well-curated, mixed exhibition can be more interesting and more stimulating for the viewer. It invites them to make connections between disparate works, makes them work harder and look more closely. It also means that disciplines such as photography and video can take their rightful place alongside more traditional arts such as painting and sculpture.”


Gordon Ellis Brown - ‘Final Frontier III’

Mixed media

For NSA125 members were invited to create work inspired by any previous NSA artist, or ideas which society members have introduced and popularised over the last 125 years. Ingrid Newton’s response to the NSA125 call for submissions is inspired by this year’s Laura Knight: A Celebration exhibition at Penlee House in Penzance. “I was particularly enchanted with two large paintings of female figures looking out to sea, painted in 1917,” she says of the Penlee show. “They are part of a series of ten paintings that [Laura Knight] made whilst living in Lamorna during the First World War, after the relaxation of restrictions preventing anyone using the coastline and beaches. These works feature young women standing on clifftops and gazing out to sea, and my first thought was to wonder what they were thinking. It was wartime, the men were away fighting and the future must have felt uncertain. I have concentrated on this feeling of uncertainty and have asked female friends to pose for a rear-view head and shoulders photograph looking out to sea.” Ingrid then collaged these images onto photographs taken in clifftop locations close to her home in St Ives, from viewpoints similar to those in Laura Knight’s paintings. “The series is called Picturing the Future” says Ingrid. “We face even more uncertainty in present times with the dual problems of the Coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency, and I am interested to see how people react to this idea.”


Andrew Swan - ‘Stinking Rich’



Julia Giles has made work inspired by internationally respected Cornish artist Peter Lanyon, who was Chair of the NSA in 1961. “Lanyon’s approach to representing the landscape influenced the development of my own work” she says, “– his idea of trying to capture, and create in the viewer, the sensory response of being in the landscape, surrounded by it, and also his feeling that the landscape itself played an active role in the making of an image. This has always remained with me, and a lot of my work has been about trying to find ways to collaborate with the elements. In the pieces I’ve submitted for NSA125 I’ve used found objects. I’ve made arrangements with them and have discovered that the shape of objects like feathers or tree seeds seem to suggest the way they should be presented. I’d like to think these arrangements will bring the viewer a new perspective on these and other familiar things.”


P. Wilson Smith - ‘Bartine Castle’

Clay and burnt gorse installation

Current Chair of the NSA, artist Yolande Armstrong, has submitted a painting with an intriguingly dark edge that is typical of her practice: “The painting shows an older girl with a younger boy,” says Yolande, “with her arm awkwardly round his neck, both floating in dark water. The original NSA painters were keen to paint from real life – Newlyn was a poor place then and they showed that honestly. My painting is an attempt to be honest about the situation of children in Newlyn now. It’s not clear whether the children in my painting are floating or going under. It’s called Holding On.” Of the NSA and its historic anniversary show she tells me: “Our artists push the boundaries and make work which continues to explore and experiment. I imagine the original NSA members would be pleased that we are still innovating and fighting convention, and I think they would be very excited by our current work. In our NSA125 exhibition you might find the work of our members moving, challenging, or simply beautiful and inspiring. In strange and difficult times, I think we all benefit from a pause for reflection, time to consider our past and our present, and to ponder our future.”

See NSA125 from 16 October to 7 November at Tremenheere Gallery, Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, Gulval, Penzance TR20 8YL.

For further information visit:

tremenheere.co.uk

nsanewlyn.com