The British Impressionists in Cornwall celebrated at Falmouth Art Gallery

By Richard Moss Published: 05 July 2011

A photo of two cows in a field
Sir John Arnesby Brown RA: A Summer Day - A Study for 'A June Day', Royal Academy (1913)© Falmouth Art Gallery Collection
Exhibition: British Impressionists, Falmouth Art Gallery, Falmouth, until September 10 2011

Much like their forebearers in France, British proponents of Impressionism in the late 19th century liked to cast their net wider than the capital and to capture the changing qualities of light by painting outdoors.

They found the perfect setting for their en plein air pursuits in Cornwall, where the famous firmament attracted artists such as Stanhope Forbes who fuelled the growth and development of the Newlyn school of painting.

Together with St Ives, the locations went on to be two of the most important centres for British art in the early 20th century.

a painting of two adolescent boys drying themselves after bathing
Henry Scott Tuke, Study of Bathing Boys (1912)© Falmouth Art Gallery Collection
Less well known as an artistic centre, however, is Falmouth, which at the turn of the 19th century became a focal point for British Impressionism.

The likes of Henry Scott Tuke (who originally came to Newlyn) and Charles Napier Hemy arrived and duly took advantage of an environment virtually surrounded by sea. Together they forged a peculiarly British take on a French art movement. 

Falmouth and its pleasant climate offered the chance to capture the Cornish landscape in paintings which used the impressionistic techniques of bold colour and highly visible brushstrokes and the overlaying of layers of wet paint.

They were soon into their stride and producing boat and harbour scenes around Falmouth Bay which captured the local luminosity and the frailty of the English sun and the way it played upon and refracted on the sea.

Tuke also indulged in his passion for painting naked adolescent boys bathing on the beaches around Falmouth. But it was the style of painting rather than the content that was still very much at odds with the prevailing polished technique of most late Victorian artists.

As a result they purposefully eschewed the London-based art establishment of the day and displayed their paintings in independent galleries. It was the success of these shows that led to the establishment of Falmouth Art Gallery, which opened under Tuke’s directorship in 1894.

a photo of an older man and a young man in a fishing boat
Harold Harvey 1874-1941, In the Whiting Grounds, c.1900© Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance
A trail of work by contemporary artists of the time – including locals such as William Ayerst Ingram and Sophie Gengembre Anderson and international stars such as James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent – followed.

It is fitting, then, that this legacy and influence of the British Impressionist painters is being explored in this show at Falmouth Art Gallery, together with a series of exhibitions investigating contemporary interpretations of the genre at the Beside the Wave Gallery. 

a painting of a harbour scene
Norman Garstin 1847-1926. View of Mount’s Bay with the North Pier, c.1892© Newlyn Art Gallery, on loan to Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance
Visitors to Falmouth will see works by by Sir John Arnesby Brown, Dame Laura Knight, Sir Alfred Munnings, John T Richardson and Tuke hung alongside a mix of traditional and contemporary impressionist works on loan from Penlee House Gallery and Museum and Beside the Wave.

Hazy masterpieces include William Evelyn Osborn’s Hayle Flats and St Ives Pier and the Impressionistic woodland scenes of John Thomas Richardson, including The Orchard at Prislow and Path from Cuckoo Mills to Swanpool, Falmouth.

Together with these scenes of pastoral and coastal harmony, the everyday figurative elements of Cornish Impressionism can be seen via works such as The Caravan by Alfred Munnings, the Whiting Grounds by Harold Harvey and a Study of a fisherwoman by Stanhope Forbes - and, of course, Study of Bathing Boys by Henry Scott Tuke.

  • Contemporary Impressionism can be seen at Beside The Wave, Arwenack Street, Falmouth until September 10 2011.  Admission free. For more information see
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: