Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

The Northern Impressionists

Gazetter entry
* New research - not contained in book. *


'Staithes is the place to go, there is no-where like it on all the coast for painting.'
Thomas Barrett.

Tucked away on the Yorkshire coast a few miles North of Whitby is the seemingly sleepy seaside village of Staithes. Today the village economy is heavily reliant on tourist draw to this isolated picturesque spot that feels more like Cornwall than Yorkshire. But a century ago Staithes was a thriving fishing village and far from being remote and isolated it was indeed far more cosmopolitan than many inland towns.The local seamen could tell you how to enter Antwerp or sail up the Amazon, houses contained furniture from China, silver from Portugal, a child named Indiana, a Russian wife…..

Staithes viaduct completed 1875 (700ft long 152 ft high)

In the late 19th Century, when the Railway opened up the coast, Staithes became a magnet not only for the more adventurous Victorian tourist but also for a number of artists who became known as the Staithes Group, sometimes referred to as the Northern Impressionists. The artists drawn to Staithes were part of a wider movement inspired by the French 'Plein Air' movement who had set up artists colonies in the Fontainebleau forest and in Brittany to practice outdoor painting. Many British artists visited and stayed in France and came back with the aim of setting up their own artists colonies in Britain. The best known of of these are the Cornish Artist colonies at St Ives and Newlyn, but a number of others were founded at such places as Walberswick, Cockburnspath, Kirkcudbright, and Betws-y-coed. These colonies started a trend that was taken up by later individual artists like Augustus John and Eric Gill.

The title of Northern Impresionist is perhaps to definitive and slightly misleading though many of them did develope an impressionist style.Influenced by the great Impressionist Exhibitions that had taken place in Paris between 1871 and 1886.The French Impressionists however were disappointed in the English impressionistgroups, for not being truly experimental in either impressions or subjects - a point made by Monet. Members of the Staithes group were early Modern painters, producing work of high quality and some went on to become major British artists.42 artists in all are considered to be members or associates of the Staithes Group (a complete list can be found at PostcarD from Staithes) amoung them were (Dame)Laura Knight, Frederick Jackson, Charles Mackie and Rowland Hill.

Laura Knight & Fred Jackson Painting at Runswick

Artists had visited Staithes throughout the 1880's and from 1890 onwards they started to live there permanently. The 'Group' was formed, encouraged by Dame Ethel Walker RA of Scarborough, in order to put on exhibitions The Staithes Group 1st Annual Exhibition being held in I901. The Staithes artists were frequently short of money something they shared with the fishing families, from whom they took their models, paying threepence a time, which was welcome. They also supplemented their income by provided 'Black and white' illustrations for books and newspapers. Life in the colony was not all poverty & gloom. Laura Knight recalled an event at the Fishermen's institution "One night we had a minstrel entertainment.. All the performers blackened their faces and wore boaters and blazers. Frank Mason, the painter from Scarborough, was headman. The local curate, who announced the song Mason was to sing, considered it necessary to explain that the American name for a tramp was "bum". There was an ominous silence. Mason started his song. I remember two lines of it:
"Rusty bums and jolly old chums
To hell with the man that works..."
The audience shouted itself hoarse with delight. The song was a sensation.'

Like many of the other artist colonies the Staithes group was broken up by the advent of the First World War with some going to fight, whilst others moved away.

Links http://www.staithes.co.uk/staithesartists.htm
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