Monday, 12 September 2011

George Morland at Freshwater

Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight
I've just been reading one of the volumes - Canterbury : Winchester : Isle of Wight : Swanage - in the Gresham Publishing Company series (c. 1911) Our Beautiful Homeland. These books are notable for the charming and evocative EW Haslehust colour plates, but the texts are worth reading: in this case, the essay "Impressions and Memories", on literary and artistic reactions to the Island. I'll return to this later, but for the moment I followed up its brief reference to the misadventures of the artist George Morland in the Isle of Wight.

George Morland had discovered Freshwater half a century before [1854], when there was only one cottage there—"The Cabin". This most English—old English—of painters knew every corner of the island, especially those parts which are still least accessible, as he knew every fisherman and publican. So well did he explore that he was arrested as a spy at Yarmouth fort in 1799. There is no cruciform or other stone to his memory: nothing left but his paintings, his pleasant name, and stories of his merriment and after wretchedness.

Morland (1763-1804) was a prolific and highly-regarded painter of animals and rustic scenes. His tastes, however, ran to extravagance, drinking, and slumming it, and towards the end of his short life he was constantly pursued by creditors. In 1899, he quit his native London and temporarily escaped to the Isle of Wight, where he had regularly taken summer holidays. The biography George Morland, painter, London (1763-1804) (Ralph Richardson, 1895, Internet Archive ID georgemorlandpai00rich) tells the full story of this episode:

We have now arrived at the year 1799, which marks a new departure in Morland's life and habits. Instead of murky London, with its manifold temptations, he was to reside in the beautiful Isle of Wight, then far from London owing to the want of easy communication. To this day the isle presents picturesque features which have often disappeared in the more populous parts of England. Not that it has entirely escaped the modern builder. The charming old houses, built of stone and thatched, in the Freshwater district, put to shame the modern brick tenements which have sprung up round Totland Bay. It seems as if decreed that the nineteenth century, which came in picturesquely arrayed, should go out in a blaze of architectural ugliness and vulgarity.

Mrs. Morland being unwell, and Morland himself being worried by the low companions who disturbed his work and destroyed his health, they accepted the offer of their medical man, Mr. Lynn, a surgeon in Westminster, who generously placed at their service a picturesque cottage which he possessed near Cowes. In April, 1799, Mrs. Morland went there with her servant, and her husband and his man Simpson soon followed.

Dawe makes an objection to Morland going to the Isle of Wight for retirement, and yet keeping ' the apartment in which he painted filled from morning till night with sailors, fishermen, and smugglers.' Yet how, or who, was Morland to paint else ? As a story related further on proves, he but followed the dictates of his own style of art in collecting these men, however objectionable they seem to Dawe, whose own classic bent is revealed in his picture of  'Achilles, Frantic for the Loss of Patroclus, rejecting the Consolation of Thetis ' ('Iliad,' lib. xviii.), a painting which gained the Academy gold medal in 1803. The world would rather have one painting of sailors, fishermen, or smugglers by Morland, than a hundred Achilles canvases by Dawe.

Take, for example, two paintings by Morland, both engraved by J. R. Smith, mezzotint engraver to the Prince of Wales, and published in 1799. One is ' The Fisherman's Hut,' and the other is ' Selling Fish.' The latter was painted in 1793, but both display the artist's homely yet powerful style, and show that, before he went to the Isle of Wight, he had made the acquaintance of fishermen. In 1800 appeared, under the title 'Fishermen,' a fine coast scene with fishermen, boats, and dogs, engraved by John Young, engraver to the Prince of Wales, and 'The Fisherman's Dog,' engraved by S. W. Reynolds ; whilst in 1802 William Ward produced 'Sailors' Conversation,' a scene between four sailors and a girl at the door of an inn. A fine picture of  'Fishermen Going Out ' was engraved by S. W. Reynolds in 1805. Next year appeared a small 'Coast Scene,' and William Ward's mezzotint 'The Contented Waterman ' — also an engraving of a well-known painting, ' Fishermen on Shore,' representing two men toasting a fisher-lass as she passes. A mezzotint by William Ward, published so late as 1814, entitled 'Bathing Horses,' may close this brief notice of some of Morland's pictures done near the seashore.

One would have imagined that, in the Isle of Wight, Morland would have been safe from his London creditors, but unfortunately such was not the case. His Cowes retreat was divulged by some toper in a public-house, and Morland's brother was just in time to warn the artist of the possibility of his arrest. Hastily leaving Cowes, the latter and his man Simpson took refuge in Yarmouth, a picturesque town on the Solent, not very far from Cowes, and also in the Isle of Wight. There they lodged with an old smuggler named George Cole ; but, as if misfortune dogged our painter's footsteps everywhere, he had not been long in Yarmouth when he and his man, and also Morland's brother, were arrested as spies by an order from General Don, commanding this district of the isle. Their arrest was sudden and dramatic. Morland was breakfasting with his brother and servant at six o'clock one morning, when a lieutenant and eight soldiers of the Dorset militia entered, grounded their pieces, and declared them all prisoners. The zealous militiamen had observed our artist sketching the coast at Yarmouth; and, being in all things warlike, they could arrive at no other conclusion than that he was sketching the coast defences for the information of the French Government, and to assist a French invasion. They accordingly marched the suspected artist, his brother, and his servant off to Newport, the island capital, twelve miles distant; and the weather being hot and dry, and the artist's heavy portfolio of sketches (which contained the criminatory evidence against him) being carried by the prisoners, the latter appeared in sorry plight before the island justices. To complete the indignity, they were hooted at as traitors whilst on the road to Newport. Fortunately, Morland had received, from Dr. Lynn, a letter of introduction to a well-known gentleman in the Isle of Wight, and this saved him. With a stern admonition to make no more sketches in the isle, he was dismissed from the justices' court.

This ridiculous affair will remind the reader of an episode in Richard Doyle's inimitable 'Brown, Jones, and Robinson,' where the whole party were arrested and tried because Brown chose to make sketches in Austrian territory. However, the injunction to sketch no more in the Isle of Wight seems to have lain light on Morland ; for, whilst staying with the old smuggler at Yarmouth, he painted, for Mr. Wedd, two of his finest coast scenes — the one a view of the Needles, and the other of Freshwater Gate, into which he introduced the portraits of various people of the districts.

Allan Cunningham says ('Lives of British Painters,' 1830, vol. ii., p. 222) that a friend once found  Morland at Freshwater Gate, in a low public-house called The Cabin. Sailors, rustics, and fishermen were seated round him in a kind of ring, the roof-tree rung with laughter and song, and Morland, with manifest reluctance, left their company for the conversation of his friend. "George," said his monitor, "you must have reasons for keeping such company." " Reasons, and good ones," said the artist, laughing ; " see, where could I find such a picture as that, unless among the originals of The Cabin ?" He held up his sketch-book and showed a correct delineation of the very scene in which he had so lately been the presiding spirit. One of his best pictures contains this facsimile of the tap-room, with its guests and furniture.'

Freshwater Gate is a hamlet situated on the seashore close to the more inland village of Freshwater. The Cabin public-house has vanished, and the only inn known to have once existed at Freshwater Gate was the Mermaid, the site of which is now occupied by the Albion Hotel. In all probability, Morland lived at the Mermaid. The author was informed by an old fisherman of Freshwater that he assisted, when a boy, at the pulling down of the Mermaid, and that his grandmother had secured its sign, a mermaid carved in wood. One day the fisherman's aunt wanted firewood, and actually broke up and burnt the old sign — a bit of ruthless destruction which the fisherman said he had never ceased to regret. Curiously enough, the fisherman had two good coloured engravings, by William Ward (1790), of Morland's ' Jack in the Bilboes' and 'The Contented Waterman ' which, he said, had descended to him.

Since Morland's day, Freshwater has become a fashionable watering-place, but its picturesque scenery remains just as he loved to depict it. There are still the chalk cliffs, the splendid sea, the grassy downs, the old thatched stone cottages, situated amid a luxuriant tangle of trees, shrubs, and flowers. The Poet Laureate of England came to this district and lived long and happily among its lovely scenery and homely people. Farringford, Lord Tennyson's seat, is close to Freshwater ; and it is known that the illustrious poet felt, like Morland, most at home among the common people of the locality. He fled from a Cockney tourist as Morland did from a London dun.

In times to come, Farringford will be a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of English poetry ; and people will go there to visit the haunts of Tennyson, just as they go to Stratford-on-Avon to visit those of Shakespeare. It is pleasant to think that one of the most English of all poets was, like one of the most English of all painters, attracted to the same locality; and it is still more pleasant to know that the place possesses imperishable beauties which all lovers of poetry and art may still enjoy.

The last years of the life of George Morland are sad reading. Returning to London in November, 1799, he thought he might live in safety in lodgings at Vauxhall, but he was mistaken.

Despite all this hassle, he managed to produce a large body of his best works during this period, depicting the coast of the Island in the years before its Victorian development as a fashionable retreat. Check out Calm off the Coast of the Isle of Wight; A view of Gurnhards Bay, near Cowes, Isle of Wight, with fisherfolk on the shore 1; and Fisherfolk Unloading their Catch in Freshwater Bay Isle of Wight.  Compare the coastscape around Freshwater as depicted in old postcards scanned at

The Sterling Times ("the virtual scrapbook of British nostalgia") has a large index of paintings by Morland; and there are other more or less similar biographies findable online. See George Dawe's The life of George Morland (Internet Archive ID cu31924008634960), David Henry Wilson's George Moreland (Internet Archive ID georgemorland00wilsuoft) and John Hassell's Memoirs of the life of the late George Morland; with critical and descriptive observations on the whole of his works hitherto before the public (Internet Archive ID memoirsoflifeofl00hassrich).

Addendum: footnote 1 is sic probably, and maybe even the whole title. "Gurnhards Bay" appears nowhere except in modern references to this painting. There is a Gurnard Bay, however, which was historically called Gurnard's Bay. As far as I can tell, this spelling "Gurnhards Bay" comes from a 2007 Christie's auction. But the image doesn't look like Gurnard Bay. The geology is wrong: the painting shows distinct chalk cliffs, and Gurnard Bay is actually backed by soft low-lying Tertiary rocks. Plus there's no reference to a work of this name in any of the Morland biographies.

- Ray

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