A Painting, a Passage and a Story …..

This morning we went to see a wonderful, wonderful exhibition at Penlee House. ‘Penzance 400’ celebrates the 400th anniversary of my home town’s royal charter with a fabulous array of paintings, photographs and documents. If you are anywhere in the area between now and 7th June I recommend it warmly and unreservedly.

There was something very special, that I hoped I’d see but didn’t dare hope I that I would. I’ll come back to that ….

First I must tell you about a painting, a painting from the permanent collection that I know and love, that I realised was almost a perfect match for a passage that I copied out from a book I returned to the library later in the day.

The painting is ‘Market Place’ by Stanhope Forbes

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The passage is from ‘None-Go-By’ by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1923). She renamed the town but it was easy to recognise.

“We had come to Porthlew on market day when farmers and their families from all parts of the compass crown into the town. The whole day long they stand in groups at every corner and on the pavements of the main street, talking to each other. Every hotel yard is crammed with carts and jings; and below that part of the main street know as the terrace the old country buses range themselves until it is time to put the horses in again, and loaded with passengers and packages drive home to the distant villages. There are not as many buses as there used to be. They are gradually being replaced by motors, but there are still a few, in which for sixpence you may travel for two hours traversing five miles in the time and learning surprising details about the internal infirmities of your fellow passengers and the scandalous conduct of their absent friends.

Thomas never goes to Porthlew on market day because he likes to finish his shopping in minutes and then ask me what the devil he is to do with himself for the rest of the afternoon; but I, having lived in London all my life, never get tired of our country town. I like coming and going in full view of the bay, and then getting glimpses of the sea in the side streets as I shop in the main one. I like the crowds and the fruit stalls and the personal relationship with the trades-people. There is no such thing in Porthlew as a hostile minx who calls you Moddam ….”

I’ll come back to the book – which was lovely – in a day or two.

Today I want to back-track to something else that I saw.

We knew that in the 1930s, when he was the head of Penzance Art School, my grandfather prepared a number of illuminated manuscripts for the town council, for presentations and to record significant events. We had tried to find about more, but the council had no records; if the manuscripts still existed they would either be deep in the archive or with the recipients. It felt like a dead end.

It was possible that one would be on display, but I didn’t dare hope.

There was!

At least I think it was – it was unattributed, but the date was right and the style was right.

I told my mother about it this afternoon, and she was delighted. And she remembered the mayor whose term of office it commemorated.

Finding that connection to our own family history was very, very special.

Today has been a very good day.

And just a little while ago, when I was searching for the right painting by Stanhope Forbes, I found another of his works that I didn’t know.

Market Jew Street - Nocturne
‘Market Jew, Nocturne’ shows the scene that Mrs Sidgwick would have seen towards the end of her visit to town; the old country buses ready to depart, below that part of Market Jew Street that we still know as ‘The Terrace’ ….

6 responses

  1. I only know Penzance from The Pirates of… but my dad introduced me to Gilbert & Sullivan when I was a little girl so it’s special to me. Lovely to learn more about it!

  2. Love the paintings, especially the noctune one. Would definitely take on your recommendation to visit the exhibition, if only I could wish myself back in Penzance again!

  3. I’ve been to Penzance several times, from the US, and loved the Penlee House. It’s so neat to read about your family connection–I wish I could see this exhibit!

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