Walter Langley, RI (British, 1852-1922) A Village Idyll 75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)

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Lot 123
Walter Langley, RI
(British, 1852-1922)
A Village Idyll 75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)

Sold for £ 84,000 (US$ 114,612) inc. premium
Walter Langley, RI (British, 1852-1922)
A Village Idyll
signed and dated 'WALTER LANGLEY 1888' (lower right)
75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)


  • "The strongest watercolour man in England" (Henry Scott Tuke)

    Walter Langley was born in Birmingham on the 28th June 1852. Gifted from a young age, he attended classes at the Birmingham School of Design. In 1865 he found work as an apprentice to a local lithographer, August Heinrich Biermann, but continued his classes at the School of Design and in 1873 was awarded a two-year scholarship at the South Kensington School of Art in London. In 1873 Langley submitted his first works to a public exhibition, but by 1875 Biermann had offered him a partnership in his business and it was thus that Langley returned to Birmingham to resume his career as a lithographer. Langley obviously recognised that he must also continue to develop his artistic career and enrolled in classes firstly at the Midland Art Guild and then at the Birmingham Society. During this time, Langley was in contact with the artist Francis Hinckley who undertook still lives and figures in watercolour. Furthermore, artists such as Hubert Von Herkomer and Frederick Walker exhibited at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and certainly Langley would have taken note of their works. Later in his career, it is possible to see Langley working with similar themes also used by Walker and Herkomer in his depictions of Newlyn life.

    In 1876, the demand for lithographic work hit a low and Langley began to produce many more paintings. By 1879 Langley had become a professional artist, giving up his career as a lithographer and in 1880 he made his first visit to Newlyn in Cornwall, which was to be one of the main subjects in his paintings for the rest of his career. The subject of the sea and most notably its symbolic relationship with death and the hardship surrounding those whose livelihood depended on it, was a popular theme in Victorian art and drew many an artist to coastal villages. Langley was one of the first artists to visit Newlyn, arriving before others such as Stanhope Forbes and Henry Scott Tuke discovered the delights of the village in 1884. The mild climate in Cornwall allowed artists to work en plein air and produce remarkably fresh and vivid scenes of Cornish life.

    Newlyn is primarily known for its fishing, and certainly in 1880 it was the main source of income for its residents. Whilst Newlyn was, and still is, a picturesque seaside destination, the permanent residents of the small village were stricken by poverty as income from fishing was erratic at best. In 1880 Langley returned to Birmingham and in the same year terrible storms struck the Cornish coast, and many fishermen lost their lives. A national campaign to aid fishermen went underway and it would have been difficult to avoid the plight of those whose lives had been affected by the tragedy. In 1881 Langley received a commission from a wealthy patron in Birmingham to work in Newlyn for a year and in 1882 he took up residence near the village and began to paint scenes of the people of Newlyn, most notably the women and their role in the community. "These paintings established Langley's distinct artistic style and choice of subject matter in the mind of the art viewing and purchasing public and, coupled with his admission to the Institute of Painters in Watercolours (later the Royal Institute), drew attractive offers of commissions, ensuring he would stay on in Newlyn". 1 Towards the end of 1885 Langley moved back to Birmingham to be with his wife and children, but after a brief visit to Newlyn in 1886 to complete his watercolour for the Institute's Spring Exhibition that year, he finally moved there in the Spring of 1887. During the time he had been absent from the village, his Newlyn subject matter had changed very little and continued to reflect the hardship of life in the fishing village.

    A Village Idyll is one the finest examples of Langleys large-scale watercolours depicting Newlyn. It is comprised of a series of intimate portraits of Newlyn villagers set against the Cornish coast. Here, Langley has depicted figures from all three stages of life. When the picture was originally exhibited at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in 1888, it was shown with the line 'After the buoyant happy days of youth/comes the calm eventide of age'. The young women reading a love letter and the children playing serve as a buoyant contrast to the still pensiveness of the elderly woman in the foreground. Langley has shown the cycle of Newlyn life from the newly-born to the old of age, played out in front of the backdrop of the Cornish sea.

    The central figures of the young women and the fisherman are at work and whilst they are pausing from their daily chores to read a love letter or smoke a pipe, it is impossible to escape the theme of labour in the picture. Whilst the scene appears at first to be one of repast, work is woven into its fabric. The tarpaulin on the fisherman's knee, the water vessel at the woman's side, and the fishing fleet in the distance serve to remind the viewer of the driving force behind the Newlyn community.

    The painting does not show the direct effect of loss and hardship faced by the Newlyn fishing community as in paintings such as Disaster! Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village (1889) or Memories (1885), rather it refers indirectly to these themes. Behind the figures a fishing fleet can be seen, whilst on the sandy shore a shipwreck serves as a stark reminder of the of the loss of life seen regularly by the figures in the scene. In addition to this continued hardship, in 1888 there was a serious lack of fish and many families faced starvation. The sea thus represented a double threat.

    The Cornishman newspaper reported on the crisis: "There can be no doubt that distress arising from the want of fish is being felt in the place now. It would be worth some person's while to ascertain how the poor live here . . . scores of families in Newlyn have not received sufficient to buy bread since June and we may guess the distress they must be in". In light of this crisis A Village Idyll also touches upon the depleted fish resources and perhaps the sense of calm is more a symbol of the lack of work rather than genuine repast.

    Langley continued to produce scenes of Newlyn until his death in 1922, although arguably the present lot remains one of his finest examples of his depiction of the realities of life in the Cornish village.

    1 R Langley, 'Walter Langley: Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony' Penzance 1997, p. 65

    Harry Lucas, St Agnes Road, Mosely, House sale;
    Frank Starkey;
    thence by descent to the present owner.

    Harry Lucas (1855- 1939) was the son of Joseph Lucas, of Joseph Lucas & Son (later Lucas Automotive), the famous manufacturer of components for the motor industry, founded in 1872 and located in Great King Street, Birmingham. Harry was involved in the business from a young age and by 25 he had to cope with much of the financial and management burden of running the business. By the 1880s Lucas & Son was growing from strength to strength. Harry Lucas wrote to his father in 1886 'In a little while we shall be free from debt entirely and then all we make will be our very own, as children say, to do as we like with' 1. By 1889 they had moved their offices to the more salubrious Little King Street, and they had persuaded Walter Chamberlain, the uncle of the future Prime Minister, to sit on the board of directors.

    They business was now prospering and Harry had designed his own house in St Agnes Road, Moseley although it took until 1900 to complete. Harry's eldest son, Oliver, became involved in the business and began to help expand sales to the United States.

    Harry retired from the business 1925 and died in 1939. 'It was decided that flowers, if insisted upon, should be sent to hospitals, but this did not prevent a group of Birmingham artists, for whom Harry had been a sympathetic patron, bringing flowers to the crematorium' 2. It is likely that Harry bought A Village Idyll directly from Langley, perhaps after it was exhibited at the Royal Institute in 1888, and hung it in his home at St Agnes Road after its completion.

    This lot was purchased by Frank Starkey, a local baker who lived on St Agnes Road, from the house sale of Harry Lucas some time between 1945-1949. There are two possibilities as to what happened. Either Oliver decided to wait until after World War II had come to an end to sell his father's house and its contents some time between 1945 and 1948, or, on the untimely death of Oliver in 1948, Harry's house was sold and its contents dispersed.

    1 H. Nockolds 'Lucas: The first hundred years. Vol. I: The King of the Road', London 1976, p. 67.
    2 H. Nockolds, op cit, p. 335.

    Royal Institute, 1888 (164, illus);
    RBSA, 1923 (49);
    Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, 1984 (15).

    Roger Langley, Walter Langley: Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony, Penzance, 1997, passim;
    Ex. cat. 'Walter Langley, Scenes of the West Country by a Birmingham Artist' Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, 1984.
Walter Langley, RI (British, 1852-1922) A Village Idyll 75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)
Walter Langley, RI (British, 1852-1922) A Village Idyll 75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)
Walter Langley, RI (British, 1852-1922) A Village Idyll 75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)
Walter Langley, RI (British, 1852-1922) A Village Idyll 75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)
Walter Langley, RI (British, 1852-1922) A Village Idyll 75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)
Walter Langley, RI (British, 1852-1922) A Village Idyll 75 x 120.5 cm. (29 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)
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