“Staithes Art Club [Annual Exhibition]
For many years now the district about Staithes, though, more especially, at first, at Runswick and Hinderwell, has been the summer home of a few able and conscientious artists, who have discovered unconventional subjects for their brush, and by careful study, have greatly improved their powers of perception, their appreciation of the relative values of lights and colours…Like Whitby, the paintable bits about Staithes and Runswick are illimitable …
… there was a gay and fashionable little assemblage present, which viewed with evident interest the representative collection of works on the walls of the upper room of the building which, from its large window, looked upon the the as from the deck of a steamer …
…There can be but one opinion among the fraternity of the brush as to the value of an exhibition of this kind, for comparison and criticism are the very soul of improvement and are valuable guides to a complete success.”
Whitby Gazette – Friday 8 August 1902
The exhibition referred to was the second of a series of short lived annual exhibitions held by the Staithes Art Club between 1901 and 1907. During the 1880s/1890s and 1900s artists, both professional and amateur, both men and women, lived or regularly stayed in or around Staithes, which has lead to the idea of a ‘Staithes Group’ of artists.
Most of the artists counted in the Group originated elsewhere, many from other places in the north of England. The east coast of Yorkshire had been opened up by a new railway line. Artists came and went during the period, some were just starting out, some were already academicians e.g. Royal Scottish Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Watercolour Society.
Although many of the pictures displayed at the exhibitions were of Staithes and its environs and local people that wasn’t always the case, what was important was the artists themselves. For a period of their life they were associated with a Staithes Group because of where they lived or worked and whether they displayed their work at the Staithes Art Club annual exhibitions. It’s noticeable that it was a loose association not an artist colony or a Staithes ‘School’; indeed Laura Knight, one of the Staithes Group, gave the yearning for close companionship of other painters as one of the reasons she ended up leaving Staithes.
“Staithes Art Club – A Choice Exhibition
There appears to be no particular leader, or style … Their aims are similar, but their methods are very dissimilar. They each try to give the broad truths of nature, ignoring almost entirely anything which would detract from the first impressions.”
Whitby Gazette, Friday 18 August 1905
Most of the pictures were rural landscapes, picturesque people (mostly working people) and conventional horses. Most of it was ‘en plain air’ that is painted outside rather than in a studio. The art was naturalistic, romanticised and sometimes impressionistic (but not too much). There was a sense of little suggestion of bohemian lifestyles or contentious art from the Group, it was all rather respectable. The 1903 Annual Exhibition had patrons including Sir Charles M Palmer MP, a North East Shipbuilder who had a country estate at nearby Grinkle Park, Loftus. Another patron was the MP for Whitby – E W Beckett – although he turned out to be rather more of a free spirit.
The writers in the Whitby Gazette who attend the annual exhibitions approve of the pictures that are well modelled and well managed faithful renderings, of good composition which are peaceful, sweet, harmonious, delightful, pleasing, rich in quality, natural in colour, strong yet tender.
“Staithes Art Club
… The visitors to this small exhibition will be at once struck by the diversity of aim and methods of the artists represented. In this respect, the work is very instructive. We may refer to the manner and treatment of both oils and water colours. May of the exhibits are successful efforts to portray the charm of colour and subtlety of things seen in the open air. We have others in which the painter has apparently ignored the latter quality, depending on bold masses of colour and strong contrasts in light and shade. Then we come to work which almost leaves colour alone, but somehow conveys it, with a hint. In each method we find some merit and reason. It is well that art can be so varied, otherwise, once and for all, colour photography would settle the thing. It is the personal interpretation, after all, which matters – the seizing upon the salient points, to the exclusion or suppression of such minor ones as would, if too much emphasised, detract from the work. If we bear those things in mind, in viewing the exhibits, and try and understand the aim of the painter, we shall receive greater pleasure and instruction.”
Whitby Gazette, Friday 17 August 1906
It’s clear from the reporting in the Gazette that the venues used for the exhibitions were small. At first it was the Fisherman’s’ Institute in Staithes; then Andersons Gallery, Well Close Square, Skinner Street in Whitby; and then The Gallery, Waterloo Place, Flowergate in Whitby. The pictures exhibited were therefore also small, in one of the exhibition reports the writer suggests this means they could be usefully hung in an ordinary house. Most of the professional artists at least would have been attempting to make some kind of living.
It has been suggestion that this restriction in size as well as the small regional market for pictures were reasons for the falling away of the Staithes Group. It’s noticeable that the same time as the Staithes Art Club annual exhibitions are advertised in the Whitby Gazette each year there are more adverts for other art exhibitions. Art Clubs had become a popular concept in all sorts of provincial places.
A loose association is easily dissolved. William Gilbert Foster an original member of the Club died in 1907 and the Knights left Staithes in the same year. The last official annual exhibition of the Staithes Art Club was held in 1907. Joseph Richard Bagshawe suddenly died in 1909, he had been another founding member. Leandro Garrido also died in 1909.
However it didn’t mean everyone just left; it’s clear from paintings held at the Pannett Art Gallery in Whitby that Staithes Art Club artists were still painting locally in 1920. Around the same time the Fylingdales Group of Artists was founded in Robin Hood’s Bay to the south of Whitby. Nowadays the Fylingdales Group still exist and Staithes is still a focus for artists, there is even a Staithes Art School.
So why for that brief period were turn of the 20th century artists drawn to Staithes and the north east coast of Yorkshire – Laura Knight shared her reasons in an autobiography thirty years later.
“The roofs were red tiled or thatched, the walls made of brownish-yellow ironstone, and there and there was a white-washed cottage with green shutters. The wooden quay, called the e stretched right across the beach forming a poor protection against a nor’-easter. Two walls of cliff formed barriers on either side; the northern side reached out its rounded arm, along which the Beck ran into the sea from springs on the high moor. The excuse I offer for writing about Staithes at such length is its tremendous influence on work, life and power of endurance. It was there I found myself and what I might do. The life and place were what I had yearned for the freedom, the austerity, the savagery, the wildness. I love it passionately, overwhelmingly. I loved the cold and the northerly storms when no covering would protect you. I loved the strange race of people who lived there, whose stern almost forbidding exterior formed such contrast to the warmth and richness of their natures.”
Oil Paint and Grease Paint, Autobiography of Laura Knights, 1936
When Laura Knight describes why her and her husband left for Cornwall and the Newlyn ‘School’ in 1907 she describes being tired of wet and cold and lonely winters and tragedies (i.e. the drowning of boat men). But she’s still very sorry to go.
Below a is a non comprehensive list of artists associated with the Staithes Group and links to an example of their work from around the same time as the Group was active.