New York City has more than 1,000 galleries, so art Historian Natasha Schlesinger has created an app, ArtMuse Discover Galleries, to help visitors decide which ones are worth checking out. Ruth & I will use it soon to find out what’s novel in New York. Most people exploring a big city destination visit an art gallery or two. Why is that a good idea? Because seeing art gives those who don’t know much about local culture, like Americans in Cornwall, some insights into it. This was especially true at Penlee House in Penzance. I made a list of this town’s recommended attractions for us to explore, and Penlee was one of them. It’s far more than just a place with some good local stuff on display, it’s a cultural treasure house.
The Penlee House Gallery specializes in the art of the Newlyn School, and its website lists all of its more important artists. If you’re like me, you won’t recognize any of them. The Newlyn School lasted from around 1880 until 1940, and its proponents primarily painted what life was like in a small, poor English fishing port that completely missed the industrial revolution and, thus, any benefit from being part of the British Empire. Newlyn’s focus is on human figures–fishermen, women performing domestic tasks, children being children, etc. All look busy and purposeful but few of them, even the children, look happy. The scenery is spectacular and the ocean is an ever-present force in their lives, but few pay attention to either. Many of the Newlyn artists trained in Paris and developed great skill. Penzance and its environs look a lot like France’s Brittany.
Ruth and I happened to be in Penlee House as it was celebrating the 20th anniversary of a major museum overhaul. It had some of its best works out. It has such a huge collection, including 10,000 photographs, that it never leaves anything up for very long. Like movie previews of coming attractions that now sometimes seem longer than the feature presentation, its website shows all upcoming exhibits through June, 2018.
There is no such thing as a permanent Penlee display, and in addition to the art that seems like a visual history of the area there’s a small cultural museum on the 2nd floor covering 6,000 years of Cornwall happenings. Display items include some interesting artifacts like Roman gold jewelry. Near the entry downstairs was a small, very fine restaurant called The Orangery. Outside was a regional theater, some sculptures like Kurt Jackson’s fanciful “The Broccoli Juggler”, and a park-like setting. There’s an actual park with formal, subtropical gardens nearby called Morrab.
All the sources I have read agree that Penlee House is one of England’s leading regional museums. It is. And I felt I knew a lot more about Cornwall after visiting it.