Mary Fletcher

Walter Langley: Breadwinners 1889

This extensive show of 60 works by Walter Langley commemorates the 100th anniversary of his death, aged 70, in 1922
One picture has been sent from Texas. It’s long title In Faith and Hope the World Will Disagree but All Mankind’s Concern is Charity indicates where he stood on social questions.
Langley documented the lives of working folk in Newlyn, with the whom he had empathy as he came from an ordinary background in Birmingham. He was a pioneer in Newlyn, setting up his studio in 1882.
What struck me as I looked at these narrative works showing tragedy and sorrows was how much tastes have changed. Yet, all over Europe and America at this period art dealt with the painful drama of ordinary life. Photography became available but many of these artists employed locals to sit and be studied at length and Langley shows a great sympathy for his characters in the gentle detail and subtle colour he uses in oil and watercolour.
He shows men reading newspapers, one’s entitled The Politician, and he is reported to have taken an interest in politics himself at a time when workers had such terribly hard lives. Langley was a friend of the atheist anti-establishment liberal MP for Northampton, Charles Bradlaugh, and was known and criticised in Newlyn for sharing similar views.
Now pain and death, living in poverty, hoping for loved ones to return safely from fishing, reading a message from a far away lover, are all dealt with in other media – a news story, a film, an appeal for support online etc.
Langley inspires admiration for his remarkable technique and careful composition. Having time to contemplate an image one-to-one makes a significant impact.
The portrait of Langley at his easel by Carey Morris and a droll caricature by Fred Hall indicate that Langley had a lively and jaunty disposition.
He is part of a whole movement of artists with similar interests but his particular observation and intensity of feeling stand out.

Walter Langley Exhibition at Pendeen House, Penzance, 25 May – 1 October.

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