Monday, 16 November 2009

Truro's Mysterious Cornish Painting

Recently, I learned that Truro's Royal Cornwall Museum has received the historic oil painting below, portraying a nineteenth century Cornish mining scene. The painting shows a mine count house, or office, where an auction of copper ore is taking place. A large group of buyers, miners and bal-maidens is depicted, together with the mine managers.

A Cornish family with long-standing mining connections donated the painting to the museum, but little is known of its origin. It was probably painted during the early to mid 1900s, and is initialled 'WP', probably the name of the artist, but perhaps an indication of West Penwith, a prominent past mining location. The painting bears a striking resemblance to another work (below) in the care of the Museum, which is known simply as 'A Cornish Mining Sc

The Cornish Mi
ning World Heritage Site, which promotes Cornwall's mining legacy, has examined both paintings and found a number of similarities. In each, bal-maidens attend to their daily work, many wearing the distinctive white Cornish 'gook', a form of protective headgear. Buyers cluster round the managers as the sale of ore takes place. Both paintings show piles of copper, or doles, ready for selling, while background buildings and scenery also have much in common.

The Site says the paintings reproduce many typical activities of a Cornish mine of the time. Some details are particularly accurate. The earlier painting shows a raised wooden launder (or trough) carrying water from the mine engine house and shaft; such launders often leaked, and the painter includes this detail. Some of the bal-maidens are dressing (or processing) the copper ore, while other bring the ore to the balance scales for weighing, before it is auctioned.

However, artistic licence has also been used. In the later painting the maidens are dressing the ore close to the count house, which in practice would have been unlikely; such work usually took place within the industrial part of the mine rather than alongside the offices. In the more recent painting, a thatched house is in close proximity to a smoking mine chimney.

I spoke to Lucinda Middleton, the RCM's Curator of Arts. She told me, 'The similarities in the subjects, the broadly comparable colour pallet and the style of brush strokes, indicate the paintings are probably by the same artist.' However, she feels the two were probably painted some years apart. The recently donated work shows more attention to detail, suggesting a growing experience and maturity of observing and painting.

Both the Museum and the Heritage Site are keen to learn more about the two paintings, and so am I. If anyone can help with information, especially details of the artist or the locations portrayed, I'd be very pleased to hear from you.

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