Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Royal Cornwall Museum's Mystery Mine Paintings

Truro’s Royal Cornwall Museum has been donated a historic oil painting of a 19th-century Cornish mining scene. The painting shows a mine count-house, or office, where an auction of copper ore is taking place. A mixed group of buyers, miners and bal-maidens is depicted, along with the mine managers.

The earlier mystery painting.
The museum received the painting from a Cornish family with long-standing mining connections, but little is known of its origin. It probably dates from the early to mid 1900s, and is initialled ‘WP’. The painting bears a striking resemblance to another work also in the care of the museum, again anonymous, which is known simply as ‘A Cornish Mining Scene’.

The Cornish Mining World Heritage Site, which promotes Cornwall’s mining legacy, has studied both paintings and found similarities. In each, bal-maidens attend to their daily work, many wearing the distinctive white Cornish ‘gook’, a form of protective headgear. As the sale of ore takes place, buyers cluster around the managers. Both paintings show piles or doles of copper, ready for selling, while background buildings and scenery are also alike.

The Heritage Site says the paintings reproduce many activities of a Cornish tin mine of the period; some are particularly accurate. The earlier painting shows a raised wooden trough carrying water from the mine engine house and shaft; such channels often leaked, and the painter includes this detail. Some of the bal-maidens are dressing the copper ore, while others bring the ore to the balance-scales for weighing, before it's auctioned.

Who's this by?
But licence has also been used. In the later painting the maidens are dressing the ore close to the count house, unlikely in real life; this job was usually done at the mine workings, rather than near the offices.  In the more recent painting, a thatched cottage is in close proximity to a smoking mine chimney.

Lucinda Middleton is the RCM’s Curator of Arts. Lucinda explained: “The similarities in the subjects, as well as the broadly comparable colour pallets and style of brush strokes, indicates 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, implying a growing experience and maturity of observing and painting.

Both the museum and the Heritage Site are keen to learn more about the paintings.  If you can help with information, particularly the locations portrayed, or details of the artist, they'd be pleased to hear from you at

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