Gender, sex, race, class – and the sea: Representing Cornish fishing village women in art

An interesting Blog about today’s Symposium from  Gender, sex, race, class – and the sea: Representing Cornish fishing village women in art.

On Monday May 12th there’s a symposium: British Waters and Beyond: The Cultural Significance of the Sea since 1800, at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.

But what’s the cultural significance of the sea for women? To me – and I’m not giving a paper on it, as I’ve been too busy – it’s that the sea was:

  •  a place inhabited by male seafarers,: the sphere implicitly termed ‘Rugged Masculinity’
  •  the site of an industry that women were expected to support but to only join in limited roles e.g. net-mending not fish-catching, stewardessing not engineering
  •  the widow-maker, the force that shaped their lives, yet something women were largely encountered from a distance or by proxy
  • of course, a force associated with Woman’s/Nature’s unruliness (and stirred up by any women who had the temerity to venture on it, even as passenger).

Of course, this was very different at different times in history. It was absolutely affected by class position, race etc.

It seems that the sea was often rather hypocritically gendered: it was called ‘no place for a lady’, but actually working-class women supported activities on it and lived off it. And ladies actually were owners and the models for muse-type figureheads of ships, but often formally excluded from anything like an equal – or any – place on board.

From the symposium programme, it appears that at least one paper is about women and the sea, and somewhat about gender. Mary O’Neil from Oxford Brookes University) writes this summary of the paper she’ll be presenting:‘A “white-aproned sisterhood”: representing Cornish fisherwomen’


‘Late nineteenth-century representations of coastal women focused on their healthy beauty and neat, plain attire. Nostalgia for a picturesque rural life …intensified at the turn of the century. [It]was evident in the attitudes to feminine dress that contemporary writers and artists revealed in travel writing, art criticism and personal correspondence.

‘Naturalist artists in Cornwall chose ‘real fisher-folk’ as their models. They placed them in ‘authentic’ coastal settings, at work and at leisure. They constructed an image of West Cornwall that fulfilled metropolitan expectations of a simpler life rooted in traditional values.

‘Artistic selection sustained the Cornish idyll in the face of challenges from an encroaching modernity and from visceral realities of fishing life.

‘Stanhope Forbes [1857-1947] rejected the citified fashions adopted by Newlyn women as inappropriate in their maritime surroundings. Patrons and viewers expected paintings ‘whose society they could enjoy’.

‘Contemporary photographs documented the fisherwoman’s work. But pictorial equivalents are rarer. [Sir George] Clausen had encountered hostility to his naturalist representations of female agricultural labourers for a reason.

‘Artists negotiated such constraints by representing Cornish fisherwomen as:

• fresh-faced young women in interior settings, fulfilling domestic and maternal roles, often working on the nets, the signifiers of their maritime identity

• working women waiting for the boats, at beach auctions or processing the catch

• ‘traditional’ Cornish fishwives (older women wearing distinctive occupational costume), whose image had both regional significance and a tourist value beyond West Cornwall.

‘Finally, I consider Newlyn women’s self-presentation as a contrast to such imagery.


It seems that Mary’s paper will illustrate the wider gendered maritime picture that generally applied until the 1970s: women are by the sea, not on it. Wives and daughters are helpful to the chaps who sail but do not actual try to be on board. And Stanhope Forbes was painting WW1 Wrens in a similar – though charming – way.

When they appear in sea imagery it’s not as active on-board workers. Nor as realistically stressed-out impoverished dependent auxiliaries ashamed of their ragged clothing. Nor as women with agency choosing to wear stylish and modern – even outrageous flapper-style – clothing.

Women are presented as being in a very distinct gendered binary of woman on shore versus man at sea. They do do a lot of waving Him off supportively from the headland. Very picturesque.

But actually as many as a thousand women were working as seafarers when these nostalgic (and saleable)representations were created. (Fish-catching, even today, remains a largely male job, though it’s easier for women to succeed if they are boat-owners and from fishing families, as several now are.

Every time I see these Cornish images – they’re on popular postcards there – I wonder if local women said to each other ‘Quick, here come those blinkered London artists. Better get your old pinny out of the rag bag if you want to make some money posing. Cover your marcel wave up with this headscarf, girl! Flashy patent leather boots! Nah! Swap ’em for your gran’s clogs! Now, none of that lesbian stuff here, these types can’t cope with us being anything other than heterosexual, never mind their own proclivities. And scrub that mascara off or you’ll never get the job.’

I guess the key question is ‘what was in it for artists to represent women in this way?’ The answer has to be ‘sales’. Sales to buyers whose preferred version of the non-urban included quiescent outdated figures, definitely not suffrage fighters, definitely not the anticipated women captains.

The symposium is organised in partnership with Leeds Metropolitan University and Oxford Brookes University.



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