Why Winslow Homer came to Cullercoats – Solving the ‘Mystery’

Originally posted 2017-01-31 11:31:42. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

For a very long time indeed, in fact since the time of Winslow Homer’s residence in Cullercoats 1881 -1882 , there has been puzzlement as to the reasons for Homer’s arrival and long stay in a remote part of North East England. This was Homer’s second trip across the Atlantic, the first being in 1866-7 to France for a nearly a year long stay. Whereas the trip to France had little or no impact on Homer’s work, the stay in Cullercoats some fourteen years later had a dramatic effect, with some of his most famous works being painted in his tiny studio on the Bank Top overlooking the tiny fishing village harbour. On his second trip, Homer wasted hardly any time at all before setting out for Cullercoats after what can be observed as an obligatory painting of the Houses of Parliament in London, during a short stay in that city. This was a man with a firm destination in mind, and a determination to reach it with the minimum of delay.

The fishing village of Cullercoats had been attracting local artists who painted there from about the 1820’s, particularly Henry Perlee Parker and John Wilson Carmichael (1800- 1868). Carmichael’s daughter Annie married William Luson Thomas, the founder of ‘The Graphic’ (est.1869) an illustrated newspaper which had an immense influence within the art world. By 1870 Cullercoats had developed into a thriving artists colony and is often referred to as the ‘Cullercoats Phenomenon’ . This tiny fishing village attracted a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Victorian artistic talent. One of those artists that came to Cullercoats was John Dawson Watson (1832 – 1892), who is more commonly referred to as ‘J.D. Watson’.

J.D. Watson was a painter, watercolourist and a highly respected illustrator for notable published works and for the highly successful ‘Illustrated London News’ (est.1842) and for ‘The Graphic’. J.D. Watson was married to the sister of Myles Birket-Foster (1825-1899), a North Shields-born artist and fellow illustrator for the ‘Illustrated London News’, who often painted at Cullercoats. J.D. Watson was so taken by the fisher-life and the courageous acts of the lifeboatmen of Cullercoats that he provided illustrations of their heroism for both the ‘Illustrated London News’ – and most importantly – ‘The Graphic’ , for example in 1870 and 1871, making Cullercoats famous well beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. This in an area of England famous for it’s pioneering life-saving work by Lifeboatmen and the newly formed Volunteer Life Brigades which had also featured from 1865 onwards in the ‘Illustrated London News’ .

Illustrated newspapers were hugely popular, and the ‘Illustrated London News’ – the worlds first – was selling over 300,000 copies a week by 1863. ‘Harper’s Weekly’ the illustrated newspaper based in New York City, was modelled on that highly successful London Newspaper, and like the ‘Illustrated London News’ the proprietors used the services of the best artistic talent available to provide it’s readers with the finest illustrations in their newspapers. Winslow Homer in his capacity as an illustrator for ‘Harper’s Weekly’ (est.1857) would have had first-class access to the copies of the rival illustrated newspapers of the day, most notably the overseas ones on which ‘Harper’s Weekly’ was based. To think otherwise is inconceivable. Drawn already by the news from the artistic circles of Europe, to see the work and subject matter of those artists appear in the newspapers would be of immense interest to Homer and his fellow artist-illustrators in the United States. Both the ‘Illustrated London News’ and ‘The Graphic’ had world-wide circulations, and ‘The Graphic’ in particular stood out as it’s influence within the art world was immense. It was required reading by the artistic community on both sides of the Atlantic, and it can be said with some certainty that Winslow Homer, a member of the prestigious National Academy, was one of those readers.

The north east of England, already famous for industrial inventions and innovation, through the Cullercoats colony of artists, became famous for works of art, created at Cullercoats and in the surrounding area by highly respected and well known painters of the Victorian age. Much is owed to J.D. Watson’s love of Cullercoats and his works depicting fisher-life and the perils of the sea; and for their inclusion in the illustrated newspapers that reached around the globe and spread not only the fame of the place but also of the Cullercoats colony of artists itself. The artists colony reached its zenith around the time of Homer’s stay, and it is reasonable to suggest that Homer had long held the desire to come and see and experience for himself the cause of all the interest that had generated notable articles in the newspapers of the day. J. D. Watson’s work as a noted illustrator of the later editions of great literary works will have given further cause for artists to ponder why and what he came by in this part of the world that so grabbed his attention. Homer himself having worked at Bufford’s in Boston in his early years would have had a respect for the great skill of J.D. Watson, further strengthening a growing curiosity.

It is that curiosity which became an unstoppable desire over the years that brought Winslow Homer to Cullercoats in 1881. The length of his stay and the sheer volume of his work tells of a man finding what he was looking for and not wishing to miss a moment of his stay. The fact that he carried on painting scenes of Cullercoats using his substantial collection of sketches on his return to New York in late 1882 shows that he had absorbed the very essence of Cullercoats life and taken it back with him across the Atlantic. There is no mystery why Homer came to Cullercoats. When Homer was asked why he came to the village he would give an enigmatic smile and say it was a ‘happy chance’. For to give the real reason would have involved a long and complex reply citing the many influences throughout his life and his evolving curiosity after learning about the area that had fascinated so many other respected artists over many years.

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