After Stanhope Forbes, Walter Langley was the major painter of the Newlyn School and his works, more than any other artist working in this Cornish fishing town, most consistently represent the image of that school. He alone centred his lifelong work around the characters and activities of this local fishing community. Like the French plein air painters, he sought to capture the effects of light and atmosphere, painting the unsullied rural lives of the people, outdoors in the bright sunlight and the breezy Cornish air. He usually set his scenes against the Newlyn harbour or the whitewashed walls of its backstreets. He was the first important artist to settle in Newlyn (January 1882), two years before the arrival of Forbes, and he remained there almost without a break until his death in 1922.
Born in Birmingham, Langley was apprenticed at the age of fifteen to a lithographer. At the age of twenty-one, he left for London on a scholarship to South Kensington where he studied design for two years. He returned to Birmingham in partnership with his former master in a lithography business. At the same time he was studying painting at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. Disillusioned with life as a lithographer, he decided to make a profession of painting in the late 1870s. During this time he was also involved in the setting up of the Birmingham Art Circle.
Langley first visited Newlyn in 1880. In the same year he sold five views painted in the town, which accounts for why he was so keen to return two years later. At the outset of his stay, Langley painted only in watercolour, and in 1883 he was exhibiting these works in London where he became a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour. According to Stanhope Forbes, Langley only took up oil painting in 1884. However, Langley was exhibiting oil paintings at the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils in the three seasons 1883/4, 1884/5 and 1885/6.
Being from a working class background, he had in him instilled socialist beliefs and saw the virtue of the local working community of Newlyn. As most of the young men were away fishing for much of the year, Langley concentrated on the portrayal of those left behind: the elderly, and women in their domestic roles. Themes, which he explored, include the innocence and childhood youth contrasted with the loneliness and memories of old age, and the suffering of abandoned mothers. Throughout there is a sense of sadness and endurance, only rarely relieved by moments of smiling or laughing. In his paintings he very much identifies with his subjects, often showing them in a rare moment of rest, reading the newspaper, or lost in thought. His interest is in those who work and endure the hardship of life, something which he himself could fully understand: ‘It may be that it is because I have worked my way up that I am more interested in all who work.’
Langley continued painting through to the twentieth century working prodigiously in oil and watercolour, and exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy until 1919, the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours until 1918 and the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists until 1920, two years before his death.
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