Cobles in Art & Antiques

Celebrating the Northumbrian coble and Yorkshire cobble in popular culture

Coble folk

lt is only on the east coast of England that a specific inshore fishing boat has became such an 'object of desire' in it's own right and a mass of artifacts produced to help celebrate it's shape, colour and purpose.

But it would be nothing were it not for the fishing communities that have, over centuries, trusted their very survival to it's seaworthiness. These same communities have themselves long been portrayed in paintings, photographs and ceramics etc - so it's only right that this coble-focused-site should also 'celebrate' in part all who have owned and worked with this most iconic of boats.

The coble has always been used by east coast artists and photographers as an essential prop to both frame and contexturalise depictions of fishermen and their families, and no better example can be found than the oil Cobles at Staithes (left) by J R Bagshawe (1870-1909) which shows the boats being rowed out from Staithes amid stormy seas.

Of all the artists who were members of either the Cullercoats and Staithes colonies, it was perhaps Bagshawe who best captured the essential qualities of the coble as a working boat. Whilst others worked on land, it was only Bagshawe who would go regularly onboard with fisherman to portray their boats at sea. Sadly, he is little known outside the Whitby area but his work demands greater respect and wider acknowledgement - a campaign which I'm pleased to say has now begun with the publication in 2010 of Bagshawe's biography 'Sea Painter' by Peter Frank. For other examples of his work go to Postcards and Paintings.

Of all the artists setting out to capture the daily grind (on land!) of east coast fishing, none have become more recognised for their figurative studies than Winslow Homer (Cullercoats) and Laura and Harold Knight (Staithes).  All three excelled at producing iconic images of the two coastal communities - 'attracted there by the fine physique and picturesqueness of the fisherfolk and the bold character of the coast' - all of which found a ready market among the urban elites of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It could be said that Winslow Homer found his feet at Cullercoats. Before his arrival in 1880 he had been an average 'hacking' illustrator who had made a name for himself depicting scenes from the American Civil War but the bracing air of Cullercoats and the heroic qualities of it's people captured his imagination, and dramatically transformed his painting style and composition.

It is only relatively recently (over the last two decades) that his short period in north east England has been internationally recognised as being truely formative. His depictions of Cullercoats' fishergirls as stoical figures set agin nature's tempest are now widely acclaimed, on both sides of the Atlantic, as being beautifully crafted masterpieces of drama and emotion. Other examples of his work can be seen in Paintings.

It may be interesting to note that Homer's Cullercoats watercolours consistantly command the highest auction prices of all north east artworks. Also of interest is a modern art crime novel by John Malcolm called 'Simpson's Homer' which is centred upon the artist's time in the NE.

Dame Laura Knight (1877 1970) arrived in Staithes as the young fetching Miss Johnson. And it was there that she built upon her training at Nottingham Art School to establish an artistic pedigree that has resulted in her being admired as the country's foremost lady artist of the first half of the 20th century.

Alongside, and being mentored by, her 'later husband to be' Harold and fellow artist Fred Jackson (1859-1918), she produced some startingly good and technically competant pictures of Staithes fisherfolk - figurative studies which she would later explore with greater depth and more confidence when moving with Harold down to Newlyn some eight years later. However, Laura's early Staithes works are as eagerly sought today as are her later SW coastal, circus and ballet rat oils - her fame being cemented by a series of iconic 'homefront' factory images produced during her tenure as an official WW2 War Artist.

What can be said of Harold? His work is certainly up there with the very best produced at the time. Indeed, it shows a technical ability that far outshines that of any other artist working in Staithes, except perhaps that of Fred.

The Staithes pictures of both Harold and Laura are, at first glance, strikingly similar. However, at a second, Harold's always emerge superior in both composition and finish. And their scale and ambition are also, generally, more impressive. Unfortunately, while he continued to produce good numbers of excellent studies throughout his later life, the stigma attached to his 'pacificism' during WW1 appears to have sapped the creative energy which was so evident in his early Staithes work.

And what of Robert Jobling and his missus Isa?

Robert (the prodigal son of Tyneside glass manufacturers) is well known in the north for his studies of fisherfolk, less so Isa who largely abated her passion for painting after marriage. They were active in Cullercoats when young and later in life 'summered' in Staithes where the light and interaction with younger members of the group is said to have loosened and brightened up their work.

But it is to Cullercoats you must return to find their best paintings. Both artists are well represented in local museums with large impressive oils, perhaps the pinnacle being Robert's 'Fisherfolk on Long Sands Beach, Tynemouth' which belongs to North Tyneside Council and Isa's 'Cullercoats Fishergirls' which is held in Gateshead's Shipley Art Gallery.  Robert excelled at depicting the sea (and his is the best painting of a coble I've seen, illustrated below) but his figure studies lack the grace and movement of others as they appear wooden in comparison. Isa's later cottage garden studies are, however, excellent.    

Far, far more accessible than paintings were postcards! And in the late 19th century a boom in their production was fuelled by mass tourism to the coastal resorts and countryside. To satisfy the burgeoning demand, postcard publishers commissioned artists and photographers to go forth and capture the most memorable and picturesque images possible. And for those visitors heading for the coast, what better way could there be than to remind themselves (and their families and friends) of days by the sea than a postcard depicting the strange garb, habits and otherwise 'quaint goings on' of local fisherfolk. Which is good news, because all the frenzy of the boom has left an invaluble pictorial record of our social history and none more so than that of the fishing communities.

Many commercial (and private) images of east coast fisherfolk are pictured near or in cobles and it is evident from them that great pride was shown in the boats. But this has always been the case. Cobles have long been admired in their own right for centuries - how else explain the half hull fishing dioramas (folkart unique to the NE of England) made for owners as long ago as the early 1820s or the considerable 'coble chatter' found on today's internet now that the boat is close to becoming an endangered species?

I digress. Artists and photographers were not the only ones to capture fisherfolk as subjects for art or souvenirs. Potters too provided a mass of cheap fishing-related ornamentation to decorate Victorian homes. And while it may be hard to imagine now, almost every area with access to clay, coal and the sea or at least a river or canal, set  up small-scale potteries. While many fell by the wayside, some became successful and ended up employing hundreds if not thousands.

Among the many 'pottery hotspots' was Midlothian - specifically the stretch of coast along the south shore of the Firth of Forth from Portobello to Prestonpans - home to the distinctive 'Portobello Fishwife' earthenware figures, said to have been modelled on actual fishwives working in ports such as Leith and Newhaven.

The figures are portrayed in the authentic garb of the time. Their brightly striped dresses and shawls served two purposes, being both practical and a recognisable uniform which caught the eyes of customers when fishwives went inland to sell their catch. 

Perhaps the most attractive were manufactured by Thomas Rathbone & Co, a pottery established in 1810. Their figures were made rather thick and heavy to handle, with features picked out using pale tints of vermilion red enamels (colours) and black for eyelids and other fine outlines. They were attractive and cheap to produce, selling all over Scotland to fisher and country folk for no more than a few shillings each.                       . 

Similar figures were produced by many other Scottish east coast potteries with most being modelled either standing by a creel of fish or carrying one on their back. Some hold out a fish to sell. They come in two basic sizes - the full bodied early small (around 8 ins or 20 cms tall) and from the 1840s on, the larger (13 ins or 33 cms tall) flatbacked. Sometimes two figures are modelled together.

Writers also contributed to the 19th century's 'pastoral' celebration of working people. The passages below, were written by Tomlinson (see Why all the fuss?).

'Seated on the long bench beneath the Look-out House, or standing in picturesque groups at the corner opposite, or lounging against the rails on the bank, are the Cullercoats fishermen and pilots. Fine, hardy, well-built fellows they are, with bronzed and bearded faces, slow and deliberate of gait, and somewhat indolent of habit, yet in times of danger capable of great courage and endurance.

'A more handsome and robust body of men does not exist among the Northumbriam peasantry; and what praise could adequately be given in prose to the canny Cullercoats fishwives and their buxom daughters? Some of them we see on the banks, with a few exceptions, bare-headed, and all having the same peculiar and becoming costume - to wit, 'the print bodice, with coloured neckerchief tucked inside, the blue flannel skirt, worn short, and with a profusion  of tucks and the home-knitted stockings, and strong but neat shoes......

'....They are much in request by artists as models, and from being frequently painted, and knowing the high prices obtained for many of the pictures in which they are represented, come to regard themselves as instrumental in the making the fortune of the painters....'

 Illustrations (from top to bottom): one of JR Bagshawe's masterpieces, the oil 'Cobles at Staithes;'  a Cullercoats watercolour 'Two girls on a beach' by Winslow Homer;  (part of) Homer's Cullercoats masterpiece (completed on his return to the States) 'The Voice from the Cliffs,' representing three fishergirls with blown skirts standing on a cliff and calling to some men in a coble below who are just hoisting the sail. First owned by the American poet and critic, Edmund Clarence Stedman; Harold Knight's Staithes watercolour 'Beaching the cobles;' Isa Jobling's oil 'Cullercoats Fishergirls;' Robert Jobling's oil 'Cresting the Wave;' two 'private' photos of cobles at Seaham or Hartlepool?; an early (1820) fishwife figure by Rathborne's Portobello Pottery and a late (1840) Scottish east coast flatback of two fishwives and finally; a photograph by Frank Meadows Sutciffe of Whitby fisherfolk. His work is admired worldwide and is today published by The Sutcliffe Gallery. Strangely, his work was never used on postcards during his lifetime.