Samuel John Lamorna Birch

Samuel John Lamorna Birch RA (British, 1869-1955)

Samuel John Lamorna Birch was born in Cheshire, and moved down to the Lamorna Valley, on the south coast of West Penwith, in 1892, attracted by the beauty of the landscape and the nearby presence of the ‘Newlyn School’ artists, adopting the name of his new abode at the suggestion of Stanhope Forbes. He studied briefly in Paris, but was largely self-taught. Birch’s devotion to this region of Cornwall became legendary, and his presence attracted many other artists: Laura and Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings and Frank Gascoigne Heath all moved down, creating in effect a second group of Newlyn School artists (the first had begun in the 1880s with Forbes) that came to be known as the ‘Lamorna Group’.

Birch achieved wide renown, exhibiting over 200 works at the Royal Academy, and was elected Royal Academician in 1932. He had a solo show at the Fine Art Society in 1906. A 2004 show at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Shades of British Impressionism: Lamorna Birch and his Circle’, offered an important retrospective. Comparable works to the present two watercolours are held in the Tate Collections, most notably ‘Seascape’.

These two works show Birch at the height of his powers, painting his greatest subject, Lamorna Cove. They demonstrate his mastery of qualities of light, and his nuanced rendering of the many moods of the ocean: its playful iridescence, gentle agitation, the momentary crashing of a wave, and the glassy rippling as it reaches the shore. He adds volume and texture to the watercolours with overpainted touches of oil paint, using techniques such as rapid brush strokes and even finger-wipes to convey a sense of rapidity; in the case of the breaker in ‘Fishermen in Lamorna’, he has opened out into the board beneath, in a sudden textural flash akin to the shock of the spray. Birch demonstrates in these paintings too his mastery of placement: the sailing boat on the horizon, and fishermen on the rocks create a sense of scale, and give definition to the compositions.