Margaret Laird describes and explains a notable reredos painted by one of the Newlyn School in Truro Cathedral
As Easter tourists LIwander round the A’Scathedral in the city of Truro, I wonder how many will step aside from the north aisle to look into a little chapel dedicated to Christ the Worker. The picture painted on the reredos is the work of a notable Anglo-Catholic vicar’s wife, Annie Walke. She was later closely associated with the early twentieth-century group of painters who, attracted by the quality of the light in the area, settled in the far west of Cornwall in and around the fishing village of Newlyn.
The Newlyn School
The paintings of the Newlyn School reflected ordinary, everyday scenes in the lives of the villagers amongst whom the artists lived and worked. The pictures are now widely reproduced on greetings cards, and the originals are worth a fortune.
Annie Walke’s painting in the cathedral brings together in one picture the main Cornish industries of the period in which she lived. White china clay waste tips and the tall chimneys of tin mines, set against a grey sky, form the background to the painted reredos. Fishing boats nestle within the rough granite walls of a typically Cornish harbour, from which a road leads to a cluster of small, slated cottages.
In the foreground is a field where several labourers, both men and women, are planting cabbages. A group of miners with pickaxes over their shoulders tread wearily along the road beyond the hedge. Two women in black dresses and starched white aprons lean over the granite wall gazing out to sea, awaiting the return of their fishermen husbands.
One woman, however, with a basket of laundry under her arm, stands alone on her doorstep. Her eyes are riveted upon a huge cross, which stands right in the middle of the cabbage field, and the figure of Christ, not hanging helplessly but with arms outstretched to bless. It is Christ both crucified and risen.
Joy and tranquillity
The expression on the face of the washerwoman who sees this unusual and unexpected sight is one of great joy and tranquillity. It is as if she alone is prepared to stop to look and ponder upon the significance of that cross, attempting to understand its meaning. The rest are too busy, too preoccupied to notice and to allow this miraculous sight to affect their lives.
Year after year, like the people in the painting, those who have some awareness – no matter how vague – of the happenings of that first Good Friday and Easter Sunday, are faced with a choice. They can either, like the workers in and around the cabbage field, turn their backs and ignore these miraculous events or, like the washerwoman and faithful congregations of Christian churches throughout the world, they can stop and ponder upon the meaning of the Cross, and allow the crucified and risen Christ to transform their working lives. ND