Under the spotlight: A Foreign Invasion by H. H Emmerson

By Jean Scott, Chairman and Co-ordinator for Volunteer Guides, Friends of the Laing Art Gallery

The Friends of the Laing provide invaluable support to the Gallery by raising money and awareness of its exhibitions, collections and events, and help to acquire new works/conservation. This article presents a virtual insight into the Henry Hetherington Emmerson painting A Foreign Invasion, which is part of the Laing’s collection.

‘A Foreign Invasion’ c.1871 by Henry Hetherington Emmerson (1831–95), Laing Art Gallery, TWCMS : G3888

To help with the monotony of lockdown I have walked almost daily in my local cemetery passing by the grave of Henry Hetherington Emmerson (1831–95) who painted this picture. It shows entertainers performing in Cullercoats for the people of the village. This painting was bought by Lord Armstrong and was in Jesmond Banqueting Hall when he gave it to the City of Newcastle in 1883 along with Jesmond Dene. It is displayed in the Northern Spirit gallery at the Laing.

The quaint fishing village of Cullercoats had attracted artists since the eighteenth century but by the 1870s the numbers increased and included Robert Jobling, Arthur Hardwick Marsh, George Horton and J.F. Slater, all of whom are represented in the Laing’s collection. Another visitor was the internationally famous American artist Winslow Homer, who in a brief 18 month stay found inspiration and a richness of life which was to nurture his artistic development. Artists were sufficiently inspired to live in the village itself and be part of the community. It seems that the creator of this painting made himself very much part of the community and was respected throughout his life there. He had studied under Wm. Bell Scott, was a founder member and first president of the Bewick Club, and enjoyed the patronage of Lord Armstrong of Cragside, having lived for some time in Rothbury. Coincidently there is a version of this painting hanging in Cragside.

The life of fisherfolk is a hard and cruel one, as much for the menfolk at sea in all weathers as for the women they leave at home to sell the catch, look after the family and far too often to weep at the loss of loved ones taken by the unforgiving North Sea. This was frequently the subject matter of Cullercoats colony paintings along with dramatic and romantic seascapes. However, what we see in this painting is a charming, if rare, example of various generations of the fishing community at rest and enjoying a visit by a group of travelling entertainers, possibly from Italy, dancing and playing a variation of bagpipes. A third visitor is in the shadows, possibly enjoying refreshment or seeking payment! The setting is thought to be Sparrow Hall, Cullercoats, demolished in 1979 which had also been the subject of paintings by both Thomas Miles Richardson and Winslow Homer. It had been a large Jacobean house built by the Dove family with an appropriate crest which had been mistaken by the locals as a sparrowhawk, hence “Sparrow Hall”. The painting seems to separate into three areas. The main group of figures, parents with a small barefoot child, two young women and an elderly lady, are focussing on the music and dancing of the two young boys. To their left separated by a set of solid wooden steps, is a young couple who only have eyes for the antics of their baby who reaches out towards the father. Emmerson used a limited colour palette for the clothing of the figures but what a variety we see! The men wear strong ganseys appropriate to their trade. The older man may just have returned from sea, evidence of his catch hanging on the wall, wearing his working headgear and canvas boots. What a contrast to the old lady’s cut-off felt slippers and the practical yet attractive crocheted shawl wrapped tightly around her body. Under her sensible hat we see a linen cap peeping out. The artist used recognisable local people as subjects, and she is thought to be Betty Donkin who featured in some of his other more serious paintings. To our right the Italian entertainers wear delicate dancing shoes with laces criss-crossing their calves, tailored breeches, crisp white shirts and feather decorated hats, the like of which would never have been seen in Cullercoats! Our attention is drawn to the dancer who is framed by foliage and benefits from full sunlight. Emmerson has captured the moment where weight is transferred from foot to foot in a vigorous jig. The way in which the various facial expressions of the observers have been portrayed as they engage with the dancers shows Emmerson’s ability to observe and interpret the reactions of his models as individuals across the generations. This was without doubt the benefit of his close involvement with the community of Cullercoats. This respect was reciprocated when in early September 1895 the flag flew at half-mast on Cullercoats Look-out House in honour of his passing. He had died on August 28th in his home in John Street Cullercoats. The coffin was brought out and placed reverently on chairs on the pavement then carried by four fishermen to the hearse. His burial in Preston Cemetery was attended by many friends from the worlds of art, business, fishing and sport.

For more information about Friends of the Laing, including membership benefits and how to sign up, please visit here.