A History in Paint

Thanks to The Ekphrastic Review for this feature excerpt, a blend of travelogue and art history from Gone Viking: A Travel Saga and Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries

Weather’s turned again, changing like double jumps across a maritime checkerboard, determining the season. Clack-clack. Winter. Clack-clack. Summer. Two days after near-hyperthermia, we’re heading out to hike in shorts, tee-shirts and extra sunscreen.

This is the southwest corner of England, the Penwith Peninsula. Rail lines end at Penzance (yes, where pirates come from). Roads end a smidge beyond that. And everything else (apart from water) truncates at Land’s End, a seaside cliff facing a dreamy expanse of North Atlantic. History says what lies beyond must be Avalon, mythic birthplace of the Lady of the Lake, the Queen who passed King Arthur his sword.

But since the nineteenth century this stretch of the country with its tourmaline water and intense northern light has been a magnet for artisans – painters, potters, sculptors – all coming here to find, hone and share their craft. It’s home to the Newlyn School, one-hundred-forty years of painters capturing outdoors en plein air. Emily Carr was here, as a novice, painting beech trees and yews, before finding her place in the evergreen forests of British Columbia, Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii, de facto eighth member to Canada’s Group of Seven.

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With packs cinched snug, we trek coastal path from Lamorna to Mousehole, following clifftops over sea, where it crashes onto ragged granite. We climb through Monterey pines, cypress, vine-wrapped maples and wind-blown gorse under high canopies of ferns. Fat, black bumblebees buzz in fuchsia foxgloves and orange butterflies flutter along the trail. In the distance, St Michael’s Mount cuts a sharp image in clean air and bright sun. The trail meanders toward the pristine fishing village of Mousehole: an inn and pub at the quay, white-washed stone cottages and Cornish flags flying with pride – a white X on black background. Two artists work in oil on canvas at easels on the beach. Tide’s out and brightly coloured boats – skiffs and dories – are beached in the harbour, leaning rakishly, as though posing for the painters.

The thread of land we’re traversing has attracted voyagers for millennia – Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Romans – following the Stone Age they came for Cornish tin and copper, the makings of sculptures and tools in bronze. Then came the Iron Age and Vikings, until Spain assumed the role of marauders-du-jour in the late Middle Age.

At Penzance we follow shoreline to Newlyn, the painters’ mecca. The smell of wood fires seeps from homes, making everything feel cozy and welcoming. We cross a swing bridge and pass the Art Deco Jubilee pool, built to commemorate King George V. The triangular concrete structure’s on a point of headland, built to cut crashing waves like a ship’s bow. Further on the promenade sit the Battery Rocks where Henry VIII built a barbican, fortified with bronze cannon to deter Spanish raiders. Ironically the Spaniards stole the cannon, possibly to the sound of yoink!

We pass through Penzance’s wherry town – ferries from days of olde. I imagine the smell of pine tar and old port sounds – groaning sheets and billowing sailcloth, the roll of barrels on gangplanks and shouts of pidgin – a soundtrack to adventure. There’s a petrified forest just offshore, visible at low spring tide. The Fishermen’s Mission sits near the pier, overlooking the lighthouse and Newlyn docks, one of England’s busiest fishing ports, famous for crab, but northerly light and endless shoreline are what draw painters like a muezzin’s call to prayer.

St Michael’s Mount greets us, sitting like a chess piece in the bay. And from where I’m standing it aligns with Newlyn Lighthouse – a postcard view through salt air. A local guidebook describes the Mount as “one of those rare and singular objects which impresses the mind with sensations of veneration, pleasure and astonishment the instant it is seen.”

St Michael’s, like Normandy’s Mont Saint-Michel, reflects pagan-Christian transition, power and propaganda the binding agents. St Michael was a dragon-slayer, same as St George. Whether there are different versions or multiple dragons, I can’t say. Point being these places – artist destinations – resonate with spirituality. From Newlyn we carry on through shallow sea – soft sand and warm ocean water – bare feet with pants rolled up, our very own pilgrimage, aptly enough, as this is St Michael’s Way, tributary to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, what travelling artisans and pilgrim’s call The Way.

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Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, theGone Viking travelogues, andA Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot(Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.