Cornish Folk Tradition: Songs Music Dance and Associated Customs
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Cornish Trditional Costume

 

 

Sharing Fish

The colony known as the Newlyn School formed in the 1880s largely from British painters who had trained in Europe, spent time in Brittany and found an equally inspirational environment amongst the fishing communities of Penzance and Newlyn.  These communities had developed a distinct style of working dress and against the backdrop of boats, nets and narrow streets, the artistic imagination was captivated. It must have been quite an interesting experience for these hard-working families to suddenly find themselves in demand as models for painters!

The women who sold the fish were called “fish-jowsters”. They carried the fish in baskets which rested on their backs with a strap that went around their forehead and was held in place by specially shaped bonnets. Young or old they made striking figures and were popular subjects for the artists colony. Shown here is Thomas Cooper Gotch’s “Sharing Fish” which was painted in 1891 and portrays a group of fish-jowsters sorting fish on the shore. He carefully depicts their aprons and bonnets and one of the baskets for carrying fish can be seen in the background. He also captures their traditional tartan shawls which were short and tied in such a way as to leave their arms free to work.

The legend of the tartan is that it was widely used as a weaving design by the Celtic tribes that once lived throughout Briton. The Greek travellers who first came into contact with these tribes remarked upon this weave and described it as speckled. Upon realisation that the Celtic word for speckled was “brith” they coined the term “Brithon” which gave rise to the term Britons and ultimately Britain itself. It is a legend rather than recorded history but there have been fragments of tartan material found at archaeological sites associated with the Celts.  The success of Scotland in developing its tartan heritage inspired other Celtic communities and there are now registered tartans for Wales, the Isle of Man, Brittany and particularly Cornwall.  

The Cornish National Tartan was designed and registered in the 1960s and has since been joined by the Dress, Hunting and St Piran’s Tartan as well as several created for individual families. Cornish tartans are a modern expression of Cornish identity but thanks to the Newlyn School of Artists we also have a connection that takes us back to the traditional working costume of our forebears. The largest collection of Newlyn School paintings is to be found at Penlee House in Penzance and a magic place to immerse not only in art but also the world of 19th century Cornwall.    

An Daras, doorway in Cornish, is an outreach project of Lowender Peran, Cornwall’s Celtic festival, and provides a portal to the distinctive traditions of Cornwall . The links on the site map will take you to the tunes, songs, dances and associated traditions of Cornwall. There are also links to teaching materials and further research work and publications on Cornish Folk Tradition.

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