Reflecting on Cornish life – Portrait of Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin

Detail of 'Portrait of a Young Man holding a Carnation', Flemish School, 16th C. © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

The following has been written by Rachel Wright, volunteer on the ‘In the Frame’ project who has researched Portrait of Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin.

As just one of a series of portraits of Jack Clemo in a variety of mediums, this oil painting represents the marriage of two cornerstones of Cornish cultural history.  Following his attendance at London’s St. Martins School of Art, Lionel Miskin made Cornwall his permanent residence. Miskin and his family first moved to Mevagissey, and then on to Falmouth in the 1960s. Here he became head of Falmouth School of Art’s Art History and Complimentary Studies department. This appointment demonstrates his high esteem in the Cornish artistic community. Miskin’s style was at times avant-garde and represented an interesting departure from the contemporary regional scene.

Portrait of Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin (PLYMG.ZO.2004.CH.3). Image Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage) © Artist's estate
Portrait of Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin (PLYMG.ZO.2004.CH.3). Image Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage) © Artist’s estate

 

Depicted here, poised at a writing desk, Jack Clemo was crucial in shaping Anglo-Cornish literature of the present day. Unlike previous authors, Clemo constructed a vision of Cornwall familiar to most of the Cornish community. Clemo’s work concentrated largely on the industrial landscape of Cornwall as opposed to the coast where many local residents could not afford to live. Clemo’s literary career is believed to have begun in 1948 with the publication of his first novel Wilding Graft, despite his active role in the Cornish literary scene for several years prior.  He was a regular contributor to the Cornish Review, a magazine first published in 1949 which ran until 1952, and offered the very best of Cornish writing on all aspects of the arts.  This acted as an early and important outlet for his talent and provided a snapshot of creative activity in Cornwall.  In 1970, Clemo was awarded the Cornish Gorseth bardship, despite his general distrust of Cornish Revivalist culture. His writing principally focussed on working-class culture and provided an introspective reflection on the harshness of life in post-industrial Cornwall. This was greatly informed by personal experience.

This portrait of Clemo demonstrates an interesting blend of past and contemporary artistic traditions.  Although the style of the painting is not typical of post-war works, the subject matter is in keeping with artistic attempts to represent social and economic adversity through social realism.

Through the window behind the sitter, Miskin has illustrated the mining industry and china clay mines typical of industrial Cornwall and a central theme in Clemo’s own literary works. The contrast in colours between the dark and cruel mining world compared to the warmer shades inside the house could be demonstrative of the poet’s attitude to the harsh realities of the collapsing mining industry in comparison to the working class home created by his mother, Eveline Clemo (featured in another of Miskin’s portraits The Poet’s Mother’). This is further exemplified by the collection of homely objects on the desk and the mismatched fabrics of the make-do attitude of the Cornish working classes and a single mother struggling on the poverty line.

The subject himself is facing away from the artist and seems almost unaware and disinterested in his surroundings. This could be a response to Clemo’s alienation from the industrial workforce and working class community due to his poor health, which had inhibited him his entire life. Clemo attended Trethosa Village School but was largely self-educated due to his deteriorating condition. Throughout childhood he suffered from intermittent blindness before permanently losing his sight aged 39. As a young adult this was coupled with permanent deafness. This meant that although Clemo’s upbringing was considered to be stereotypically Cornish and would greatly influence his writing, he was largely excluded from the pursuits of the rest of the community.

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