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Observations on a Painting by Harold Harvey; 'A Cornish Girl' (1916)

Fri Jun 30, 2017

By Peter Risdon, co-author of the only monograph published on the artist, 'Harold Harvey: Painter of Cornwall' (Sansom & Co. Ltd, 2001)

'A Cornish Girl', 1916, by Harold Harvey

This work is currently offer by Philip Mould & Co. at Masterpiece Fair.

This intimate work, about 13 ½ inches by 10, is on panel, unusually for Harold Harvey (1874-1941). The small format suits the simple close-up portrait of a girl, and the hard support gently enhances the subdued colours. Her oval face, with red lips (no lipstick!), and the reddish-auburn tints of her extraordinarily thick, long plaits, focus our attention and the yellowish-green background and her dark blue dress act as foils.

Harvey gives her no name. She might have sat to Harvey for an earlier painting, Winding Wool (1914), where a girl with her shape of face and long thick plaits stands holding a skein of red wool which another girl winds onto a ball. Another, later, appearance might be in The Donkey Meadow (1924) where a similar girl, grown taller and more adult, stands at the far left of the composition. There is some possibility that she was ‘Mornie’ (Elizabeth Lamorna Birch), the daughter of a fellow painter Lamorna Birch, who was born in 1904. She would be the right age in 1916, and pictures of Mornie show her with this type of face and two long thick plaits. Mornie was painted by the other Newlyn artists, and by Augustus John (1878-1961).

She appears to be a young teenager, too old to be a child but too young for marriage. In 1916 the school leaving age was 12 and she looks fully that, so unless her family were comfortably off she would have been a working girl. In west Cornwall during the war girls’ employment was limited to three broad types. Presentable girls could be domestic servants, but those with fewer social graces worked in the fishing trade, gutting herrings and packing sardines, or laboured on a farm.

In 1914 Harvey painted another small panel entitled A Cornish Boy, but that is in a different style to our girl, and they do not look intended to be a pair. The start of the Great War in August 1914 restricted artists’ access to outdoor subjects, and so Harvey found more subjects indoors or in his garden, producing some of his finest works.

This painting has not been seen in public for nearly thirty years (when it was wrongly dated to 1926), and has been carefully cleaned to reveal its quiet subtlety.


A Painter Laureate : Lamorna Birch and his circle, by Auston Wormleighton; pub. Sansom & Co, Bristol 1995.

Harold Harvey : Painter of Cornwall, by Kenneth McConkey, Peter Risdon and Pauline Shepppard; pub. Sansom & Co, Bristol 2001