Eminent Staithes Group artwork hidden away for a century

Lofty view of Beckmouth, Staithes and the bridge over Roxby Beck from Cowbar side to Abrahams Lane & the High Street c1910
Lofty view of Beckmouth, Staithes and the bridge over Roxby Beck from Cowbar side to Abrahams Lane & the High Street c1910

PREVIOUSLY unseen Victorian images of Staithes and the surrounding area are going to unveiled for the first time at the Staithes Arts and Heritage Festival.

The inaugural event, on 22 and 23 September, will also see the first public showing of the unique set of lantern slides depicting life in Staithes more than 100 years ago when it was still a major fishing port but virtually isolated from the outside world.

Staithes women washing clothes/mats and filling their skeels with water from the Beck C1890 (Foster lantern slide)

Staithes women washing clothes/mats and filling their skeels with water from the Beck C1890 (Foster lantern slide)

The festival will feature in the region of 48 or so artists together with some important heritage displays.

Rod Jewell, a collector of old postcards, photos and ephemera, is to publish a book on the lantern slides, together with other rare and unpublished images of Staithes, Dalehouse, Hinderwell, Runswick, Skinningrove, Port Mulgrave.

He said: “I acquired some time ago many magic lantern slides (glass positives) which have remained unseen for over 100 years, and hence unpublished, and depict the early formation of the Staithes Group of Artists in the Staithes and Runswick Bay area.

“I will be holding an exhibition and sale of these important images taken from the Victorian lantern slide photographs, during this festival.”

The photographic exhibition will be held in the former old Antique Centre on Staithes High Street, opposite the Royal George pub.

The bulk of the magic lantern slides were found in a wooden box, which had a faded label, with the title Runswick Artist and family – all of this box of magic lantern slides were in fact taken by the Founding Father of The Staithes Group of Artists, William Gilbert Foster RBA in and around 1890 and contain candid and intimate photographs of his family who settled in ‘Ileene Cottage’ high up in the south of Runswick Bay in 1890.

They include several photographs of the early Staithes Group of Artists, his artistic friends, his painting and sketching schools and field trips with his well-heeled students from Leeds, who came to Runswick to be taught by the ‘Master’.

William Gilbert Foster (1855-1906) had four daughters and one son, he named his Runswick cottage after his daughter Ileene and the lantern slides capture their life in their cottage and around the picturesque Runswick Bay.

Gilbert Foster is completely unknown as a photographer and this box of lantern slides are the only ones in existence and the quality clearly show he was very proficient with composition and clarity.

He used a photograph of a fishergirl and fisherman with linked arms in an intimate scene, rarely seen, in one of his paintings titled Figures with Geese on a Track in Runswick, which was signed and dated 1890, hence proving not all of the artists work was ‘plein air’ as often stated.

He is believed to have used photography on a number of occasions in order to incorporate the images into his paintings.

They show intimate photographs of the Runswick fishermen and their hard working life, the Runswick Lifeboat Coxswain, the fisherwomen and fishergirls who were all used as artists models and the cramped and cluttered fisherman’s cottages.

It is possible to see the architectural changes made within the village of Runswick between the Victorian period of 1890 and the Edwardian period.

Being an artistic man, Foster has captured himself along with fellow artists and friends enjoying music sessions, outside his stone built cottage and tableau drama scenes with the thatched cottage of Sir Charles Mark Palmer (The ‘Iron Master’ from Jarrow) and Lady Palmer as a backdrop as well as several walking trips with fellow friends and artists.

The photographs show Foster painting at his easel overlooking Runswick Bay, along with eminent Staithes Group artist Frederick Jackson leading a field trip for young would-be artists and Owen Bowen and other artists are believed to be featured.

But Mr Jewell said the icing on the cake is a pair of ‘magic lantern slides of Laura Johnson (the Dame Laura Knight to be) painting in the Beckside, just below the old wooden trestle bridge across Roxby Beck in Staithes, some time between 1899 and 1902.

Painting alongside Laura Johnson is Fred Jackson, working at his easel and in the distance another artist believed to be Henry Silkstone Hopwood can be seen painting at his easel – these are the only known photographs in existence of Laura Johnson and Frederick Jackson in the village of Staithes and obviously these and indeed the other photographs are of extreme importance and have never been seen or published.

The lantern slides were found in an old lock-up on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border not far from where Laura Johnson was born and most if not all are in perfect condition.

* See Friday’s Whitby Gazette for more details and photos of the Staithes Arts and Heritage Festival