Summary

On 16 July 1889 Stanhope Alexander Forbes wrote to Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899) 'I myself will be rather occupied down here - no less a matter than my own wedding. It was inevitable after painting this picture' (quoted in Cook and Hardie, p.84). Forbes was writing from Newlyn where he had been staying since 1884. The small Cornish fishing village attracted a number of artists in the late nineteenth century including Thomas Cooper Gotch (1854-1931), Frank Bramley (1857-1915) and Walter Langley (1852-1922). Opposed to the insularity of British painting, these artists were encouraged to paint en plein air, taking much of their inspiration from the work of French naturalist painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884) and Jules Breton (1827-1906), and often choosing 'working life' subjects.

Forbes recalled that the idea for the painting came to him when 'Standing in one of these inn parlours I had first thought of a painting of an anglers' meeting - you will notice one or two cases of fish on the wall - but it occurred to me that a wedding party could be much more picturesequely grouped, even though one had to paint them in the smarter, more conventional Sunday clothes' (quoted in Fox, p.28). Forbes depicts generations of the same family seated around a table at the wedding breakfast. A sailor raises a toast to the bride who stares pensively into her bouquet, her eyes not meeting the gazes of her admiring onlookers.

The Health of the Bride reflects many of the aims of the Newlyn artists at the time. Forbes has chosen to use non-professional models and a recognisable site, the local inn in Newlyn. In addition, he includes evidence of the local fishing industry, for example the stuffed fish, print of a painting of a ship and the masts of ships seen through the window. This painting can be included amongst a number of works by Forbes, including Off the Fishing Grounds (1886) and Old Newlyn (1884), which reveal an unchanging view of life in Newlyn at a time when rural activities and traditional ways of life were gradually disappearing. Forbes had a monopoly on such subjects in the eyes of the Victorian public, his paintings being characterised by their subdued palette and square brushwork.

The Health of the Bride received an enthusiastic response at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1899. The critic of the Art Journal remarked in 1893 that the 'solemn awkwardness of the young couple themselves, the knowledgeable indifference of the old, and the innocent unconcern of the very young - all these are managed with frankness and skill' (quoted in Cook, p.168). The painting was bought for the large sum of £600 by Sir Henry Tate and was to become part of the collection which he gave to the nation at the foundation of the Tate Gallery. The profits from the sale of the painting enabled Forbes to propose to the artist Elizabeth Armstrong (1859-1912) who had moved to Newlyn in 1885. Their marriage took place in St Peter's Church in Newlyn a few months after The Health of the Bride was completed

Further reading:
E. T. Cook, Handbook to the Tate Gallery, London 1898, pp.167-8
Judith Cook and Melissa Hardie, Singing from the Walls: The Life and Art of Elizabeth Forbes, Penzance 2000, p.84
Caroline Fox, Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School, Devon 1993, pp.28-9, reproduced in colour, p.2

Heather Birchall
May 2002