David W. Haddon, fl.1884-1911, d.1914

Haddon’s work comes up at auction fairly regularly. His range of subject matter is usually attached to the people and places of the sea. The elderly seafarer, skipper of the fishing boats, coastguard or lifeboatman is sometimes paired with an equally elderly fishwife, mender of the nets, or darner of socks. Either singly, or in pairs, these images are almost always fairly small - about 12” x 9”, or even smaller. The figures are thrust to the foreground, tightly compressed within the compass of the picture. Quite often, the portraits are uncompromisingly head-on, the faces giving little away, the changes rung, sporadically, by the appearance of a slightly grotesque profile or a down-cast glance. The pictures are, often, little more than busts - head and shoulders, accompanied by a pipe, a bonnet or an old sou’wester. Much less often do we see any sign of action or context - only the occasional window, table or ancient fireplace.

These small pictures – usually oil on board – are also often presented in quite hefty frames: reeded, moulded, ornamented and gilded (indeed, the frames remind us that Birmingham, Haddon's home, was not only famous for its jewellery workshops, but that the Arts and Crafts Movement had exerted a strong influence in the city). Thus, there is something of the icon about the pictures and, confronted with these portraits, a degree of concentrated attention is demanded of us. Yes, these faces are sufficiently distinct to reassure us that they are portraits of individuals. Yet, at the same time, we cannot deny that the heads also present us with a type – a symbol, a trope – of ancient, hard-won, survival, of ‘primitive’ rural fortitude, of a life well-lived.

It is clear from some of his pictures – from both the images and the occasional title – that Haddon painted the people of Cornwall, and was probably in Newlyn[1]. But there appears to be very little documentary evidence of his presence there. Certainly, he was influenced by other Newlyn painters: but, can we be sure he was actually there, painting en plein air?

As an artist from Birmingham, Haddon must have been aware of the work and success of other artists from the city, who were establishing themselves as painters of Cornish scenes; most notably, of course, Walter Langley, who set up his studio in Newlyn in 1882, and Edwin Harris, who settled there in the following year. Like Langley and Harris, Haddon was to exhibit numerous times with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA)[2]. It seems likely that these three artists met one another at some time in the early '80s, and that Haddon was inspired to go down to Newlyn and paint there, like his colleagues. And, indeed, we do find his name – though not much more – listed on the Cornwall Artists’ Index (CAI), a very useful, on-line directory.

Haddon, then, was almost certainly in Newlyn at some period. Did he paint before nature, in all weathers? The evidence is scant - the pictures themselves are the most telling witnesses. The light is, sometimes, playing over a hat or casting shadow across the features, and the horizon line is sometimes indicated. We can be persuaded that he is painting his figures on the spot; but Haddon was scarcely attesting to the working lives of the villagers, he did not depict them celebrating their harvests or mourning their losses, he did not really explore the great variety of atmospheric and climatic effects available to him in this distinctive environment. In fact, the closest comparison one can find between Haddon’s portraits and those of any other Newlyn School artist is in the work of Fred McNamara Evans[3]. The latter did submit to the RBSA – just one painting – but he was born and educated in London and, although he was associated with the Newlyn School from the mid-late 1880s and continued to paint and exhibit there, he had actually moved to Penzance by 1892[4]. Evans’s oeuvre was dominated by small portraits of fishermen and -women, depicted close-up, head and shoulders fixed in the foreground of the picture, with little attention to the particular setting. Two of these are illustrated on the website of the Penlee House Gallery and Museum: surely, Haddon employed the same sitters? Or, if not the same - then very like. There is a difference, however: Haddon’s presentation is less about the individual, more about the symbol; hence, less about Newlyn itself and more about the human condition. His later portraits, in particular, seem to be pared back, simplified, and thus lent a degree of monumentality, despite their small size. Dare one say that his figures have something of the hieratic authority of an early Renaissance portrait?

That would, indeed, be a touch hyperbolic. Haddon is significant, but not internationally so. Yet, he does tell us much about the aspirations of some artists at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; and, in this context, it is certainly important to note that he – and thus his stoic fisher-folk – emerged from one of the most thriving and successful industrial cities in Britain. We know nothing about his training; but it is clear that he was skilled and shared his aesthetic adventures with some of his more enquiring, restless and ambitious peers. It is true that Haddon also produced paintings that were, sometimes, less successful; instead of venerable and timeless faces, there are figures dressed in quite other costumes - milkmaids, cavaliers, jesters. Like many another worthy artist, he was working for his living and searching for buyers, so he cannot be criticised for ringing the changes.

Despite all this, at his best, Haddon’s unrelieved focus on his models and the consequent demands on the viewer, his insistence that these heads should be invested with an almost sacred intensity, lend his work a powerful charm and symbolic meaning. Haddon did not live a long life and there is a degree of raw irony in the fact that he died in 1914, at the outbreak of a very modern war. Yet, he was a prolific artist and amongst his output there are some remarkable paintings, reflecting on the timeless values which he, clearly, wished were inalienable.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] Haddon also painted at least one ‘North Sea Fisher’. Did he also go to Staithes?

[2] Langley was a member of the RBSA and exhibited no fewer than 57 pictures. Harris showed there 31 times. Haddon is recorded as having shown 35 paintings, though he seems not have been a member. See Chris Mullen, British Artists 1880-1940, Antique Collectors’ Club, 1976.

[3] Both Evans and Haddon exhibited in the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, as well as in Birmingham.

[4] In fact, Evans was one of the artists who retained his connection with Newlyn for the longest period; he died, in Penzance, in 1929.