Rachael Harper talks to artist Henrietta Graham about her time on the Karen of Ladram, which inspired her to paint a public installation for Newlyn Harbour
“The thing is, my studio is bang splat in the middle of Newlyn fishmarket!” painter Henrietta Graham told me when I asked her why she decided her latest works would focus on the fishing industry.
“I moved to Cornwall 25 years ago, and I tried to paint it then, but I wasn’t up to the job, it was too complicated. I was completely flummoxed. So I guess it’s probably been on my mind, quietly burbling away…”
Henrietta Graham paints subjects from a wide range of industries – from butchers to chefs and even to bull fighters – but it wasn’t until recently that she decided to re-confront the industry outside her studio. “I was working on a big series of the great chefs of Britain, and that eventually led me to butchery. But my agent at the time was like: ‘I can’t sell your work. We can’t have bloody carcasses!’ So I kind of stopped dead in my tracks.
“Then I was working with the Ritz and the head chef there, John Williams, is the son of a Tyneside fisherman and he said to me: ‘Why are you painting butchery when you’re in the middle of the fishing industry!?’”
Now that the subject of her next project was settled, Henrietta Graham decided to get some hands-on experience of the fishing industry, getting in touch with Sid Porter, skipper of the Karen of Ladram.
“For me as a painter, part of the journey is getting to know an industry. So I went out to sea for 10 days, and basically started fishing with them. I really fell in love with it. What an amazing life – I mean of course it’s dangerous, but it’s very freeing and just so honest and honourable. It’s man in the elements, providing food.
“I really applaud the fishermen. They have utmost respect for sustainability in how they fish. These guys would stop the boat to pull in a net that might damage another boat. I came back to shore thinking: ‘I want to be a fisherman!’”
To capture her time onboard, Henrietta Graham took a lot of photographs – “Erecting an easel onboard was a no-go!” she laughs – and she found plenty to be inspired by. “The visuals were extraordinary,” she remembers. “The oilskins and the fish and the speed of bringing it all in…”
Her time onboard Karen of Ladram did more than inspire her; it gave her a whole new perspective on the industry that surrounded her. “When I came ashore, I started talking to people and I became aware of the many jobs for fishermen that were land-based. This was just before Brexit, and I realised the enormity of the problem. I realised there was a crisis, and I suddenly realised I cared.
“Ever since I moved here from London, I’ve loved the sense of community – it has basically looked after me. I’m a single painter, and I suddenly have a family. I started feeling that maybe I could make a noise, and the only way I could do it was by painting, because that’s my currency.”
That’s when she came upon the idea of teaming up with Newlyn Harbour. “I went to see Rob Clifford-Wing and Rob Parsons and said: ‘Look, you’ve just got this great big building. You’ve got all these panels on the outside. How about some artwork? I can put something there that will depict the fishing industry and the working man. Not just, obviously, the fishermen, but I can do the welders, the engineers, and some of the other jobs that are happening within the harbour.’”
Newlyn Harbour was clearly impressed by Henrietta Graham’s idea, commissioning her to undertake a portrayal of the fishing industry at Newlyn via nine huge aluminium reproductions of her paintings installed along the outside walls of Newlyn fishmarket.
Inspiration for the paintings was everywhere. “I literally just go on a walkabout and watch it, because it is all genuinely happening,” she explains. “They operate outside my studio, and I sometimes just go down there and watch. There’s one painting called ‘Nearly Home’, and it shows this sort of beaten fisherman leaning over the deck with a fag hanging out of his mouth. He’s absolutely knackered, so it was a case of: ‘Quickly, get out the sketchbook and record this!’
“A couple of the paintings are based on the trip, too. One is done in the bowels of the Karen of Ladram and it’s the stacking of the fish, and another is of the actual gutting onboard of the fish, so those two were from the experience.”
Newlyn Harbour’s public installation – Henrietta Graham told me this isn’t strictly an exhibition, because there is no specific timeframe for the paintings to be displayed – is there for the public to enjoy, and its unique display can only be positive for the industry, she believes. “This is a way of showing the harbour to the public, which they don’t always see. This is what the fishing industry is really all about.
“I think it’s the perfect way of doing it, because you could walk through the harbour or the fishmarket and not see the real life. That was one of the main aims for the display – to show that it’s an industry and it’s existing – it’s not dead, and it’s not a tourist attraction. It’s a real, sweaty, functioning, productive part of Newlyn, and indeed of Cornwall.”
Another aim for Henrietta Graham was to get young people interested in the industry through the installation. “I have learned that there is a shortage of applicants,” she says. “The young are not particularly interested in the industry, but actually some of the guys I met had a fantastic life. They were young, they were hardworking, they had their own little cabin to listen to rock music, lots of money – and then they’d go home and blow it all!”
From scenes depicting fishermen, to the processing of the catch, to the fishmarket upon which they are displayed, her nine paintings aim to provide a comprehensive depiction of the fishing industry.
“It’s my way of saying: ‘Look at this, this is wonderful,’” she tells me. “This is a celebration of the British fishing industry in its entirety.”
Find out more about Henrietta Graham’s work via her website here, where you can also buy prints of the artwork featured at Newlyn fishmarket.
This story was taken from the 30 September issue of Fishing News. For more in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or for the full article, which includes all images, buy the 30 September issue for just £3.30 here.