Boat and Fish

Boat and Fish (untitled), c.1930, by Alfred Wallis (1855- 1942), house paint on card. It is one of the works from the Branfield collection.

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Penlee House Gallery & Museum’s autumn show in Penzance focuses on private collectors and their important role in helping form exhibitions. A Passion for Cornish Art displays part of the collection of Pep and John Branfield, who amassed local works of art over the past 50 years.

It runs until January 13, and then in February The Branfield Collection will be offered at auction by Lay’s, also in Penzance, which is sponsoring this show.

Newlyn School artists

Initially collecting paintings by Newlyn School artists such as Stanhope Forbes, Charles Simpson and Thomas Cooper Gotch, the Branfields’ interest then moved on to St Ives artists including Robert Borlase Smart, John Anthony Park, and works by St Ives Modernists such as John Wells, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Terry Frost and Bryan Wynter.

In later years, paintings by Roger Hilton, Rose Hilton and Paul Feiler were added to the collection. Throughout this period, they continued to collect the work of artist friend Tony Giles and, in fact, the very first and very last paintings acquired were by him.

Pep (Kathleen) Branfield died last year. John said: “Pep and I came to live in Cornwall in 1961 with our young family.

We were interested in art but had no spare cash. I was a teacher, Pep a nurse. It was in 1966 that we bought our first painting, Billy Bray’s Chapel, Carharrack by Tony Giles. In 2016 we bought our last, also by Giles, St Agnes, Beacon and Mines.

“In the 50 years between we were very influenced by two exhibitions. In the summer of 1978 Truro Museum, as it then was, had an exhibition Painting in Cornwall 1880-1930, organised by the National Trust. We had somehow picked up the idea that the Newlyn School were terribly old-fashioned, but when we saw paintings by artists like Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes and later artists like Charles Simpson and John Park…we were blown away.”

“‘Madam’, said the auctioneer on one occasion, ‘you are bidding against your husband’."

The following year the couple were staying in Sussex with John’s sister and saw an advert in a local paper for a sale including several John Parks. They “borrowed a thousand pounds” from his brother-in-law and came home in the car with four children and five Park paintings in the back.

“After that experience we enjoyed auctions, the drama and tension, the chance to meet old friends and make new ones. Pep could not bear to be outbid. ‘Madam’, said the auctioneer on one occasion, ‘you are bidding against your husband’. Sometimes we sold at auction in order to buy more or buy better.”

The second exhibition that influenced them was St Ives, 1939-64 at the Tate Gallery in London in 1985. John added: “The catalogue became our bible and we bought now from artists, galleries and dealers as much as from auctions, making new acquaintances such as Paul Feiler, Terry Frost, John Wells and Rose Hilton.”

Important relationship

A gallery spokesperson said: “For over 25 years, Penlee House has been borrowing works from private collectors such as the Branfields for inclusion in our exhibitions, and regular visitors to the gallery will recognise many of the paintings in this show.

“As well as being the last chance to see these paintings together as a curated collection, this exhibition aims to highlight the important relationship that Penlee House Gallery & Museum has with private collectors in order to stage interesting and relevant exhibitions celebrating the wealth of artistic talent in Cornwall and help make previously unseen paintings more accessible to the wider public.”

* Pictured top is Boat and Fish (untitled), c.1930, by Alfred Wallis. This was bought from the personal collection of Henry ‘Gilly’ Gilbert’, owner of the Wills Lane Gallery, St Ives. John Branfield said: “Gilly showed the painting once in Wills Lane Gallery but it was always ‘not for sale’. We enquired on every visit and then one day he said ‘You can have it if you want’. Typical Gilly!” It has been exhibited at The Bigger Picture, 2015; Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea, Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis, 2016.