A history of fishing in Cornwall, at Falmouth Art Gallery 

You might recognise ‘Hevva’ as a Cornish language word, most commonly seen in the sweet and sticky hevva (or heavy) cake. It actually means ‘shoaling’, ‘swarming’ or ‘flocking’, and was the traditional call used by the ‘huer’ to rally fishermen to their boats once pilchards (aka Cornish Sardines) had been sighted.   

Hevva! Hevva! at Falmouth Art Gallery explores the highs and lows of fishing in Cornwall, from the days when it employed whole communities to more recent times, when consumers barely think about how their dinner ended up in their shopping trolley.  

The exhibition was inspired by the story of Fred Stephens (1832-1908), a legendary ‘huer’ who spotted shoals of fish at Cadgwith for over 40 years. An obituary in the Illustrated Western Weekly News on April 25, 1908, described Mr Stephens in his prime as “the tallest and broadest-shouldered man that Cadgwith could produce,” and “a strict Sabbatarian – nothing would induce him to go on the cliffs on a Sunday”.  

It goes on to tell how one night, Fred dreamed of a large shoal of pilchards in his fishing stem. His wife ridiculed the idea and told him to go to sleep, whereupon he dreamed the same dream twice more and determined to take action. He went to the cliffs and waited for morning light, upon which he found that his stem was indeed full of pilchards, enough to keep the boats busy for a week, thus ending a fallow period that had left Cadgwith close to starvation.  

Fred Stephens is the great-great-great-grandfather of Falmouth Art Gallery’s access and interpretation manager, Donna Westlake. When plans were made to host an exhibition themed around Cornwall’s fishing industry, dipping into the gallery’s ever-popular collection of artworks by Charles Napier Hemy and the Newlyn School, well-connected Donna was the natural choice to curate it.   

“I’m a Cadgwith girl with a lot of relatives in the area, many of whom have fished,” she said. “Fred’s story has been passed down through the generations, so I took as my starting point the pilchards he would have fished when the industry was at its peak.” 

Fishing has been a vital source of food and income since people first settled on the Cornish coast from about 8,000 BCE. It is still a key contributor to the Cornish economy and a celebrated part of Cornish life, steeped in tradition and heritage. As such, it has inspired artists for centuries.   

Charles Napier Hemy – Study for ‘Pilchards’

The Newlyn School painters settled in the town not for the light, but because the tough working lives of local fishing families gave them plenty of subject matter. Stanhope Forbes, known as ‘the Father of the Newlyn School’, rented studio space above the net lofts and paid his subjects for their time and their fish: nine pence for three huge skates, four shillings for one hour with a turbot. Hevva! Hevva! features Forbes’ seminal work Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach 1885 (on loan from Plymouth gallery The Box). 

In Falmouth, Charles Napier Hemy’s floating studio, the ‘Vandermeer’, gave him the perfect vantage point to observe fishermen at work (you can see him depicted in Paul Spooner’s automaton, Our Premier Pilchard Painter, at Falmouth Art Gallery).  

Falmouth Natives (1886) depicts fishermen oyster-dredging from a working sailboat. To this day, the town has a handful of working boats still governed by the same ancient laws as their ancestors; Falmouth is the only oyster fishery in Europe, if not the world, where traditional methods such as sail power and hand-pulled dredges must be used.  

Falmouth Natives by Charles Napier Hemy

In Filling Pilchard Barrels in St Ives by Winifred Freeman, Hemy’s sister-in-law  (1866 – 1961), we get an insight into the labour-intensive process of seine netting, once the mainstay of many a Cornish community, employing vast numbers of fishermen, boys and women. Pilchards were pressed to remove valuable fish oil, then salted and packed into barrels for storage or export as far afield as Rome, where they are considered a delicacy to this day. 

However, the romanticised images of idyllic fishing villages that many associate with the industry do not reflect the harsh realities and challenges of the day-to-day life of the fishermen and women and their families, past and present. Donna was keen to show “the real side of fishing, not just the chocolate-box image”, with contemporary artists exploring wider issues such as sustainability, and the impact of the decline of the industry on its associated communities. 

Winifred Freeman – Filling Pilchard Barrels in St Ives Harbour

Samuel Bassett’s painting Today we eat hake, tomorrow we burn our boats comments on the contrast between the decline of the local fishing industry and the rise of tourism. “I believe there were once 700 employed in fishing in St Ives; now, do any live downalong?” he asks. “That’s a big shift. I liked the idea of the boats being burnt. It’s also a symbol for a last cry of help of a sinking ship: set fire to it in the hope someone will see the smoke.” 

Holly Bendall was inspired by a visit to Cadgwith during a crowdfunding campaign to save historic buildings used by local fishermen for centuries (£300,000 was raised to protect them from future development). Waiting For Fish depicts a man called Dave and his companion Bird looking out to sea. Originally a small sketch, it has evolved into a sculpture project highlighting the importance of small boat fishing in Cornwall and the question of provenance.  

Holly’s own Crowdfunding campaign raised over £20,000, including £10,000 from an anonymous donor. A life-size reproduction of Dave and Bird is currently being cast in bronze and will be sited in a prominent position at the end of Porthleven Harbour, en route to the South West Coast Path, to be unveiled at a special event on September 23. Meanwhile, a mini-bronze of Dave and Bird can be seen at the Falmouth exhibition.  

 “Some communities in Cornwall still rely on fishing to survive, but many of us have got so used to the convenience of buying fish in the supermarket without even questioning where it comes from,” says Holly. “It’s a global issue, but the success of my crowdfunding campaign shows that people are aware of the problems and that they care. Once people care, you can help to protect the fishermen and their way of life.” 

Hevva! Hevva! runs until September 10 at Falmouth Art Gallery.  

Free entry. Open 10am to 5pm (Wednesday and Saturday, 10am to 1pm). Closed Sunday.  

Municipal Buildings, The Moor, Falmouth TR11 2RT. Tel 01326 313863, www.falmouthartgallery.com