Although born in Somerset, John Branfield moved to Cornwall in 1961, where he wrote much of his fiction; including titles such as Nancekuke and The Sugar Mouse, Cornish-set novels aimed primarily at adolescent girls. He was a well-regarded author of fiction in the 1970’s and 1980’s, who, like D.M. Thomas, seems to have given up that part of his career sometime c.1990. Where Thomas returned his hand to poetry, his first love, however, Branfield re-emerged in the early twenty-first century as a biographer of the Newlyn School. This book then, could be said to straddle the two phases in his career both literally and figuratively. Written in the 1980’s but not published until 2001, the novel is structured around Newlyn School paintings.
Each chapter begins with a reference to a painting – its title, date, artist and a description – as in a catalogue. Words only go so far however and I feel that the book could be improved considerably if the publishers had gone to the expense of printing full colour reproductions of each painting, or a related work, on the facing page at the beginning of the chapter. Perhaps this was one reason for the book’s not being published when it was first written – the expense of both the printing and the acquiring of rights to do so may have been prohibitive and it’s conceivable that any or all of the writer, his agent and publisher may have felt as I do. Today though, the reader may partially circumvent this problem through use of a computer, or any other device connected to the internet: a quick search on the web retrieves images of many of the paintings without any difficulty (although some are fictitious).
These paintings are used to illustrate a simple tale of obsession slowly destroying a marriage. The protagonist, Roger Trevail , is a writer experiencing a creative slump that, we are led to believe, may be a permanent decline, (no doubt the pun is intended anyway but poor copy-editing occasionally renders his name as ‘Travail’). On one hand, Trevail could be seen as a fictionalised agglomeration of the Tangye brothers, Derek and Nigel; writing short stories, Cornish non-fiction and memoirs of leaving London & setting up in Cornwall complete with children & animals. On another though, there are elements which suggest something of a roman-à-clef – most notably, of course, in both Trevail and Branfield’s interest in the Newlyn School.
Rather than shrinking from any such accusations though, Branfield plays with them – Trevail experiences a touch of envy that contrasts the honesty of painterly self-portraits with the subterfuge of writerly roman-à-clefs, suggesting that critics allow painters a greater freedom than they do authors. Later, indeed, Trevail asks ‘who the hell is J.B.?’ in response to one critical review. We do not know either, in the context of the fictional world, but it would be difficult to imagine that Branfield had used his own initials here subconsciously. There is also a curious foreshadowing in chapter 3 when a novel about the Newlyn School is laid aside by Trevail. It’s difficult to know just how much that is a coincidence and how much it is a black joke at the author’s own expense.
The title of the book itself is a reference to a Stanhope Forbes lecture delivered to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1900 in which he described the plein-air philosophy of the post-impressionist Newlyn school as ‘a breath of fresh air’. Although the style is varied in the book here, it would be more than generous to bestow such an accolade upon Branfield. In addition to the catalogue-like entries which begin each chapter, some chapters are comprised entirely of them; others include a brief history of the school, a short story by Trevail, mock newspaper articles, and his wife’s memoir. Just over fifty per cent of the chapters though, are written in the first person of Trevail with a sort of navel-gazing intensity that matches his character’s obsession.
Trevail cannot understand artists producing work that is average, thinking they should give up, somehow unaware that this is himself. Given the possibility raised above of some degree of autobiography being contained in the story we might wonder if Branfield is himself trying to work out whether or not to persevere with his calling. He invents the Newlyn school artist Denzil Hooper, who burns all of his work in a pique of despondency. Later, Trevail tries the same trick with one of his own manuscripts but he believes fervently that painting is a more delicate record of creation and knows that he has drafts of this manuscript elsewhere. His wife sees the stunt as childish attention-seeking.
It’s difficult, then, to see what this book has to say, if anything, about the Cornish experience. Difficult, indeed, to see it as any more than an artist trying to work out his problems through his art and comparison with other artists. For some writers that might have been the Bloomsbury Set, but Bramfield has a clear passion for the Newlyn School. Very few of the artists in that group were Cornish and their work largely foisted an English bucolic idyll of simple, honest, peasants onto Cornwall. Here, like in those paintings, ‘the trees are in full leaf and block the view of the valleys and hillsides’.