Volume 21, Issue 3 | Autumn 2022

Winslow Homer and His Cullercoats Paintings: An American Artist in England’s North East by David Tatham

Reviewed by Christiana Payne

David Tatham,
Winslow Homer and His Cullercoats Paintings: An American Artist in England’s North East.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2021.
110 pp.; 20 color and 1 b&w illus.; 2 maps; bibliography; index.
$24.95 (softcover); $60 (hardcover)
ISBN softcover: 978–0815611301
ISBN hardcover: 978–0815637004

Winslow Homer’s eighteen-month stay in Cullercoats, on the northeast coast of England, has long fascinated art historians. We do not know why he went there in 1881, nor why he stayed so long. No letters or diaries survive to explain his motives or his attitude to his subjects, and he never talked to the press about it. The fishing village provided a place remote from the US art world, where he could work without interruption. It has been generally agreed that this period was a turning point in his career, leading to a new monumentality in his art. In this volume the distinguished scholar, David Tatham, professor emeritus at Syracuse University, sets out to shed new light on this crucial interlude. Instead of presenting the Cullercoats years as a transitional phase, he wants us to see them as complete in themselves.

Various reasons have been suggested for Homer’s choice of Cullercoats. One theory is that he met someone on the boat from New York to Liverpool who told him about the village. Others are that he was drawn to the area because of its reputation for lifesaving, or because he had seen work produced there by British artists. The northeast coast in general was well-known for developments in lifesaving techniques, both for the design of self-righting lifeboats and for the organization of volunteers to act as crew. In 1864 it was at Tynemouth, close to Cullercoats, that the first Volunteer Life Brigade was set up, to be trained in the use of the rocket and the breeches buoy.‍[1] Tatham’s present book does not really engage with this debate, noting only that Cullercoats was the site of a summer art colony, so art materials would have been easily obtainable there.

In his acknowledgements Tatham describes this book as his fifth and final study for Syracuse University Press on key aspects of Homer’s career. It is somewhat shorter than the others in the series, which began with Winslow Homer and the Illustrated Book (1992). Like the preceding volumes, it is based on longstanding study of the artist. It is eminently accessible and elegantly written. This is a compact volume, with just twenty color illustrations, two maps, and seventy-seven pages of text (excluding notes and bibliography). The chapters are short. The first four chapters set the Cullercoats sojourn in the context of Homer’s work as a whole, examine the village of Cullercoats and its organization, elucidate the contacts Homer made there, and present the few known facts about Homer’s activities when he was in England. However, in Tatham’s words, “the primary documents in the present study are Homer’s Cullercoats paintings” (10).

This first section sets the scene for the following five chapters which each consider groups of three to five works, and Tatham writes that these chapters “look closely at the paintings rather than to the relatively small body of literature that concerns them” (5). Chapter ten considers paintings executed after Homer had left Cullercoats.

Tatham claims that Homer’s Cullercoats work is neglected. This seems an odd statement, given the substantial literature on the Cullercoats paintings as a group, some of it by Tatham himself. What he means, perhaps, is that there has not been enough analysis of individual works, a deficit he sets out to remedy. Tatham provided introductions to successive editions of Tony Harrison’s book, Winslow Homer in Cullercoats (1983, rev. eds. 1995 and 2004). In the 1995 version Tatham says that Homer was inspired by the struggle of the Cullercoats fisherfolk for survival against a “relentlessly threatening sea” and that, having begun to see “how he could paint the sea as an elemental force,” Homer on his return produced a “long sequence of masterworks, few of which could scarcely have been possible without the experience of Cullercoats.”‍[2]

In the present work it is evident that Tatham has changed his mind. Here he points out that Homer had already awoken to the great power of the sea in New Jersey and Maine. He also argues that, according to weather records, Cullercoats was not a particularly stormy part of England. And once Homer went home to the US “scarcely any aspect of what he had painted in Cullercoats contributed to what he would accomplish in the years that followed” (4). On the other hand, Tatham, who had asserted in his 1995 introduction that Homer “worked from nature rather than art” makes that point even more emphatically here. He assumes that “English painting of Homer’s generation had little or no influence on him before or during his time at Cullercoats” and notes that his own commentary on the paintings gives “little attention to comparative studies of Homer with other artists, for this mode of inquiry accomplishes little when an artist is by instinct and practice so strongly and distinctively individualistic as was Homer” (6).

Homer’s main subject in Cullercoats was the working women—fisherlasses and fishwives—going about their daily routines. To a lesser extent, he also painted the fishermen and their cobles (the local boats), the village watch house, and lifeboat. The subject of fisherfolk was novel in US art, but well-established in the literature, painting, and photography of England and Scotland. A novel by Charles Reade, Christie Johnstone (1853), which went into several US editions, popularised the robust fisherwomen of Newhaven, near Edinburgh, as women whose relatively short skirts revealed shapely ankles, and whose bodies were not distorted by corsets.‍[3] The same Newhaven fishwives, with their distinctive striped costumes, became well known visually in the early 1840s through the photographs of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.‍[4]

Cullercoats women were also the subject of photographs in the 1870s.‍[5] Their costume, which was similarly distinctive to their locale, lacked the stripes of Newhaven, but was better suited to an artist who wanted to paint watercolors. They typically wore blue flannel skirts with horizontal tucks, matched with tops in soft pastel colors that went well with atmospheric views of wet sands and misty seas. The reputation of Cullercoats for fishing tragedies and lifesaving was highlighted by several British artists in the 1870s, including John Dawson Watson and Frank Holl.‍[6] A work by Watson, Saved (1871, now known only from a print), commemorates the first rescue by the Volunteer Life Brigade of Cullercoats. This work showed a man in a breeches buoy rescuing a semi-conscious woman and baby. On his return to the United States, Homer painted The Life Line (1884), showing the rescue of an unconscious woman by a man in a breeches buoy. This powerful work is the main subject of Tatham’s last chapter, but he argues that it was prompted by Homer’s experience in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the spring and summer of 1883, and not by anything he had painted in Cullercoats (74–75).

Several writers have considered further artistic influences on the Cullercoats paintings. There is, for example, a perceptive essay by Elizabeth Athens, in Coming Away: Winslow Homer in England (2017) which cites the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, paintings by contemporary British artists such as Albert Moore, and W. J. Stillman’s photographs of caryatids in Athens as possible influences. She notes that Homer acquired two cameras while he was in England, and probably used them to take photographs of his compositions, which show a “photographic sensibility.”‍[7]

Instead of searching for influences, Tatham’s commentary on the paintings consists of detailed description and visual analysis, grounded in his understanding of Homer’s contacts with the locals, the social makeup of the Cullercoats community, and the fishing practices of the time. For example, writing about the watercolor Four Fishwives (1881), he discusses Homer’s favourite model, Maggie Jefferson, the distinctive Cullercoats costume of blue flannel skirts with horizontal tucks, and the presence on the horizon of a steam-powered trawler, indicating changes that were threatening traditional ways. On this occasion he does make comparisons with other (unnamed) artists, but he points out that earlier English artists had tended to depict much less energetic fishwives, often on their own and in static poses. Homer, by contrast, was interested in conveying a sense of community.

Most of the analysis of the paintings is perceptive and informative: Tatham is particularly good on compositional issues. Occasionally, his touch is less sure. Discussing The Perils of the Sea (1881), he asserts that nothing in the picture suggests an incoming storm, or danger of any sort, and that, because the Volunteer Life Brigade has not launched its lifeboat, all seems safe (54). It is not clear how he can tell that the lifeboat has not been launched, and most observers have found the hunched postures of the women suggest anxiety, while the man pointing out to sea, the louring sky, and the rough sea combine to suggest that a boat is in trouble or late to return. Tatham generally plays down the role of shipwreck and lifesaving in his account. His illustrations do not include The Wreck of the Iron Crown (1881), which other scholars have regarded as one of the most important of the Cullercoats works.

For a text that relies so heavily on visual analysis, it is unfortunate that the illustrations are so small. All but two take up only half of a page (the pages measure 7 x 10 inches). This means, for example, that Tatham’s claim that the “wide-eyed red-headed boy with windblown hair” in The Gale (1883–93) may be “among the most memorable portrayals of a child in nineteenth-century American painting” (57) is impossible to judge. Other details, too, are hard to see. Tatham is puzzled by what he takes to be “the wrecked carcass of a coble” in Beach Scene, Cullercoats (1881), but this looks like a perfectly seaworthy coble, waiting to be launched, its contents temporarily covered by tarpaulins (49).

Tatham rarely comments on the techniques and materials that Homer used for the Cullercoats works. Indeed, the small size of his illustrations would make it difficult to demonstrate such observations adequately. In any case, this has been done very effectively by Judith Walsh in her chapter on Cullercoats in the large and beautifully illustrated volume, Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light (2008).‍[8] She shows how Homer’s practice changed as a result of his study of English watercolors, and also how the greater transparency and luminosity of the work he did in Cullercoats was carried over into his later watercolors.

The present volume would have benefited from tighter editing. It seems odd to be told in some of the illustration captions, but not others, that Homer was from the United States and lived from 1836 to 1910. Some of the endnotes give us an excessive amount of information that is not directly related to the text, for example a long discussion of the Earls of Northumberland (82, n. 2), while in other cases assertions are made without the evidence that should back them up. The contention that Cullercoats is not particularly stormy is backed up only by a reference to a 2010 article on storm watching in the travel section of a daily newspaper (85, n. 1). The interesting statement that Homer paid his models one shilling per session, and that there was an unwritten rule that the women should only model with a companion, never on their own, has no reference at all (28).

This short volume may leave readers wanting to know more, both about the Cullercoats paintings themselves and about their role in Homer’s career. If so, they should look to the recent exhibition catalogue, Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents, and to the new biography by William Cross, Winslow Homer: American Passage, both of which have been published in 2022.‍[9] Neither text offers a definitive solution to the mystery of why Homer chose Cullercoats, but they add further contextual detail to complement David Tatham’s elegant and economical account.


[1] Christiana Payne, Where the Sea Meets the Land: Artists on the Coast in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Bristol: Sansom and Company, 2007), 162–63.

[2] David Tatham, “Introduction,” in Winslow Homer in Cullercoats (Port Seton: Station Press, 1995), 8–9.

[3] Nicolai Cikovsky and Franklin Kelly, Winslow Homer (New York and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 176–78.

[4] For the Hill and Adamson photographs, see Sara Stevenson, Hill and Adamson’s The Fishermen and Fisherwomen of the Firth of Forth (Edinburgh: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1991).

[5] Cikovsky and Kelly, Winslow Homer, 174–75.

[6] See Payne, Where the Sea Meets the Land, 163–64, 189–90.

[7] Elizabeth Athens, “Turning to England,” in Coming Away: Winslow Homer in England (Yale University Press, 2017), 15–33.

[8] Judith Walsh, “More Skillful, More Refined, More Delicate: England,” in Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light, eds. Martha Tedeschi and Kristi Dahm (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 76–106.

[9] Stephanie L. Herdrich, Sylvia Yount, et al., Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022); William R. Cross, Winslow Homer: American Passage (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).