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Discovering Cornish Artists: A Visit to the Fred Yates Centenary Exhibition

  • 6 min read

Cornish artist Fred Yates painting a watercolour in Falmouth. Photograph by artist John Dyer

Above: Cornish artist Fred Yates painting a watercolour of Falmouth harbour in 1990. Photograph by artist John Dyer.

If you're looking for a dose of culture, a visit to the Fred Yates Centenary Exhibition at the Penlee House art gallery in Penzance is well worth your time. This exhibition celebrates the work of one of Cornwall's most celebrated professional artists, and features a range of his finest pieces. Whether you're a fan of fine art or not, this exhibition is sure to impress! Cornish artists Joanne Short and John Dyer take a trip to Penzance to take a look.

Fred Yates paintings in the Penlee exhibition

Background to Fred Yates' Fine Art

Fred Yates was born in Urmston, Lancashire, England in 1922. His working life started as an insurance clerk but got cut short because of the outbreak of World War II; during which he served with the Grenadier Guards. Unfortunately, his twin brother Joseph Yates went MIA (missing in action) during the war.

Self portrait of Fred Yates

Above: Self-portrait of Fred Yates

After enrolling at Bournemouth Teacher Training College, he formalized his education in drawing, printmaking and painting. For the next two decades, he taught fine art in Devon and the South Coast of England, but disliked it immensely because it lacked creativity.

Becoming a Professional Artist

After 1968, he decided to stop teaching and pursue painting full-time. He then relocated to Cornwall in order to have more time for his painting and took up gardening gigs for extra money. For the majority of his early paintings, he used outdoor rough boards as his canvas and resorted to mixed media and regular household paints because they were more affordable. This is rather reminiscent of the self-taught artist and fisherman Alfred Wallis - one of the very first famous St Ives artists.

 'Schoolhouse in St Just' by Fred Yates

Above: 'Schoolhouse in St Just' by Fred Yates. An example of Fred's work which echoes figures in TS Lowry's work 

He was greatly influenced by the work of fellow local artist and Mancunian, TS Lowry. In Fred's obituary in the Guardian in 2008, Francis Mallett writes:

"His work was marked by lush, vibrant colours - thick paint often squeezed straight from the tube - and unmistakable stylised figures with a regular cast of characters: Victorian aunts with hats and coats, mothers with prams, little dogs and children playing obliviously. Many likened him to a 'happy Lowry'"

Francis Mallett, 2008

'Penzance Promenade' by Fred Yates

Above: 'Penzance Promenade' by Fred Yates

Like Lowry, he painted holidays by the seaside, Punch and Judy shows, dancing girls, music halls and more for the working class to escape their daily lives. At first, his style was more contained, but he gradually began to experiment with bolder colours and a freer approach.

Artist John Dyer admiring paintings of Fowey by Fred Yates 

Above: Artist John Dyer admiring paintings of Fowey by Fred Yates

After moving to Cornwall he would sit on the harbour at Fowey and passers-by would buy an oil painting for as little as £10. The hustle and bustle of the cornish seaside towns in the summer, such as St Ives, Fowey and Falmouth, and busy fishing villages like Mousehole, Marazion and Newlyn, ideally suited the naïve art narrative we recognise in Fred Yates' paintings.

Expressionist landscape painting in Cornwall

Fred Yates, 1922-2008, was a British contemporary artist, most well-known for his outdoor paintings done in the naïve art style that feature bright colours and even bolder brushwork with thick oil paint often squeezed straight from the tube onto the canvas.

An example of a thick impasto painting by Fred Yates, 'The Enchanted Forest' 2005 

Above: An example of thick impasto painting by Fred Yates, 'Enchanted Forest'
Detail of 'Enchanted Forest' by Fred Yates 
Above: Detail of 'Enchanted Forest' by Fred Yates

He was not only able to express himself freely but also had a complete understanding of drawing, colour and composition and a fantastic artistic vision.

painting of Mousehole by Fred Yates 

Above: 'Cornish Cove', painting of Mousehole by Fred Yates

Painting Provence

Fred Yates French watercolour painting of Carpentras in Provence

Above: Fred Yates French watercolour painting of Carpentras in Provence

Fred travelled and lived widely in the UK and France during his lifetime, even if south west Cornwall was one of his main inspirations. It was in Provence where he spent the last years of his life. Here he produced many exquisite watercolours around the French towns of Sablet, La Motte Chalancon and Nyons, all in his bold, colourful style, full of joy and fun.

"I am getting old but happier. Old but more sensible. Old but still painting..."

Fred Yates

Watercolours were more portable, especially as his painting trips consisted mainly of walks and bus rides to his painting location. The quick-drying nature of watercolour meant that Fred could work on a large scale and roll the finished art work. This change of media also changed his style of painting slightly as he began filling the paper with images of the surrounding landscape of mountainsides and forests resulting in densely filled compositions.

Celebrating Cornish Art

His paintings had a huge influence on Cornish artists and even changed the art history of the contemporary Cornish art world in the 1990s. His naïve work was to inspire artists and painters in that era. In Cornwall artists began to work with brighter palettes and fun narratives during this period.

He exhibited widely in both London and the West Country and sold internationally across the UK.

'Beach Scene' by Fred Yates c.1986 

Above: 'Beach Scene' by Fred Yates c.1986

Fred's paintings of the ever-changing cornish landscape crammed with human and animal figures painted in his own unique style are in many private collections today. It is from these private collections that most of the paintings in this centenary exhibition have been borrowed. There is an eclectic range and mix of original artworks in this exhibition, with paintings spanning Fred Yates' long career as a painter.

The exhibition at Penlee House Gallery

Paintings by Fred Yates at his centenary exhibition at the Penlee Gallery

Above: Paintings by Fred Yates at his centenary exhibition at the Penlee Gallery

"Penlee House is delighted to celebrate the centenary of Fred Yates’s birth with an exhibition that looks deeply into Yates’ relationship with Cornwall and the Cornish people. Cornwall was where he learnt how to be an artist, where he attracted his first collectors, a place he loved and the place where he is buried."

Artist John Dyer at the Fred Yates centenary exhibition at Penlee House 

Above: Artist John Dyer at the Fred Yates centenary exhibition at Penlee House

This exhibition is a feast of colour and texture. The paintings span a wide timeline in Fred Yates' painting life, starting with some less vibrant and flatter pieces from early on in his career, with later paintings with thick impasto paint almost a centimetre thick and watercolours from the end of his career.

Impasto painting of St Micael's Mount by Fred Yates 

Above: Impasto painting of St Michael's Mount by Fred Yates 

John Dyer: The influence of Fred Yates

When he was at art college, artist John Dyer wrote his thesis about three artists including Fred Yates. Using photography John created a visual thesis exploring the images, people and places of Cornwall that appeared in Fred Yates' paintings.

Cornish artist John Dyer painting at Frenchman's Creek in Cornwall

Above: John Dyer painting at Frenchman's Creek in 1991

"Fred's work has always inspired me. When I was a student studying photography and graphic design, I would frequently return to Cornwall and would often come across Fred painting somewhere around the town in Falmouth. He would have many tales to tell. It was an inspiration watching him paint outside, immersed in his subject. As a result his work always had a particular freshness and appeal to me."

John Dyer

John Dyer signed limited edition print of Fowey in Cornwall

Above: John Dyer signed limited edition print 'Happy Holidays, Fowey'.

Inspired by the direct approach to making a painting that Fred used, the joy that Fred found in the landscape and people, combined with John's unique way of exploring the world in paint provided a springboard into the genre of naïve art in Cornwall. This started John Dyer on his lifelong journey of celebrating the world in colour and paint.

After returning to Cornwall in 1992 John moved away from his fine art photography and design to become a full time artist. You can read all about John's artistic journey in the amazing book about John Dyer, 'Painting the Colours of the World'.

Discover John Dyer's latest paintings and prints on our online gallery.

Artist Joanne Short in the Fred Yates centenary exhibition at Penlee House and Art Gallery in Penzance in 2022

Above: Artist Joanne Short next to the Fred Yates painting 'The Heaven Boat' in the Fred Yates centenary exhibition at Penlee House Art Gallery in Penzance in 2022
'Fred Yates In Cornwall' the centenary exhibition runs from 12 October 2022 until 7 January 2023 at Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance, Cornwall.

    All of the Fred Yates paintings featured are from private collections.

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