These women were strong. Hefting 50-pound baskets of fresh fish from the shores of the North Sea to the local market, calling to customers all the while in their signature colorful language, the Cullercoats fishlasses were a sight to be seen and a force to be reckoned with. But peddling fish was just one aspect of their interesting tale and one that I am excited to feature in my latest painting in The Jobs of Yesteryear Series: The Fishlass.
Cullercoats is a village in Northeast England and was founded in 1539 as a fishing outpost. It has gone through many industries over the years including coal mining and salt production, but fishing has always been at the heart of this charming coastal town. A semi-circle of sandy beach with cliffs and coves abound makes it an idyllic setting for our story of fishing, cursing, and putting all hands on deck to run a family business.
The day began before dawn for the fishing families of Cullercoats. The fishermen rose early to prepare their open-top fishing boats called cobles. These distinctive boats have a flat-bottom, which allows them to land on shallow, sandy beaches and a high bow, which helps them navigate the dangerous waters of the North Sea. These were challenging vessels to command but in the skilled hands of a weathered Cullercoat fisherman, they were safe and speedy.
As the first rays of sun began to illuminate the misty sky, the men prepared their cobles for the impending day on the North Sea while their wife (and possibly daughters) would be searching for bait. These fishlasses would dig sand-worms, gather mussels, and find limpets (sea snails) and dog-crabs in the hopes that these little creatures would translate into a healthy day’s catch. Next, they set to clean the fishing lines, baiting each of the 1,300 hooks on each of the two lines their husband or father would use that day. This required great speed and skill and the fisherlasses were known to do it while singing tunes to help pass the time.
After they helped push the cobles into the icy waters of the North Sea, the fisherlasses would then tend to the other tasks necessary to raise a family and keep a home. Once the men returned in the afternoon, the women would meet them at the shore and they would all gather together to clean the day’s catch. With their hands plunged in the icy, salty water for hours on end, these women would clean herring and other fish swiftly and deftly. Accidents were common and many of them wore bandages hiding deep gashes. Women of all ages were involved, many of them elderly, and their skilled hands could clean as many as 20,000 fish in a few hours.
Once the fish were cleaned, the fishlasses would heft their baskets full of fresh fish into the market to peddle to the townspeople. The fishlasses were shrewd negotiators that employed foul-language and keen wits to get the most shillings for their family’s catch. The action was quick, as the fish had to be sold before the day’s sun spoiled them and the fishwives didn’t waste a second. If the market for their fish wasn’t favorable, the Cullercoasts fishlasses would grab their 50-pound basket and walk nearly TEN MILES to a larger market in nearby Newcastle. I’ll say it again; these women were strong.
The Cullercoasts fishlasses weren’t just mighty by today’s standards; they were depicted in the political cartoons of the day as standing up to the French while the British Prime Minister stood by idly, their bottles of gin and foul-language wielded as their weapons. These were women that were not to be taken lightly.
The Cullercoasts Fishlass was also the subject of one of the most beautiful watercolors I’ve ever seen: Inside the Bar by American artist Winslow Homer. Homer spent 18 months in Cullercoats from 1881-1882 and was taken by the stoic strength that the fishwives exhibited mending the nets, baiting the lines, peddling the fish, and waiting on the shore for their fishermen to return. It’s a captivating scene gorgeously rendered by a true master color and light.
My depiction of The Fishlass began in the sketchbook, just like every painting. This allows me to work out the composition before I begin on the large panel, saving time and toil. As you can see, I had some help from our oldest artist-in-training, Ivan, as he worked on drawing hands over top of my initial sketch. While creating this piece, the color blue kept standing out to me as I read that the fishlasses were often recognized by their blue duffle coats. Also, blue and brown has always been a favorite color combo of mine and I’ve been enjoying a particular hue lately called Azurite. It’s from Golden and it’s top shelf in its consistency and vibrant color.
As with all the Jobs of Yesteryear paintings, I’m also interested in why this particular job became a remnant of the past. The demise of the fishlass is really a tale of how the market where she sold her fish was rendered obsolete as we began to choose supermarkets instead of local markets. As she hefts her basket full of freshly cleaned fish and gazes toward the market where she will earn her keep, The Fishlass also looks away from the vestige of a grocery store, an unfamiliar and unfitting shape in the natural harbor where her family has carved out a decent living for generations
The Fishlass is a powerful reminder of the effort it takes to run a family business and the women who can most often be found doing their share the heavy lifting. One needs not look any further than our own art business and my boss/wife Ashley to see a shining example. It is a celebration of an incredible worker in our collective history and a testament to doing your part for the greater good. Long live The Fishlass and long live the family business.
As of today, July, 31 2019, the original of this lady is still available and you can find it HERE.