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Elizabeth Adela Forbes - The skipping rope

Elizabeth Adela Forbes

The skipping rope

Oil on canvas: 29.5(h) x 39.4(w) in / 74.9(h) x 100(w) cm
Signed with monogram lower right: EA

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Ottawa 1859 - 1921 Newlyn

Ref: BZ 167


The skipping rope


Signed with monogram lower right: EA

Oil on canvas: 29 ½ x 39 ⅜ in / 74.9 x 100 cm

Frame size: 43 ½ x 53 ½ in / 110.5 x 135.9 cm


Painted circa 1889







Arthur Tooth & Sons, London

Fine Art Society, London

Private collection, France



London, The New Gallery, June 1889, no.179, as The Skipping Rope



Henry Blackburn, The New Gallery, Illustrated Catalogue, 1889, p.47

Anon, ‘The New Gallery’, The Scottish Art Review, vol.2, no.13, June 1889, p.9



When Stanhope Forbes was introduced to a talented young Canadian art student named Elizabeth Adela Armstrong, at the end of 1885, he was keen to show her around Newlyn the following February. They bumped into an old fisherman, Plummer by name, who had modelled for Forbes and his friends, and he famously predicted that the couple would one day be wed.[1] That day dawned some three-and-a-half years later, but in the meantime a battle was waged for Elizabeth’s affections, both romantic and aesthetic.


While Forbes’s mother worried that Elizabeth might become a distraction for her son, he sought to win her artistic allegiances to the new ‘democratic’ naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage - ‘the greatest artist of our age’ - in his early letters.[2] A gifted etcher, Miss Armstrong had to go to London for access to printers and presses, and while living with her uncle in Chelsea she was taken up by Ellen Sickert, whose husband, Walter, consorted with James McNeill Whistler and his followers – painters for whom her prospective husband had scant regard.[3] Although the case for the more informal methods of the Whistler coterie can be made, it is clear that when

she left her pastel experiments and moved to major oils, Armstrong was keen to position herself alongside the painters of Newlyn and St Ives.


Fig.1 Elizabeth Adela Forbes, The forge, 1886

Oil on panel: 26.7 x. 30.5, Private Collection,

Previously with Richard Green



Early ‘Newlyn’ canvases such as Critics and The forge (fig.1), although they may have been painted in Percy Craft’s borrowed studio at nearby St Ives, reveal ‘square brush’ mannerisms similar to those found in the work of her future husband.[4] She would not take shortcuts, or be satisfied with the quick impression. What clearly won the argument for Armstrong was the earnestness and commitment to the faithful recording of visual fact, the ‘truth’, in contemporary Cornish painting. In pre-Newlyn days she had already established what would become the subject matter for which she would become renowned and captured in the title of her first solo exhibition in 1900 – ‘Children and Child Lore’. At first her single figure studies such as First love, 1887 and April, 1888 (both private collections) represented boys – one petting a rabbit, the other off to the fields with his hoe. It was however, with two ambitious compositions – School is out (fig.2) and the present work - completed over the winter of 1888-9, that Armstrong’s allegiances were publicly declared.


Fig.2 Elizabeth Adela Forbes, School is out, 1889

Oil on canvas: 106 x 145 cm

Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance


In the first of these, children, newly corralled into schools by recent government legislation, are leaving for home, while a boy, on the naughty seat, is taunted by his sisters. Praised at the Academy for its scale and the management of light falling into the room, it tended unfairly to overshadow its plein air companion, The skipping rope, shown at the same time at the New Gallery.

This important recent rediscovery is set in the fields where a group of girls and boys take their turns in a skipping game. They will chant a rhyme as they do so. Despite the fact that this is a group activity, it is made up of individuals, all of whom have been separately studied and brought together into a coherent whole. It is mid-summer, the hay harvest has been cut, and the children, some going barefoot, are liberated from their books and chalkboards. Regulations stipulated that children could not attend school with bare feet. Smaller fry, two infants, one of whom has been picking wildflowers that abound in this meadow, look on from a low mound of hay. The foreground figures are so carefully observed that even in back-view the fair-haired boy on the extreme right has a distinct individuality in the way he stands. He patiently waits his turn; the others are older than he; he must not make a mistake; he wishes to be accepted by the older members of the group. For the great critic of Naturalism in France, Edmond Duranty, a back-view can convey age, social status and personality, and for Armstrong, this simple childhood game, is a manifesto.[5]


Other games would follow – ‘Old maid’, Hide and seek, Hop-o’-my thumb – each a new revelation of the work, recreations and inner life of children. The painter’s commitment to a strand of subject matter that she would make her own, was however first established with this group of girls and boys, and a simple skipping-rope, in a field in Cornwall.


Kenneth McConkey




Ottawa 1859 - 1921 Newlyn


Elizabeth Armstrong first visited England as a young girl. She and her mother stayed with an uncle in Chelsea, next door to Rossetti, an artist whom she admired but never met. She returned with her mother to Canada and in about 1877 she visited friends in America and joined the Art Students League in New York, where she studied for two to three years. She then moved first to Munich and later to Brittany.


In 1883 Elizabeth had three works accepted by the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours and the same year, a painting entitled 'Summer' was exhibited at the Royal Academy. In addition to her work in oils and watercolours, she was a brilliant etcher, however the problems associated with printing in Cornwall caused her to abandon this medium as early as 1886. She and her mother settled in Newlyn during the autumn of 1885, where she met Stanhope Forbes whom she married in 1889. Ten years later they founded the Newlyn School of Painting.


An ardent believer in the principles of plein-air painting, Elizabeth also developed her special aptitude for depicting children and held two exhibitions devoted entirely to his theme, entitled Children and Child Lore at the Fine Art Society in 1900 and Model Children and Other People at the Leicester Galleries in 1904.






[1] Mrs Lionel Birch, Stanhope A Forbes ARA and Mrs Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, ARWS, 1906 (Cassell & Co), p.35.

[2] Stanhope Forbes’s letter to his mother, dated 15th December 1884; Hyman Kreitman Archive, Tate Britain.

[3] Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie and Christiana Payne, Singing from the Walls, The Life and Art of Elizabeth Forbes, Sansom & Co., 2000, pp.71-85; Anna Gruetzner Robins, A Fragile Modernism, Whistler and his Impressionist Followers, Yale University Press, published for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2007, pp.112-117.

[4] Kenneth McConkey, Impressionism in Britain, Yale University Press, 1995, pp.126-7.

[5] Louis Emile Edmond Duranty, ‘The New Painting’, quoted in Charles S Stuckey ed., The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, Richard Burton SA, Publishers, Geneva, 1986, pp.37-49.