Birch, Samuel John [known as Lamorna Birch]
- Austin Wormleighton
Samuel John Birch [Lamorna Birch] (1869–1955)
Birch, Samuel John [known as Lamorna Birch] (1869–1955), painter, was born on 7 June 1869 at The Cottage, Rudgrave Square, Egremont, Cheshire, the eldest of the nine children of John Birch (1839–1900), house painter and decorator, and Elizabeth Glover (1845–c.1930). His early years were spent mostly in Manchester, where his family lived in acute poverty. He left board school at the age of twelve to work for an oilcloth manufacturer in the city. An eleven-hour working day left little time for art, but his mother encouraged him and at the age of fifteen he exhibited at the Manchester City Art Gallery. When he was nineteen he moved to Halton, beside the River Lune, near Lancaster, where he worked in a mill and lodged with a former river bailiff who taught him all he knew about fishing and the countryside. Encouraged by the philanthropic Storey family at Lancaster, he painted steadily at weekends and in 1892 settled in Cornwall as a full-time painter. The following year, while still only self-taught, he exhibited the first of 237 pictures at the Royal Academy, in London.
Birch set up on his own in the countryside a few miles west of Newlyn, lodging with a farmer at the head of the Lamorna valley. The valley, where he lived for sixty-three years and where he founded his own colony of artists and writers, provided him with his working name, Lamorna Birch, which he adopted to avoid confusion with the painter Lionel Birch, and from 1896 he signed his work ‘S. J. Lamorna Birch’. He became one of a second generation of Newlyn painters attracted to Cornwall in the 1890s by plein-air artists working in the circle of Stanhope Alexander Forbes, founder of the Newlyn art colony. Urged by Forbes to study in France, Birch spent the first seven months of 1896 at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. In January 1902 he married his pupil, Emily Houghton Vivian (1869–1944), and moved to Flagstaff Cottage, overlooking Lamorna Cove. Two daughters, Elizabeth Lamorna Birch (1904–1990) and Joan Birch (1909–1996) were born there.
Birch painted in oils and watercolours, working with plein-air realism in the Barbizon tradition. He liked to begin work soon after day-break, cycling into the countryside where he stored his canvases in the barns of farmer friends. He had a strong eye for colour and atmospheric detail and was adept in observing the fleeting effects of light and shade. Estate owners who invited him as their house guest to give painting lessons introduced him to their friends and thus opened up lucrative outlets for his art. He went on to enjoy the attention of wealthy patrons such as Sir John Roberts, the Scottish tweed manufacturer, and Ranald Valentine, of the Dundee art-publishing house, both of whom acquired large collections of his work. Birch worked with terrier-like energy, producing about 20,000 pictures of all kinds, including etchings, over a period of seventy years. His pictures are represented in collections throughout Britain and overseas, notably in the former dominions where his work was admired for its quintessential Englishness. Cornwall, painted near Lamorna, was purchased in 1911 for the Brown memorial collection in Providence, Rhode Island, and in 1913 Wengen Heights was acquired for the Canadian national collection.
Birch painted water with the understanding of both artist and fisherman and was fascinated by the force and thrust of swollen rivers, with water creaming around rocks and boulders or touching river-banks lined with snow. Sometimes he painted himself in an angling pose or used artist friends such as Robert Morson Hughes and Peter Moffat Lindner as models. About 1918 he produced a great number of pencil drawings touched in lightly with colour, and they included some outstanding sculptural compositions of hill and rock formations. His obituarist in The Times thought that these pictures were technically his most successful, saying that 'in them his charm of line found unhindered expression' (8 Jan 1955). At the peak of his powers in the 1920s Birch's enthusiasm for bold juxtapositions of colour was given full rein. His river pictures and a love of landscapes with deep, dramatic skies and gilded clouds made him hugely popular, and tens of thousands of greetings cards and fine-art prints were produced from his work. In 1938 his St Ives, Cornwall (Tate collection) was bought for the nation under the Chantrey bequest. He was a clever businessman, but his exploitation of popular themes such as snow and sunsets suggested that he was more aware of his customers than of what made good art. Moreover, his large output meant inevitably that inferior work reached the market under his signature.
Birch travelled widely. His visit to New Zealand in 1936–7, the first by a Royal Academician, brought him up against nationalist sentiment among artists strongly opposed to his presence in their country, but he stoically survived their attacks. He was elected a member of the Royal British Colonial Society of Artists in 1905, and the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours and the Royal West of England Academy in 1914, and became an ARA in 1926 and an RA in 1934. He had a neat pointed beard and wore small round spectacles and heavy tweed suits with knickerbocker-style breeches, which gave him the bearing less of an artist than of a well-to-do country doctor. In keeping with his love of angling he often wore an old felt hat covered in fishing-flies and he readily acknowledged his idyllic life at Lamorna where he worked from a studio beside a trout stream. In his autobiography, An Artist's Life, Sir Alfred Munnings said of Birch: 'When he was not painting he was fishing; when he was not fishing he was painting' (1950, 295). He was boyish and fun-loving, and enjoyed tap-dancing and entertaining friends with his pranks and jokes, but underneath was a serious painter determined to succeed through hard work. After suffering a mild stroke Lamorna Birch died at his home on 7 January 1955. He was buried on 10 January in the old cemetery at Paul, near Newlyn.
- BBC television interview Easter 1953
- L. Knight, group portrait, oils, 1913, U. Nott.
- J. A. Grant, pastel drawing, 1946, NPG [see illus.]
- portraits, priv. coll.
Wealth at Death
£26,672 2s. 0d.: probate, 30 March 1955, CGPLA Eng. & Wales