Elizabeth Adela FORBES


Canadian-born artist (29 December 1859) who became a central figure in the art circles of West Cornwall, as well as being a nationally known and respected painter. Her early studies in art included periods at the Kensington Art School aged 14, while living by chance next door to D G Rossetti (but never meeting), and studying the work of the Pre-Raphaelites; then studying at the Art Students' League, New York (1878-81) with William Merritt Chase (1849-1916).  Shorter visits, always accompanied by her mother, were made to Munich where she met Marianne Preindlsberger (later Marianne L M STOKES), and Pont Aven where she was tutored in etching.

In 1884 she joined up with the Art Students' League again to visit and work in Holland. In that same year her outstanding painting Zandvoort Fisher Girl was exhibited, a painting destined to become one of her hallmarks, not unlike School is Out. In the period 1883-89 she participated in the name of Elizabeth Armstrong (Specialty: Domestic) in more than sixty-three principal London exhibitions. Her outstanding early work in etching, fortunately collected by her mentor in the art, Mortimer MENPES, is catalogued, but did not develop later in her career.

Scott, in Painting at the Edge, notices a fleeting visit from Elizabeth Armstrong (and her mother) at Walberswick, Suffolk, from which two etchings were produced. After marriage to Stanhope FORBES, her work diminished in quantity though not in quality, and despite preferring the more cosmopolitan art crowd of St Ives, she was always most closely associated with the so-called 'Newlyn school' of artists.

She was a Medallist in the Paris Universal Exhibition 1889, a Gold Medallist in Oil painting in the Chicago Exposition 1893 and the winner of a Merit Award in the Royal British Colonial Society of Artists Exhibition 1910. Together with her husband, Stanhope FORBES, she developed and sustained the FORBES School of Painting from its institution in 1899 until her untimely death in 1912.

Her nickname 'Mibs' was a shortening of 'Forces Mibs', a backslang version of chatting between the friends at Myrtle Cottage (aka 'The Myrtage') where the JESSE cousins (Cicely JESSE and Wynifried Tennyson JESSE aka Fryn) and Dod SHAW (later PROCTER) lived whilst they attended the Forbes School. Both Elizabeth and Stanhope were deeply engaged with the development and life of the new Passmore Edwards Art Gallery at Newlyn (NAG), from its establishment in 1895, and continued to exhibit there throughout their creative lives.

Her watercolour paintings produced both for exhibition and as a book for their only child, Alec, King Arthur's Wood, was published in large (elephantine) format in 1904. Her model for the figure of King Arthur in this mammoth fairy tale was her colleague and friend Thomas Cooper GOTCH. In 1908-9 she initiated the publication of an arts periodical, The Paper Chase, edited by her close friend F Tennyson JESSE. It was discontinued after the first two issues owing to her terminal illness. Elizabeth died of cancer on 16 March 1912, aged 51, in Newlyn, after three years of treatments and recuperative rest-cures in London and France.

In her obituaries, she was described as the 'Queen of Newlyn'. In 2005, in the portraiture exhibition Faces of Cornwall at Penlee House, the following were displayed: Half-Holiday (Alec home from school c1909, Penlee Collection); Newlyn Maid (NAG Collection); Cicely Jesse (Penlee Collection); A Zandvoort Fishergirl (1884, NAG Collection) and her well-known masterpiece, School is Out (1899). Although the latter in the Penlee Collection is a Newlyn School painting, and the subject thought to be from that area, it was painted at the time she was working at Percy CRAFT's Studio in St Ives. Hence the subject may be based on a St Ives school room.