Elizabeth Adela Forbes

Elizabeth Adela Forbes (née Amstrong) was born in Kingston, Ontario, the youngest child of a Canadian government official. Her initial training took place at the South Kensington School of Art and, being a teenager at the time, was chaperoned by her mother. She furthered her studies at the Art Students League of New York under William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and on his advice received further training in Munich where she first met Marianne Stokes (1855-1927). In 1882 she spent time at the artists’ colony in Pont Aven where she was mentored by Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938) and absorbed the pervasive practices of the French Social Realist movement, painting en plein air and depicting the lives of rural labourers while also becoming a proficient etcher. During this time she sent a number of works for exhibition and sale at the Royal Institute, all of which were sold on the opening day.

In 1884 she rejoined the Art Students League, this time in Holland and painted a seminal work The Zandvoort Fishergirl (Newlyn Art Gallery). This arresting painting depicts a young girl, her domestic surroundings brilliantly evoking her life of servitude, yet her direct stare displays her natural beauty along with unmistakeable sense of pride and fortitude. Considering the number of women artists at the time it arguably reflects Forbes’ attitude as she strove to make her way in world almost entirely dominated by men.

The following year she moved to the fishing village of Newlyn in Cornwall, setting up a studio in a shed where a local fisherman stored and maintained his nets. She specialised particularly in painting children in both oil and watercolour. She lived for a time in St. Ives and in 1889 she married Stanhope Forbes, one of the principle artists of the Newlyn Colony. Four years later their first child Alec was born following which they designed a family home in called Higher Faugan.

Disregarding the traditional roles of the age she continued to work, exhibiting at numerous exhibitions in London and enjoying critical and financial success well beyond that of her male contemporaries. In 1899 she and her husband set up the Newlyn School of Art, and in spite of this commitment she still found time to exhibit in London, wrote and illustrated a children’s book, King Arthur’s Wood for her son Alec, founded an arts magazine The Paper Chase and published a collection of poetry.

This remarkable work ethic continued until her untimely death in 1912 following a battle with cancer. One obituary described this pioneering woman as ‘The Queen of Newlyn’ and a retrospective of her work entitled ‘Singing from the Walls: The Life and Work of Elisabeth Forbes’ was held at Penlee House Gallery in 2000.


Her works can be found in museums in: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, Penzance, Penlee House Gallery, Liverpool, Manchester, Canada, the National Gallery, Washington DC, National Museum of Women in the Arts.