Thursday, 12 April 2012

WALTER LANGLEY RI (June 8, 1852 - March 21, 1922)

My favourite stories told by my grandmother Elizabeth Blaney Welch were those of a talented and famous ancestor.
Photo of poster in Penlee House Gallery

He was Walter Langley, her great uncle on her father’s side. Walter was the brother of Elizabeth’s grandmother, Ellen Elizabeth Langley (1838-1915) who had married Edwin Blaney (1834-1885) in 1855.

Walter Langley was a watercolour painter who is most well known as a founding member of the Newlyn School. He created large scale watercolours of people and scenes from everyday life in a fishing village and the seafaring tragedies along the coast near Penzance in England. Walter had great empathy for the struggles of the poor and of disadvantaged workers.

Gran was very familiar with his work and had some artifacts that she passed along to me when she knew I was interested. I am pleased to have a catalogue from an exhibit of his work held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery in June 1984.

She also gave me some correspondence between his second wife, Ethel and the Birmingham Lord Mayor’s secretary E. Sanford. It concerned a Memorial Exhibition in 1923 and A Brief History of Walter Langley R.I. (Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour) written on June 25, 1931 by Edward Harper, RBSA, Hon. Sec. of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. Edward Harper was a fellow student and friend of Walter Langley.
Lickey Hills
 In his early years Walter painted rural scenes close to his home in Birmingham, not until 1882 did he choose to make the life of fishermen and their families, his subject matter.

At least one piece of his art is resident in Canada. Elizabeth owned a miniature watercolour scene, about 2½ by 4 inches in size, of Lickey Hills, painted by Walter Langley in 1875. It was originally owned by one of his elder sisters and has been passed down through the family. There are some handwritten notes attached to the painting and I am currently researching to confirm the details of its provenance.

As a result of my Grandmother’s influence, Walter Langley became my first family history research subject. It was an easy place to start as much information has been written about him and his work still hangs in the Birmingham Art Gallery in England. The artifacts she gave me inspired my first trip to England and led me to get in touch with a couple of cousins near Birmingham.

I have been fortunate to visit the gallery twice and see some of his original art works. I found them to be very beautiful and moving.

I was also able to travel to the south west coast of Britain and visit Penlee House in Penzance where I saw a photograph of Walter on display as well as some prints of his art. I stood on the seawall in the nearby village of Newlyn that appears in several of his paintings. It was very thrilling to be standing there knowing that he had painted that very scene a hundred years earlier.

I have just received a book about his life that I am looking forward to reading; Walter Langley: From Birmingham to Newlyn, written by his grandson, Roger Langley, published June 2011. It is a revised and rewritten edition of a study first published in 1997 with many new illustrations.

Walter was very prolific and I have some prints and posters of his work hanging on my living room wall that I enjoy immensely. Some came from my grandmother and some I was able to purchase in Birmingham and Penzance when I visited there.

It seems that this is where the artistic talent in our family’s current and past generations originated.


Elizabeth Blaney was very knowledgeable of her own family history but she didn’t think of herself as a genealogist. We saw her as the family storyteller, a talent she seems to have inherited from her father, Harry. When his children were very young he often entertained them with his stories, some of which turned out not to be true but were nonetheless interesting.She meticulously recorded the births, addresses and deaths of family members and friends which turned out to be very helpful in my research.

As I listened to her stories, told in what seemed to me to be a distinctive upper class British accent, I wondered how coming from a working class English family, she spoke as she did.  I later discovered that when she was about fifteen she became a nursemaid for the prominent Lewis family who were connected with the Birmingham Small Arms Company (she referred to them as the gun family). Mrs. Lewis required her to “speak properly” in order to be a good example for the child in her care and so she did. 

Gran told us that her grandfather, Edwin Blaney, while working for Birmingham saddlers, Lamplugh & Brown, had made a saddle for Queen Victoria.  Imagine Elizabeth’s surprise when Mrs. Lewis (nee Brown) who was the daughter of a saddler, showed her a photograph of Edwin taken with that very saddle. She also told of another employer who had two paintings by her Great Uncle Walter Langley, hanging in their dining room. She met her future husband, Harry Welch, while he was working as a chauffeur for a family where Elizabeth worked as a baby nurse.

My Fair Lady 2nd prize at age 79
While she had a difficult and physically hard-working life, she continued to develop an appreciation for music, art, poetry, antiques and "fine things" which she passed on to her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughter. She was a lifelong singer, She loved to laugh and dress up in costumes; she loved to make jewellery, read and collect poetry, occasionally writing some herself.

It is interesting and emotional to pursue the history of my grandmother's life because it gives me a much deeper understanding of how her life experiences shaped the person I came to know as I grew up and how I knew her in her later years. 

I struggle to read her journals written during her later years and her personal papers because they contain much sadness and some bitterness but they do include some explanations for those feelings. There were also many inspirational poems she collected and recorded over the years that seem to represent her hopes and ideals.She always aimed high.