Most who have written about Winslow Homer’s paintings from Cullercoats have noted that a large proportion show the fishlasses and fishwives of the community, and that in those few which show both men and women, the sexes appear segregated.
These result from the course of life in such fishing communities. As much of the time as possible, the men and boys old enough to go to sea would be at sea, catching fish to earn money to keep their families. Fishing was a time-consuming business: the fish were seldom just there for the taking, and long days could be spent in search of a catch. Locating fish was not easy, and took acquired knowledge, experience, and often cunning.
So most of the time that Homer was living in Cullercoats, he was surrounded by the women and their children, and their men were away at sea.
Although watching for the return of the boats was one key role expected of the women, they also had many more demanding supporting tasks to perform.
Some had specific roles: Homer’s Daughter of the Coast Guard (1881) shows a young woman with a fog siren, which she used to provide an acoustic guide from the shore when visibility was poor, to aid navigation of the boats. Lighthouses usually had fixed foghorns, which could be heard over many miles, but such portable sirens were used to guide vessels into small harbours, such as that at Cullercoats.
Fog was a serious problem for the fishermen. The north east coast is prone to thick fog, and it was usually grounds for the cobles to remain in harbour. When caught out in fog, navigation became almost impossible, with only a compass, experience, and the sound of foghorns and sirens like this to help guide them back to port. With little wind to move their boats, the men usually had to resort to rowing in such conditions.
Local fishing used both lines and nets, and the women were responsible for maintaining and preparing them for the men. In A Fishergirl Baiting Lines (1881) a young fishlass is shown baiting the lines, ready for their use. Her hat suggests that this was being done in the yard outside one of the cottages.
Fishergirls Coiling Tackle (Fisherman’s Daughters) (1881) shows three girls, presumably from one family. The youngest is still able to watch her sisters and clutch her doll; the other two sisters are both at work preparing lines, which were carefully coiled in the shallow wickerwork baskets, ready for use.
Behind them is the very gesturally-painted cream ghost of a net, which was probably drying in the sun. At the right, hanging by a door, is a pair of waders, used to keep the feet and legs dry, either when working in the coble, or when wading out to one. The door has scratched marks recording some relevant figures. At the left is a pair of black chickens, the bright red cockscomb of one clearly visible, pecking in the dirt.
Nets, lines, and other fishing gear had to be carried to and from the boats by the women.
Fishlasses and fishwives did some of their own fishing too, although it may not have been particularly productive. Here one is armed with a shrimping net, for catching small crustaceans and fish in rock pools. They also harvested shellfish, which Homer showed in another watercolour.
Wherever the catch, it was left to the women to carry the fish and prepare them for sale.
Some parts of the coast were also suitable for lobster pots, which again would have been maintained and prepared by the women.
Some of the most arduous work involved transferring a catch from the boat into these large wickerwork baskets, then carrying them in teams to the village, where the women could prepare the fish for market.
In the next article, I will look in more detail at those times when the whole community worked together, when the boats came in.
National Gallery of Art virtual exhibition from 2005.
Tedeschi M and others (2008) Watercolors by Winslow Homer. The Color of Light, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 11945 9.