A Cornish Artistic Mystery

A museum display case displaying paintings of a world war 1 soldier by the artsit Stanhope Forbes


One of the great objects in the museum’s collection is an oil painting dating from 1916.  It shows a young man in First World War officer’s uniform and it was painted by renowned Newlyn School artist Stanhope Forbes. The young man is Alec Forbes, Stanhope’s only son, who joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and was tragically killed at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 after just 3 days at the front.

Two years ago it came to light that there was another version of this painting, also by Stanhope Forbes, in existence.  It appeared on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow World War 1 special programme at Thiepval in France, brought along by a member of the extended Forbes family.  It differs slightly from the painting in the museum; it is less ‘finished’ and also carries the badge of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI) in the top right hand corner.  Both paintings were displayed side by side for the first time at the museum during September 2016.

Andrew Gordon, who is currently researching the life of Alec Forbes and has access to the family archives, has discovered a letter from Stanhope Forbes in which he writes to Alec that he has added the DCLI crest to ‘your painting’.  This would appear to confirm that this version is the first, painted before Alec’s death.  No reference has yet been found to when the painting in the museum’s collection was made.  Could it be that the museum’s painting was made after Alec’s tragic death?   It is hoped that the mystery of how the second portrait came to be painted will be solved one day, and that Andrew Gordon’s research into Alec Forbes and the paintings will reveal further information.  Andrew’s book about Alec Forbes is due for publication by Truran Books in 2017.