This painting dates from the autumn of 1928, which Wood spent in Cornwall. In the extreme foreground, set against a backdrop of St Ives harbour, a fisherman bids farewell to a woman and a child, his sun-tanned face partially obscured as he leans to kiss the child’s head. Their head-and-shoulder portraits seem superimposed on the detailed view of cottages, harbour, beach and pier. As the rectangular support is oriented horizontally, the background, alive with activity as the fishermen prepare to leave, suggests a tableau. While one group of men hauls a boat towards the sea, others are already crowded into a tiny vessel and heading towards the cluster of larger boats that await their crews on the far right of the composition. These preparations add to the poignancy of this scene of departure and deepen its atmosphere of impending loss.
The figures in the foreground are understood to be portraits of the artists Ben (1894–1982) and Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981), and their young son, Jake (b.1927). Wood became friends with the Nicholsons in 1926, exhibiting with Ben Nicholson at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, in 1927. In the spring of 1928 he stayed with them at Bankshead, their cottage in the Lake District, and the three artists painted together, often out of doors. In August that year Wood joined the Nicholsons at Feock in Cornwall.
It was during this visit that Wood and Ben Nicholson, on a trip into St Ives, first met Alfred Wallis (1855–1942), a retired local fisherman who also painted. The art of the untrained Cornish artist, who worked on oddly shaped pieces of wood and cardboard, represented the ideals of a ‘primitive’ style that the younger artists admired (exemplified in Wallis’s St Ives c.1928, Tate T00881). Wallis’s work may have chimed with Wood’s ideas on modernism, which valued what he saw as a deliberately naïve approach to subject matter, as he expressed in a letter to his mother written in 1922, in which he described the ‘great modern artists’ as ‘not trying to see things and paint them through the eyes and experience of a man of forty or fifty or whatever they may be, but rather through the eyes of the smallest child who sees nothing except those things which would strike him as being the most important’ (quoted in Button, p.37). Wood and the Nicholsons stayed on in St Ives and from mid-September until December 1928, Wood rented a cottage near to Wallis’s with views of Porthmeor Beach. This was one of the most intensely creative periods of his career.
Wood painted The Fisherman’s Farewell during this time and it is possible that the painting refers to the actual departure of Ben Nicholson from St Ives in October 1928 (Richard Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London 1995, p.197). His portrayal of Nicholson as a fisherman in this painting is a sign of esteem for his friend, linking as it does the other artist to the traditional way of life that Cornwall suggested to them. In December, shortly before leaving Cornwall for London and then Paris, Wood wrote to Winifred Nicholson: ‘I seem to live on the edge of the world. But what a world it is, I love this place and could stay here for ever if I had those around me for whom I care ... It will be hard to leave it.’
Wood died in tragic circumstances less than two years later. Suffering the effects of opium withdrawal, on 21 August 1930 he threw himself under a train.