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PETER ANSON (1889-1975)

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Early Life

Peter Frederick Anson was born at Southsea on August 22nd 1889, the eldest son of Admiral Charles Anson (1859-1940) and Evelyn Ross. He had naval connections on both sides of his family as his mother’s great-grandfather, Hercules Ross, was a long-standing friend of Lord Horatio Nelson. The naval hero was godfather to Anson’s great-grandfather. With this background, Peter was probably expected to join the Royal Navy and rise through the ranks to the highest levels.

Peter became interested in fishing early in his life, during family holidays at Sheringham, Norfolk, and on the Yorkshire coast. A talent for drawing led to him becoming a student at the Architectural Association School in London from 1908 to 1910.

In 1910 Anson joined the Anglican Benedictine community on Caldey Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast. He was given the name of Richard. Throughout the rest of his devout and modest life he alternated between periods of religious contemplation and observing and recording life in fishing communities. In 1913 the monks of Caldey, including Anson, were received into the Roman Catholic Church. He co-founded the Apostleship of the Sea in 1921 and was its Organising Secretary for the first three years.

In September 1920 he had his first experience of a fishing boat with a trip on the Brixham smack “Fiery Cross”. Two months later he was signed on as a ‘spare hand’ by the Grimsby steam trawler “Empyrean” (Fig. 2). After another period at Brixham, health problems led him first to the monastery at Fort Augustus then to the Moray Firth in the summer of 1921. He moved along the coast from Nairn to Lossiemouth and then to Buckie, talking to the fishermen and drawing their drifters to great acclaim.

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Fig. 2 Peter Anson on the trawler

“Empyrean”. 1921.

At this time the first signs of decline in the herring industry were apparent and trawling restrictions were causing some bitterness. Anson was soon out on the boats, particularly the steam drifters “Morning Star” (BCK 201) and “Monarch” (BCK 381) (Fig. 3). He made many lifelong friendships during this period, some of which were revived when he visited the Buckie fishermen at Yarmouth (Fig. 4) and Lowestoft. To them he was still known as “Dick”.

 

Writer & Artist Although nominally still a monk until 1924, Anson’s life was now becoming more involved with drawing fishing boats and writing about the industry. He also had spells aboard other types of craft, including a voyage from Venice to Vancouver on the Italian cargo-ship “Duchess d’Aosta” in 1926. His first book, “The Pilgrim’s Guide to Franciscan Italy”, was published in 1927 and was followed by over thirty others, including his best-known “Fishing Boats and Fisherfolk on the East Coast of Scotland” (1930) and the best-selling “How to Draw Ships” (1940). Most of these were illustrated by his drawings. In the early 1930s he made his home at Northfleet, near Gravesend, but still felt the pull of the Moray Firth. In 1936 he moved north, at first to Portsoy then to Banif. At this time, too, he was elected a founder member of the Society of Marine Artists.

In May 1938 Anson moved to Harbour Head, Macduff where he stayed for fourteen years. In 1939 one of his visitors was the author Neil Gunn who was researching his novel “The Silver Darlings”, on the Moray Firth herring fishery. Gunn returned in 1943 by which time the house had become an unofficial seaman’s club and a haven for the local “loons”, eventually arousing considerable interest from the Catholic press who mistakenly assumed an evangelical motivation. However Anson’s faith had not been forgotten and he converted his loft into a chapel with a maritime atmosphere. He even became a registered fisherman with his small sailing boat “Stella Mans” (BF 75) (Fig. 5). In 1945 he was commissioned to make a study of the Irish fisheries and three years later he acted as representative of the Irish government when a number of fishing boats were built for them at Banff.

Anson moved back to the south of England early in 1952 but within seven months had returned to Macduff, where he bought another house on Low Shore, staying there until 1958.

Back to his Roots

On leaving Macduff, Anson intended to live out the last years of his life in a cottage near Ramsgate Abbey. By 1960 he was back at Portsoy for a brief stay before going on to Montrose and then to nearby Ferryden in 1961 (Fig. 6). The feu-charter of his house had been signed by his great-grandfather in 1841 so it seemed to him that he had finally come home. He was made a Knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope Paul VI in 1966, in recognition of his literary work.

In 1967 Anson was invited to become the first Curator of the Scottish Fisheries Museum at Anstruther with a modern flat to live in. He could not face the prospect of having “to rise to the standards of decency demanded by the County and Burgh authorities” and resigned in January of the following year. He continued to live at Ferryden and commenced work on a “panorama” of the Scottish fishing industry with the hope that one day there would be a museum on the Moray Firth coast which could display it.

Peter Anson’s last five years were spent completing his “panorama”, latterly in the monastery on Caldey Island and at Sancta Maria Abbey in East Lothian. In 1973 he was delighted to present 400 of his watercolours to the newly-opened Buckie Maritime Museum. This was followed by a further sixteen just before his death in June 1975.

 The Anson Collections

The Anson collection of drawings and watercolours is housed at Buckie Maritime Museum where a special gallery has been set aside for their display. The first 400, given in 1973, show fishing boats, fisherfolk and fishing places around Scotland but mainly of the Moray Firth coast. Most were painted in the period 1969 to 1973, some directly from photographs, old and new, and some from previous drawings dating back to the early 1920s. Many of the originals had suffered damage through being stored in damp monasteries.

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Fig. 5 Anson’s fishing boat BF 75 “SteIla Mans”.

 

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Fig. 6 Anson working in his house at Ferryden, 1961.

 

A further collection of 430 works (including Figs. 1 and 7) was acquired in 1979 by Moray District Council on loan from the Abbot of Sancta Maria Abbey, Nunraw, to whom copyright in all of Anson’s works had been bequeathed. These are of mixed subjects, including monasteries, seamen’s missions, fishing villages, other places, people and fishing boats. Most have not been framed and are retained as a reference collection, many having been reproduced in Anson’s various publications. Another collection of his works is held by the National Maritime Museum.

There is a collection of over 2000 photographs, postcards, prints, newspaper cuttings and drawings, many used as source material for Anson’s watercolours. These cover all periods of his life and include fishing scenes from all around the British Isles and Europe. Virtually every fishing port in Britain is represented from Hastings to Stornoway. There are albums dating from 1920 and 1921 which show fishing techniques in use at that time and scenes of the gutting and packing industry in the Shetland Isles. A series of colour prints shows Scottish fishing ports in the early 1970s.

Moray District Council also has responsibility for Anson’s library of books relating to the fishing industry and his faith, including many of his own works. There is an archive of his letters and diaries.

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Fig. 7 Shooting drift nets. INS 382 “Brighton o’ the North” 1921.

Catalogues of all these items are available from the District Curator, Falconer Museum, Tolbooth Street, Forres, Moray 1V36 OPH Tel. Forres (0309) 73701.

Biographical details have been derived largely from Peter Anson’s autobiography ~‘Life on Low Shore” (Banffshire Journal, 1969).

Moray District Council 1989. Text by I 0 Morrison.

Illustrations The Abbot, Sancta Maria Abbey, Nunraw.