Cornish Sardines-my inspiration

Cornish Sardines-my inspiration

I am often asked when out trading why I have so many representations of fish throughout my designs. The answer is simple, since meeting my husband, the fishing industry has become an integral part of my life. 


He comes from a long line of Scottish fishermen and often reflects on the harsh realities of a seafaring father and the impact that had on the women of his childhood and the worries and anxieties of waiting for his father returning after time away at sea. He tells me how on stormy nights he’d sit by his garret bedroom window of his childhood three story harbour side home in Eyemouth and watch with baited breath for the lights of the fishing fleet returning home and then carefully manoeuvring their boats through the slim harbour opening in the huge waves to ensure a passage to the safer inner waters. A mistimed or badly judged alignment could potentially end in tragedy. 

A fishing boat heading out of the channel in Eyemouth Harbour 

Luckily, his father was a skilled skipper and would arrive home on Fridays, unload the catch, sell to the markets before restocking supplies, mending kit and nets and returning to sea on the Sunday evening.  

Eyemouth Harbourside busy unloading prawns

My man was not drawn to the sea but has always felt a strong connection to the fishing industry so has pursued a shoreside career of processing fish, meaning that the companies he has worked for have bought the fish from the boats, organised transport and found onward markets for the fish both in the UK such as supermarkets or further afield in Europe or worldwide. My eyes were opened to the thriving Cornish fish export market; for example the fact that Cornish cuttlefish or “black gold” was a sought after product in Spain, the illusive Cornish anchovy makes the industry quicken with excitement for it’s high market value on the Continent, or how many of our beautiful Cornish Sardines are bought and sold to the high end canneries in Brittany and the Basque Country in Spain. 

Sardines swimming in the sea

Many of our holidays include visits to said canneries and while I tend not to be part of the business end of dealings, I love watching the process when I’m lucky enough to see inside a cannery or even just wandering the specialist shops/ delicatessens in order to collect the beautiful jewel like tins with their varied and stunning designs. Firm favourites are the vivid bright Ortiz branding from Sans Sebastián in Spain (and the incredibly tasty) La Belle-Iloise from Quiberon in France. Over the years we have collected the beautiful tins and had many framed throughout our house as a homage to the designs. 

An Ortiz Sardine Can and my "Sardines in a Tin tea towel"

The Cornish Sardine industry is a long established one. The sardines were know as Pilchards locally and were caught as adult sardines. The shoals were often so big that they could be seen from the cliffs and people were employed to look for them, named “huers”, in turn when they would spot the fish and shout “Hevva” which would signal to the teams of men and women to speed to work. The huge cotton nets were deployed in a horse shoe shape around the shoal. They would be weighted at the bottom and floated at the top with corks. Once the net was set a smaller net called a “stop net” would close the gap. 

Photo credit: Helston Museum

Once ashore the pilchards would be pressed to remove the valuable fish oil, salted and packed into barrels for storage or export- as far as Rome! 

From around 1750 to around 1880 the industry was booming but after that went into almost terminal decline as during the 20th Century a far broader selection of fish was harvested and people’s tastes changed- severely effecting the markets. Now the sardines and pilchards still follow their same migrationary patterns that move north into Cornish waters following warm currents and planktonic food in late July where they remain until around Christmas time but few remain in the UK once caught. The Cornish Sardine Management Association carefully ensures that this vital species remains a heathy and sustainable population.

Lino cutting of a sardines in a tea in progress

My “Sardines in a Tin” Tea-towel and various lino-prints play tribute to the fishery and craft of the canneries. I love the shape of the tins, the clever way they open and the way the fish is nestled into place. I hope you enjoy finding my prints and you can see how they reflect my passion for the products. 

I'm sitting on the beach holding a framed little lino print of sardines in a tin

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