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Rolf Jonsson

(1883-1965) – Swedish ‘spy’

Swedish artist Rolf Jonsson broke convention by marrying his Newlyn model Annie. A strong pro-German lobby in Sweden until 1916 and Newlyn gossips claiming they saw 'signal' lights in his garden led to Rolf's arrest and imprisonment at Pendennis Castle. Found not guilty in March 1915, the Jonssons sailed for Sweden, never to return.

Credit: Pendennis Castle, Falmouth (English Heritage) and Alan Payne

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Rolf Jonsson was born on 1 December 1883 in Gothenburg, Sweden.  He came from a fairly wealthy family – his father supplied wooden pit props to Cornish mines – and, after studying art in Paris, he came to Newlyn in 1908 to study with Stanhope Forbes.  Jonsson soon broke convention by marrying his Newlyn model, Annie Payne, who was ten years his junior, in 1913.  She was the eldest of four children of a Newlyn fisherman and supplemented the family’s income by modelling for the artists.  A Swiss chalet was built for them by his father as a wedding present, an exact replica of the Jonsson’s summer chalet in Sweden, and later sold to Penlee Quarry.  Their daughter Ragnaléna was born on 6 July 1914 and some of Jonsson’s work was exhibited at Newlyn the following year.

Rolf was accused of spying because anonymous Newlyn women claimed to have seen lights flashing from his garden out into the bay on two consecutive nights.  This was interpreted as signalling to the enemy, but could have been due to Rolf walking between rooms in his house, which had different coloured curtains, with a torch.

The existence of a strong pro-German lobby in Sweden until 1916 didn’t help Rolf’s case.  Nor did pleading that he didn’t like Germans – ‘He would say that wouldn’t he?’ being the obvious retort.   Rolf was arrested and imprisoned at Pendennis Castle until his trial in March 1915.  Stanhope Forbes came to Falmouth to speak as a character witness on his behalf, and Rolf was found not guilty.   Rolf's father obtained a passport and safe conduct for the family and they left by boat for Sweden from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  A second child was born on the way to Sweden.  Annie had six children with Rolf and never returned to Newlyn; her nephew, Alan Payne, visited her in Sweden and went to the summer chalet.

Rolf Jonsson’s work is little known today because he never needed to sell his paintings.  His old family home near Gothenburg is still full of portraits of scores of people from Newlyn.  

Credit: Pendennis Castle, Falmouth (English Heritage) and prison sketch copyright Alan Payne