Samuel Birch was born in Egremont, Cheshire, the eldest son in a family of ten. Birch left school aged twelve on the death of his father, and worked as an office boy in Manchester. However, ill health forced him to leave the city and recuperate for a while at the home of a river bailiff, where he was introduced to fly-fishing. It was here that he began to sketch landscapes, a skill that he developed in his spare time after he returned to work as an industrial designer in a linoleum factory.
In 1889 Birch visited Newlyn, attracted by the distinguished group of artists, including Stanhope Forbes and Frank Bramley, who were in residence there. Birch settled In St Buryan in 1896, on his return from Europe. While in Paris he studied in the atelier Colorossi, but remained largely self-taught, content to sketch by himself on the banks of the Seine.
On his return to England his work became influenced by the surrounding Newlyn painters resulting in the use of a muted tonal range. In 1902 he moved to Lamorna Cove, the area that provided him with his principal source of inspiration for the rest of his life. Lamorna provided Birch with an endless range of landscape subjects, especially because of his passionate interest in rivers. He set up a studio near the river at Lamorna, only half a mile from Lamorna Cove. He later moved to Flagstaff Cottage at the head of the bay. He attracted other artists to the area and received a letter asking for art lessons; the student was named Emily Vivian, whom he later married.
From 1906 Birch’s work was exhibited at The Fine Arts Society. By this time his palette had brightened considerably, creating the bold juxtapositions of colours which were a hallmark of his style. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1926, and became a full member eight years later. In order to broaden his subject matter, Birch travelled around England, Scotland and the Continent looking for new fishing rivers to paint. He visited New Zealand and Australia in 1937 and an exhibition of his Australian paintings was held at the Greatorex Galleries on his return.
Dame Laura Knight, a great friend of Birch wrote that he was “a passionate fisherman, and is sometimes called ‘The Fisherman Artist’. Each summer he and his wife (whom he called ‘mouse’) went on a river-based holiday, usually in Scotland but sometimes in Austria. We have in our possession some wonderful contemporary photographs of Birch in his fishing attire, and also with his easel set up on a riverbed. He was a very keen traveller, visiting New Zealand and Australia in 1937″.
Birch’s lifelong love of fishing and painting saw him happiest at his home in Lamorna, whose name he adopted in order to distinguish himself from local painter Lionel Birch. However, whether painting in Australia, Scotland or at Lamorna, his “favourite path would be beside the river and his chosen task to capture the gleam dancing on the ripples”
In 1947, the people of Cornwall presented two paintings by Birch to HM Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on the occasion of their marriage.