Widecombe History Group Talk on Historical Images of Dartmoor


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Our speaker at the December Meeting was Dr. Todd Gray, historian, author of 35 books on Devon, his latest being "Exeter in the 1940’s" and he is currently the Chairman of The Devonshire Association".

The title for the evening was "Historical Images of Dartmoor", and this proved to be a very interesting approach to this subject. He began by distributed several copies of his book "Dartmoor Engraved" for us to examine, this contains over 260 images of Dartmoor created over the last 300 years by several artists, engravers and etchers.

When looking at images of the same place, but depicted by different artists, at about the same time, their interpretation of what was there was quite different. The artists created differing pictures with what we would call today ‘artistic license’, emphasising some details, excluding others and even adding some. Up to about the year 2000A.D. this could not be done with photographs, but now with ‘digital cameras’, a digitally enhanced picture can also be created, by the clever removal of trees or posts or come to that anything, thus creating a picture that is NOT an accurate picture of today so this emphasises the need to be careful when looking at any image. It will mean that in future years those looking at present day photographs will have to just as cautious as we are when examining old paintings and prints etc. One of the more notorious ‘mis-representations’ by an engraver is the ‘phallic’ outcrop standing in the water, depicted as the Chit Rock column (no longer standing, it was washed away in 1823 by a storm) off the Sidmouth Cliffs, which was reputed to be attributed to the unpopular Viscount Sidmouth who as an elderly man took on a very young bride, a popular picture in the households of Sidmouth for years but considered now to be in bad taste, in recent years several of these prints have been removed off many a drawing room wall.

Back to the book, looking at pages 30/31 the artists interpretation of The Logan Stone at Drewsteignton vary considerably showing how they did their own impression of the same scene. It is evident in other images that by leaving off anything like rubbish and enhancing some features with more dramatic emphasis they created what they individually wished to display. On pages 168/169 the drawings of Tavistock Abbey’s gateway varied considerably in spite of having been done within two years of eachother, the gateway and the windows differ considerably, and later etchings of the same place were different again, some drawn with artitectural accuracy and straight lines where others liked the softer curved lines making a more rustic appearance with enlarged windows. The accuracy of these representations therefore need to be treated with caution. Some old cottages, that in times of disease and squalor were drawn as delapidated, now looked upon as quaint! A depiction of the Poorhouses at Bridestowe being one of the few in existence. Even in that one ‘horses and carriage’ was placed to hide a feature that the artist did not want to show. It was quite difficult in several cases to recognise the views depicted - thank goodness some had titles. We were then shown slides of some artefacts held by The Devon Records Office, for instance a sample of 100 drawings of flowers of East Devon now compiled into a book - fascinating! There were maps held by the D.R.O. For about 8 years two ladies have examined and recorded and catalogued about 2000 maps of Devon, these too now available in book form with a parish by parish grouping. The maps concentrated on different themes. If it was produced to help decide a dispute about land, the field and boundaries featured prominently. If it had urban connotations, the streets and buildings took preference. An excellent example was one of Ausewell Woods and Higher and Lower Bowdley near Ashburton, the town was signified by just a couple of houses in the bottom left-hand corner, but the fields and woods were drawn in great detail. Devon has the best catalogued set of maps in the country thanks to their work. The rest of England should be like this!

There are of course many beautiful paintings of the best buildings held in the stately homes about the Country, but not available to the casual viewer, due to the ever present risk of them being stolen if people know of there where-abouts.

We looked at Country Houses, particularly the big house, Mr Berry’s House, which is included into Buckfast Abbey, still there, but often not observed. It was coopted into the Abbey when it was rebuilt after the original Abbey was destroyed after the Reformation etc. Many places popular today, are not featured in these drawings of years ago, this is due to the artists concentrating on the places that were popular for visitors at the time, in other words the elegant towns and cities like Sidmouth, Tavistock, Exeter and Torquay, these images sold as souvenirs, just like the picture postcard is today. The London Illustrated News was mentioned as an ideal source of pictorial evidence of bygone years, included in copies of that magazine are pictures showing Military activity on Dartmoor and much more. There seems to be a vast amount of evidence of the past, hidden away in the stores at different Devon Record Offices, some quite surprising places that the researcher may well have difficulty in finding. Even comparatively locally, things relevant to Plymouth hidden away in boxes in North Devon, a large amount of interest to Widecombe is in Exeter, and many other places too, there is a very urgent need for these to be catalogued to help bring all this useful evidence into the public domain. Another feature depicted was bridges. The different styles from ‘clapper bridge’, the one at Postbridge was almost artitectural in its representation with virtually every stone drawn in place, to the more elaborate two, three and four arch types of New Bridge, Fingle and Dunsford. An early depiction of Ivybridge, emphasised by a pronounced growth of ivy hanging over the sides. Very few of these early etching, prints, drawings and paintings depicted humans or animals, only a few showed them so that comparison for size could be ascertained. In one picture there was what is considered to be a drawing of a ‘Charcoal Burner’s Hut’, this is quite unique. Another showed the Water Engine and gantry at Bovey Tracey Coal Mine, fascinating. There are different artists with the same or similar surnames and their interpretation of the same place varies tremendously, so their work must not be confused. Mention was made of a Vernon Sweet, who incidentally changed his name from John Tripe, so that he could inherit a substantial sum of money from his Aunt. He produced about 1000 images and wrote a million words, all stored away somewhere. There is a vast amount of material that needs looking into, items of archaeological importance, images, words, records of years gone by, that all need cataloguing and brought to light, held at The Devon Records Offices about the County and much farther afield as well. The work done along these lines by volunteers is immense and they need to be given every encouragement to continue their hard work. There is always room for further people to get involved with this work, The D.R.O. would surely welcome anyone who is prepared to assist. There is a genuine need for this to be listed so that the knowledge of our County’s History can continue to be evaluated.

The records are there, the enthusiasm to sort and record them is to be encouraged, the amount of documents and literature still to be viewed is immense, the time needed to achieve this, is tremendous. The reward would be appreciated by thousands. Have you got a day or two, a week or two, a month or two, a year or two, a lifetime to spare to achieve this? If you have, the conservators, archivists, recorders would be pleased to hear from you, and the county would be ever grateful.

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