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Help and advice for Favourite Sketching Grounds: Clovelly

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Magazine of Art, Vol. 3, pp. 87-91 (1889)

"AND a mighty sing'lar and pretty place it is, as ever I saw in all the days of my life," said Captain Jorgan, looking up at it. After this quaint fashion Charles Dickens commenced the description of Clovelly with which he opened one of the best of the "All the Year Round" series of Christmas stories. And it would be difficult in a few words to more completely state the case regarding this out-of-the-way picturesque Devonshire fishing village. Singular it certainly is, and of its prettiness there can be no doubt, whether we approach it from land or sea. Looking down upon it from the thickly-wooded heights through which the road known as the Hobby winds towards it, or looking up at it, as Captain Jorgan did, from the little pier or quay, it declares itself on the instant to be a mine of wealth for the artist. No spot can there be found along that most paintable coast of North Devon more justifiably entitled an "artists' haunt;" indeed, it should be called his head-quarters for the district. The subjects which it offers for his pencil are simply endless and of infinite variety. Be he landscape or marine, picturesquely architectural, figure, or animal painter, given to minute detail, or to broad, bold, expressive sketching, he can be accommodated with all he wants. Beginning our inspection of the place critically, and with an eye to covering canvas or filling portfolios, we will take our first peep at it from the road by which it is usually reached, viz., the aforesaid Hobby. Striking into this from the Bideford Road, we wind through a park-like pleasaunce studded with trees of every growth and variety, amply satisfying the student devoted to entirely leafy scenes, until by degrees we come upon gaps in the thick foliage through which the sea begins to appear like specks of turquoise fretting the green. These growing larger as the coast is neared, craggy, brown-black rocks and precipitous slopes of dense under-wood, terminating in patches of silvery, stony beach, with the rippling surge breaking on its marge, are revealed. Skirting the top of the cliff, the way still winds in and out, now crossing a tiny rivulet, now plunging into dense umbrageous shade, now coming out .upon a wide opening whence, looking north-east, splendid views of the blue Bay of Bideford are to be had as far as Morte and Baggy with their. rocky promontories. Presently blue wreaths of smoke, curling through the foliage, tell of habitations, and then is seen the glint of a slate roof and white cottage perched apparently upon an inaccessible ledge overhanging the sea, and then another and another, and we find ourselves at the top of a small, narrow, precipitous paved lane, with steep banks on either side. At the bottom, a trifle to the left, a coup d'oeil may be had of the "sing'lar and pretty" village, from a little terrace of cottages, smothered with myrtle and fuchsias. Hereabouts is the head of the street, which, running, or rather wriggling, its way down the sheer face of the lofty cliff, is the main thoroughfare of Clovelly. Quoting Dickens for a moment again, he says of it:--

"There was no road vehicle in it, there was not a level yard in it. From the sea-beach to the cliff top two irregular rows of white houses, places opposite to one another, and twisting here and there, and there and here, rose like the sides of a long succession of stages of crooked ladders, and you climbed up the village or down the village by the staves between - some six feet wide or so, and made of sharp, irregular stones."

Main Street


Descending this narrow way slowly, for to go quick is to imperil . one's neck, a closer inspection of the habitations shows them each and all, though similar in character, to have an individuality of their own. "No two houses were alike," continues the . popular. writer, "in chimney, size, shape, door, window, gable, roof-tree, anything." Their construction, arrangement, and colour offer in nearly every one a worthy subject for outline or close study, whilst about half-way down the street, and looking back and up therefrom, they afford in combination a curious and paintable picture, hard to be beaten by any similar foreign association of dwellings. The ground floor of one :is all but on a level with the chimneys of the next; little balconies and narrow terraces project from doors and windows on either side; in most cases painted green, and bedecked with shrubs and flowers; and there are posts and rails, palings and poles, surmounted by tiny weather vanes, or having nets and other fishing gear hung and slung to them, and flung about in all directions. Wooded heights crown the scene, bringing into most happy relief the odd and queer chimneys (the chimneys alone in Clovelly might form the contents of a large sketch-book), whence issues the smoke to give the necessary atmosphere, and to mark the relative distances, as the painter wills.

Old Houses


Proceeding, the descent becomes steeper and narrower, until at last it is obliged to zigzag to a lower level. Here a flight of steps conducts the explorer beneath an over-shoot of water; there another flight conducts him up to a cottage ensconced, like a sea-bird's nest, in a niche of rock scarce big enough to hold it; whilst the main thoroughfare passes under an arched house facetiously known as Temple Bar, and thence, by one more irregular zigzag, the level of the harbour and quay is reached. Here a disused lime-kiln and more balconied houses trend away towards the beach, and bring the confines of the little town, with boat-builders' sheds, low sea-walls, and other heterogeneous accessories, to an end under the cliffs. The pier running seawards, and then curving partly landwards again, after the fashion of such constructions, is not the least striking feature at this part of our subject. Charles Kingsley, who knew and loved every stone in the place, thus describes the outer face of the sturdy little breakwater: - "Thirty feet of grey and brown boulders spotted aloft with bright yellow lichens and black drops of tar, polished lower down by the surge of centuries, and towards the foot of the wall roughened with crusts of barnacles, and mussel-nests in crack and cranny, and festoons of coarse dripping weed."

From Hobby Walk


Further on, his picture of its inner side, or the harbour pool at low tide, must set every artist's mouth watering; . we have just landed at the pier-head, and "beneath us, to the left hand, is the quay-pool, now lying dry, in which a dozen trawlers are lopping over on their sides, their red sails drying in the sun, the tails of trawls hauled up to the topmast heads; while the more handy of their owners are getting on board by ladders, to pack away the said red sails, for it will blow to-night." Obviously the fishing-boats of Clovelly are among its principal attractions for the painter. Whether coming in on the top of the tide in the early morning from their perilous cruise "away to the west where the sun goes down," or getting under weigh as the shades of evening fall upon the bay, or lying at anchor in the offing when the breeze is from the land, or, as Kingsley speaks of them, left high and dry in the not too savoury harbour pool, they singly, or in combination either with themselves or the adjuncts of the place, bring about a succession of pictures and effects impossible to describe without brush or pencil. The smaller boats too, hauled up on the beach or the gangway of the pier, canted over, or turned topsy-turvy, the better for stowing, or tarring, or mending them, or afloat under their single lugsail, or merely the sturdy oar, they are in every position admirable and delightful, whilst the "picturesque lumber of the shore" and quay, the capstans, the windlasses, the chains, the ropes, the blocks, the rusty anchors, the timber baulks, the disused spars, and, above all, the nets, go to supply details for any and every composition. The way in which the nets are festooned from balcony or rigging, or spread out over the huge light grey stones of pier, wall, or beach, would of themselves be worth going to see and draw, were there no other artistic treasures in Clovelly. Besides the fish, which from their brilliancy of colour, abundance, and variety will catch the eye of the artist (and not his eye alone), there is an element of animal life to be found here under picturesque circumstances, scarcely seen anywhere else now in this country. See again how Dickens was struck by it. Continuing his description as Captain Jorgan was looking up at the quaint town, he says humorously, "The old pack-saddle, long laid aside in most parts of England as one of the appendages of its infancy, flourished here intact. Strings of pack-horses and pack-donkeys toiled slowly up the staves of the ladders bearing fish and coal, and such other cargo as was unshipping at the pier, from the dancing fleet of village boats, and from two or three little coasting traders. As the beasts of burden ascended laden or descended light, they got so lost at intervals in the floating clouds of village smoke, that they seemed to dive down some of the village chimneys, and come to the surface again far off, high above others."

Most valuable, of course, are the means which such primitive methods of transport and the incidents growing out of them afford to the artist for infusing life and activity into his scenes. Coming to the all-important question of figures, it would indeed be hard to find in our own island a race of people more entirely adapted to the requirements of the limner, and we have only to remember the life-like presentments of these fine, tanned, and weatherbeaten fellows, and their wives and children, as given to us on canvas by J. C. Hook, conspicuously among others, to be assured that in figure subjects, no less than in every other, this "artists' haunt" is almost without a rival.

The aforesaid fictitious Captain Jorgan was a seafaring man, who had travelled and sailed nearly all over the world, and though no artist, he even, as we have seen, intimated that in all the days of his life he had not seen anything to surpass it. Scraping acquaintance, as the story progresses, with one of the inhabitants, a fine young fisherman, the experienced mariner soon discovers that the hearts of the Clovellians, no less than their homes and appearance, are all that they should be. The fiction here referred to only graphically describes the truth as it is known to any one who his lived amongst them, and we cannot do better in concluding this part of the subject than once more see what Charles Kingsley says concerning these "lazy giants " - "black-locked, black-bearded, with ruddy, wholesome faces and eyes as bright as diamonds; men who are on their own ground and know it; who will not touch their caps to you, or pull the short black pipe from between their lips as you pass, but expect you to prove yourself a gentleman by speaking respectfully to them, which, if you do, you will find them as hearty, intelligent, brave fellows as ever walked this earth; capable of anything, from working the naval-brigade guns at Sevastopol, down to running up to . . . a hundred miles in a cockleshell lugger to forestall the early mackerel market. God be with you, my brave lads, and with your children after you; for as long as you are what I have known you, old England will rule the seas, and many a land beside!"

From The Hill


With such an amount of work at his very door, the artist will not think of travelling far afield when he has once established himself at the comfortable blue china be-crammed "New Inn," or in one of the several snug though primitive lodgings to be had in Clovelly. Should he do so, however, the coast, east and west, will yield abundant material of a wild, rocky, weather-beaten, yet rich and fertile character. The neighbourhood of "Mouth Mill," to the west, including the woody region known as the "Wilderness," the lover's seat on the verge of a yawning and precipitous chasm in the cliff, called "Gallantry Bower," and the storm-lashed pile of "Black Church Rock, " among other rugged features, will amply repay the student for a visit. To the east and north, the curving bay of Bideford, with its deep-wooded ravines running inland, and the moorland streams tumbling through them and bursting into the sea over a shelf of crag, or finding their way to their inevitable bourne by an oozy, reedy marshland, together with the hamlets of Buckish and Peppercombe dotting the cliff line, is equally enchanting to all who have an eye to purposes pictorial. Lundy Island likewise ought to be visited, for there is to be found cliff scenery on a very grand scale indeed, and as a little cutter plies to and fro between it and Clovelly three times a week, it is easily accessible. Thus, in whatever direction we look or bend our steps or steer our boat (for many of the coast beauties can only be seen or reached by sea), there is nothing in this favoured spot but what will rivet the eye and charm the mind of the true artist. Has he too but a taste for seamanship and practical marine fishery, he has but to conduct himself towards the natives as Kingsley suggests, and they will willingly take him with them for a cruise, and initiate him into the mysteries of trawling and deep-sea fishing generally, the picturesque phases whereof are too well known to need any word of recommendation here.

Pier and Bay


The reminiscences and notes from which the above "summer sketch in black and white" has been compiled, were accumulated some years ago, as necessarily is the case with much of the material with which I have now-a-days to do my limning, but nevertheless I venture to believe that in the spirit, if not in the letter, the picture of Clovelly is sufficiently faithful to do duty as a portrait of the spot as it now exists. In few places I understand have bricks, mortar, and whitewash so little marred and blurred these quaint beauties, as such enemies of the artist have been doing steadily elsewhere with his favourite haunts during the last twenty years. It will be a long while ere any great damage can be done to this little fishing village in the west. The glorious rugged picturesqueness of the cliffs amidst which it nestles is eternal, and defies alike the ruthless hand of time and the demon of modern improvement.

Transcribed by Brian Randell, 29 May 1996