Kingsbridge. Report from the Literature & Art Section

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Author(s): Wootton. Pamela; Year published: 2013; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): art and literature; Location(s): Kingsbridge

It is fortunate that the one-time Literature section now includes some aspects of Art as Kingsbridge has proved to be a town and area with many active artists, a great number of whom show their work at the Harbour House Gallery, a fine Georgian building on the Promenade at the head of the harbour. Short exhibitions follow each other throughout the year marked by two Open Art Exhibitions, each on a particular theme. From October to November 2012, the theme ‘Blue’ proved successful for about fifty artists with well-varied styles. The Gallery, which has other activity groups too, has a full exhibition list for 2013. The major Open Art shows in Spring and Autumn will have the themes ‘Renewal’ and ‘Spaces and Places’, and the painter exhibiting, very colourfully, at the time of the DA Annual Meeting in June will be Diane Hemingway.

The southern part of the South Hams seems to have attracted none of the plethora of nationally known artists who visited Torquay and its hinterland from the eighteenth century onwards. Possibly, the landscape was less picturesque and the lanes impassable, but several early travel writers did reach Kingsbridge. As early as 1538, John Leland described it in his Itinerary as a “sumtyme praty toune”, leaving us to wonder why sumtyme. He also mentions Slapton as a ‘praty college’ and was greatly impressed by Slapton Poole. Tristram Risdon explored in the seventeenth century, but his Survey of Devon was published later, noting a weekly market and a fair on St Margaret’s day the twentieth of July. He mentions David Tolby, a native of the town, who became a professor of physic at Oxford “well seen in all the liberal sciences” who wrote major works in Latin. Samuel Lysons, taking courage to complete their study of the county after the death of his brother, travelled by the road we know as the A379, crossing the Dart and south to Torcross. He includes Kingsbridge as a secondary woollen manufacturing town, chiefly producing long ells for the East India Company and flustrings for home consumption and the Newfoundland trade, mostly exported from Exeter. Reverend Richard Polwhele comments in volume III of his History of Devonshire that the town’s own exports are corn, slates and cyder “with which the South Hams so much abound”, and he describes the locally celebrated White Ale, made only in Kingsbridge which has “more the appearance of mulled wine than anything else and is never fine”.

In the 1860s, the editor of the Kingsbridge Gazette published Myrtles and Aloes by Ellen Luscombe and Kingsbridge Estuary with rambles in the neighbourhood by Sarah P Fox who lived in Kingsbridge and clearly knew and loved it well. She described the town and surroundings in great detail and extolled the virtues of several inhabitants including her uncle Charles Prideaux a notable collector of crustacea and of William Cookworthy, born in 1705, who eventually developed china clay from the South West peninsula which rivalled Chinese kaolin and enabled the production of English porcelain. She gives evocative descriptions of the estuary and its wildlife. Myrtles and Aloes, written following a long health-giving winter in Salcombe, shows a true appreciation of the area both in Mrs Luscombe’s writing and drawings. The Kingsbridge section, so well titled A discursive gossip, is by Francis Young who states that he was seized by the collar by the publisher and required to write a chapter. In fact he wrote three.

These books and others will be available to browse at the Annual Conference, but one most notable Kingsbridge book cannot be seen outside a library. Abraham Hawkins, born near in 1756, collected material in the late 18th century for Polwhele, but finding it unused eventually published his Kingsbridge and Salcombe with the intermediate estuary, one of the earliest local histories in Devon, in 1819. The Gentleman’s Magazine had already received several contributions from Abraham Hawkins and in 1799 published his letter to the Editor on the spirit of improvement in Kingsbridge, approving some rebuilding, especially of the Butchery, but deploring the recently built Buttermarket as a disfigurement to “one of the most pleasantly situated towns in this kingdom which commands an extensive delightful view, particularly of an inlet of the sea full five miles in length”. The letter accompanied an engraving of the Towne Platte, of which the original on vellum held by the feoffees was a bird’s eye plan of the town in 1586 which he felt, correctly, needed wider recognition and recorded preservation. Hawkins, after brief military service, had become a well-regarded magistrate, dispensing justice at his house near Kingsbridge, translating Latin texts and prolifically writing verses and epitaphs. He particularly lauded John Wolcot, who like himself, had attended Kingsbridge Classical and Mathematical School under John Morris. John Wolcot, although occasionally visiting Kingsbridge, spent most of his later life in London, using the pseudonym Peter Pindar, as a renowned satirist directing his barbed wit against social injustice, fools or rogues in high office, and the court and person of George III.

Anne Born, who re-founded the Literature section and was Chairman until she died, was a notable literary figure locally, nationally and internationally. While Writer in Residence at Kingsbridge Library, her courses must have inspired new, local writers. I hope that an appreciation of these and certainly of the work of Anne herself will form part of the section’s short talk on The distinctiveness of Kingsbridge when the DA meets there in June.

Pamela Wootton

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