Launceston. Report from the Literature and Art Section

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Author(s): Costello. Lynette; Year published: 2019; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): art and literature; Location(s): Launceston

To John Betjeman, Launceston was the gateway to North Cornwall, with the Camel to the west, the Tamar to the east, and Bodmin Moor to the west. Of all the towns in the district, ‘the most beautiful is Launceston’. His travels on the Atlantic Coast Express from London Waterloo crossed into Cornwall at Launceston:

‘Travellers coming out of Devon… lift up their hearts at the sight of Launceston… the Tamar is crossed and here at last is the Duchy’.

Betjeman travelled to North Cornwall on family holidays, as described in Summoned by Bells (1960). He claimed that his poetry was inspired by Lord Tennyson, who had visited North Cornwall as background research for The Idylls of the King.

Another literary traveller was Thomas Hardy, who in 1870 was sent as a surveyor to work on St Juliot Church near Boscastle. He described how after a twelve hour journey from Dorset to Launceston, he climbed the hill to the town for a meal, then hired a carriage to drive to Boscastle. His experiences of the train journey between Launceston and Plymouth were later used in his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), which is set in North Cornwall:

“two hours’ railway travel through vertical cuttings… oak copses rich and green… over slopes and down delightful valleys, glens, and ravines”.

He describes “St. Launce’s, the nearest market town and railway station” with “the quaint gables and jumbled roofs…spread beneath the hill”. Forty years later he returned to Launceston, writing in the poem St. Launce’s Revisited (1913) “Yet again I am nearing castle and keep”.

Cornish poet Charles Causley was born in 1917 at Riverside in Launceston. Leaving school at 15, his first play was published when he was nineteen. His experiences in the Royal Navy were used in the short stories Hands to Dance (1951). He taught in the local school in Launceston for 30 years.

His first poetry collection, Farewell, Aggie Weston (1951) was followed by Survivor’s Leave (1953), Union Street (1957), Johnny Alleluia (1961), and Underneath the Water (1968). One of his best known poems is By St Thomas Water. His poems for children include Figgie Hobbin (1970) and Jack the Treacle Eater (1987).  Causley’s poetry often reflects Cornish folklore, and in 1955 he was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd. He was recorded in 2002 reading some of his poems in his distinctive Cornish accent for the recently established Poetry Archive (  He died in 2003 and is buried at St Thomas’s Church, Launceston.

Artists and antiquarians have also been attracted to Launceston. William Borlase’s print of Launceston Castle is an illustration in his Observations on the Antiquities… of Cornwall (1754). Samuel Buck’s (1696–1779) West View of Launceston-Castle was part of a series of prospects of towns and cities in England and Wales. He visited Launceston in 1732-36, and by 1742 had published over five hundred engravings of towns, ruined abbeys and castles, showing how the landscape looked before the industrial revolution.

Flemish painter Hendrik Frans de Cort (1742–1810) specialised in oil paintings of towns and landscape in the Italian style. From c. 1789 he exhibited numerous landscapes of the West of England at the Royal Academy. His oil painting of Launceston Castle Cornwall shows the moors in the background. Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827) popular artist and caricaturist, captured the town at the end of the eighteenth century in his watercolour Launceston during the assizes.

Renowned landscape artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) painted a watercolour of Launceston Castle in 1811 while on a sketching tour in Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall, on commission from engraver George Cooke to provide drawings for a new publication, Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (1814). His contemporary William Westall (1781–1850) published two drawings of Launceston in his series of over a hundred topographical engravings in Great Britain Illustrated (1830).

Two interesting paintings may be seen in Launceston itself. In the Town Hall is a copy of van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I. A modern view of Launceston Castle was painted in 2001 by Cornish artist Maurice Colwill and is on display in the Market Arcade.

Lynette Costello