Tavistock. Report from the Literature and Art Section

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Author(s): Wootton. Pamela; Year published: 2015; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): art and literature; Location(s): Tavistock

In the centuries when national travellers wrote of their journeys around England and nationally celebrated artists travelled to paint Devon scenery, Tavistock was little visited by such notables. Of the early writers only Tristram Risdon spent many pages of his Chorographical Survey writing of the founding and the then remaining ruins of the Abbey, preceding this with the intriguing story of the beautiful Elfrida, wife of Ethelwold and then of King Edgar; but Tavistock has more recently an interesting number of locally born or incoming writers and now flourishes in Literature and in Art.

Several artists’ groups meet regularly in the area and hold exhibitions at the Wharf or the Town Hall. Recent website views of one exhibition display a good variety of well-varied subjects and skilful techniques; and photographs of the Tavistock Group of Artists who meet monthly in the Parish Rooms show them to be at least thirty-six in number and dedicated to their work. Mary Gillett, a member of the Devonshire Association whose etchings and painting you may have seen in the DA’s Art Exhibition last October, lives in Tavistock where she directs and teaches at the Tamar Print Workshop which she founded in 1992. Her own style is said to embody the unique light of the moor. The work of Nicholas Collier, for long Director of Art at Kelly College, is described as rooted in the palimpsest of the Westcountry landscape.

In the early C19th picturesque and romantic aspects of western Dartmoor were becoming more widely known. Frederick Christian Lewis exhibited many Dartmoor etchings and aqua-tints particularly of river scenes, including a series on the River Tavy. George Pyne, who lived in the town in the 1830s, exhibited local scenes at Royal Watercolour Society exhibitions. Conrad Martens, who moved to Devon as a boy and returned to London to study landscape painting with Fielding, later sketched in Tavistock and western Dartmoor. The fact that his sketch books are in Sydney is explained by his having emigrated to Australia, where he painted spectacular scenery, having on the way spent a year between Montevideo and Valparaiso as expedition artist on the ‘Beagle’.

Tavistock Subscription Library is a highly valued feature of the town and indeed of the Association of Independent Libraries of which it is one of the oldest having been founded in 1799 by three young men and one older: a bookseller; a mine captain (Edward Atkyns Bray who later became the vicar of Tavistock) and a non-conformist schoolmaster. Do visit if you can as you will find a good store of literature about the area and beyond acquired in over two centuries. The Library has in the last few years encouraged new young writers by offering local secondary school students an annual competition to write a piece of prose. This year’s title is ‘The Peter Tavy Mystery’ and is to include the finding of a small hoard of Georgian coins and a love token. The convenor of the competition, Simon Dell, is himself a notable writer on West Devon and especially about the history of the Police service of which he was part, and still is as a Special Constable, bandsman and advisor. His forthcoming book will reach across the moor as a biography of Beatrice Chase.

Gerry Woodcock, Head of History at Tavistock School from 1966, has written prolifically of all aspects of Tavistock life, publishing nineteen issues of Tavistock’s Yesterdays since 1985 each with twelve or more articles dealing very readably with subjects including the inscribed stones in the Vicarage garden, the First Printing Press in the West, WH Smith (at school in Tavistock), Royal visitors, Devon Great Consols, Goosie Fair.

Most celebrated of earlier Tavistock writers is Anna Eliza Bray born in London but coming to the town on marrying the Reverend Edward Atkyns Bray after the tragic death of her first husband who had encouraged her to begin writing. At the Vicarage she became a prolific writer, publishing five biographies and fourteen novels many ranging far from Devon, editing her husband’s journals, and maintaining a correspondence, later published, with Robert Southey and others. ‘On the borders of Tamar and Tavy’ drew visitors to the area. Perhaps ‘A Peep at the Pixies’ did so too. Mrs Bray, with Southey’s help, arranged for publication of the poems of Mary Maria Collings, a servant in Tavistock, whom she encouraged as a writer and respectful friend.

Tavistock’s best known poet, William Browne, born here about 1590 and educated at the Grammar School and Exeter College Oxford, was well regarded by John Milton and later by Keats. Much of his poetry was pastoral often featuring the Tavy, but he could also be satirical as befits a friend of Ben Johnson, bitingly so in his most quoted poem ‘I oft have heard of Lydford Law…’.

Pamela Wootton