Exeter Branch report: Feb to Jul 2017

Our first lecture of the year in February 2017 was given by Robert Pocock on Devon’s Hero at Waterloo – General Mercer (1783–1863). ‘General who?’ I hear you say, and with some justification. Although he retired to Cowley Cottage in Exeter and is buried in St David’s Church graveyard alongside his sister Theodosia, he is internationally celebrated yet locally unknown.

Eventually attaining the rank of General, Alexander Cavalié Mercer’s renown is based on his detailed account as a junior officer in the run-up to the Battle of Waterloo. Unable to keep up his journal through the last few days of preparation and the conflict itself, he recollected the Battle from memory some years later. Historians therefore attest to the accuracy of his early accounts but believe that his reporting of the Battle itself may be slightly embellished. Nevertheless, his two-volume work, which was finally published in 1870 after his death, is lauded as the finest account of a major campaign ever written: the full title is Journal of the Waterloo Campaign kept throughout the Campaign of 1815 by the late General Mercer, commanding the 9th Brigade Royal Artillery.

After Waterloo, he served in British North America in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, notably Nova Scotia. Here, he painted numerous watercolours of rural and urban scenes. An accomplished amateur artist, he produced nearly eighty pictures in the vicinity of Halifax alone, fifty of which are published by Glenn Devanney in a book entitled Halifax in watercolour – the paintings of Alexander Cavalié Mercer 1838-1842 (2014, Nimbus Publishing Ltd, 96pp, ISBN 978-1-77108-121-4).

Robert Pocock has recently led the restoration of Mercer’s grave and is hoping to erect an information board in his memory. It is perhaps an ironic twist of fate that the overgrown resting place of the unassuming Mercer is just a few tens of metres away from the imposing statue of the more flamboyant General Sir Redvers Buller VC astride his horse.

Our second lecture in March was given by Colin Vosper on another neglected celebrity who lived and worked for most of his adult life in Exeter – Harry Hems, ecclesiastical wood carver and sculptor (1842–1916). Born in Islington, near London, Hems first became an apprentice in his family’s prestigious cutlery-making business in Sheffield. This, however, did not suit his obsession with wood carving, so he became apprenticed to a local wood carver and attended Sheffield Art College. Having completed his studies, he returned to London where he earned enough money to finance his trip to Italy to develop his stone carving skills at Carrara and Florence.

Back in England in 1866, he found work during the building of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, and in 1868 he and his new wife settled into accommodation and studios in Paris Street (now demolished). By 1881 his business, which was inspired by the Medieval Gothic style, was sufficiently blooming for him to commission an architect-designed suite of workshops on a two-acre plot in Longbrook Street, now Harry’s Restaurant. At the peak of his activities, he employed over 100 men and contributed sculptures and fittings to many churches, cathedrals and public buildings both in Britain and in America and Australia. Although he could be a hard, irascible taskmaster, he had a more gentle side when engaging in philanthropic activities as well as supporting local events and organisations. Besides the Longbrook workshop, his legacy includes a collection of some 500 medieval woodcarvings salvaged largely from West Country churches and acquired by RAMM after his death.

On 18 April, the Exeter Branch visited the Freemasons Hall in Gandy Street to learn about its history – an appropriate occasion in the tercentenary year of the United Grand Lodge. Although the building has been occupied by freemasons since 1876 – they previously met in various taverns, inns and hotels around the city – its origins go back to the 14th century as testified by medieval screens and an ancient doorway. And to add to its sense of antiquity, part of a Roman garrison wall runs beneath the floor. Several brethren shed light on the significance of the heraldic shields, symbols and ceremonial tools and attempted to debunk many of the negative public perceptions of Freemasonry, going as far as suggesting that lodges can be likened to Gentlemen’s’ (and increasingly) Ladies’ clubs. They are also justifiably proud that their personal contributions to charity come second only to the National Lottery! A convivial question and answer session was followed by a cream tea in the bar, formerly the snooker room.

Our annual country house visit (17 May) was to Hall – a large estate within the parish of Bishop’s Tawton and home to the late seafaring adventurer Sir Francis Chichester. The original house and the present Grade II listed, neo- Jacobean building has been in the Chichester family since the 14th century. The latter contains a number of grand reception rooms commanding splendid views over the Taw Valley. There is also a staircase hall, and an imposing Gothic great hall with a minstrels’ galley and stained glass windows where over forty of our members were provided with a sumptuous cream tea after a conducted tour of the house and gardens.

On 19 July, Sandra Mutton led a guided tour of the Grade II listed Northernhay Park in Exeter, which is believed to be the oldest public amenity of its type in the country. The gardens describe an arcuate shape, delimited to the south-east by the city wall and to the north-west by the flank of Longbrook Valley with the railway beneath. The Park dates back to 1612 but was partly destroyed in 1642 during the Civil War when large defensive trenches were dug. It was restored in celebration of the return of the Monarchy with the planting in 1664 of 200 elm saplings and the laying of gravel paths. Some two hundred years later (1869) the gardens were comprehensively re-landscaped, and from then until 1895 several important Victorian sculptures were installed, including the Deer Stalker, John Dinham and Sir Thomas Dyke Ackland by E B Stephens, Stafford Northcote by Joseph Boehm, and the Volunteer Force Memorial by Harry Hems. Today’s centrepiece is the War Memorial created in 1923 by John Angel. This imposing structure consists of a bronze statue of Peace standing on a dragon, and seated bronze figures of a soldier, a sailor, a nurse and a prisoner of war at each corner. The gardens have also been the location of a powerful piece of recent community art consisting of 19,240 figurines in shrouds neatly laid out on the grass, representing those who lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In the mid-1900s an avenue of mature elms succumbed to Dutch elm disease and was replaced by an avenue of Liquidambar.

Finally, we have to finish on a very sad note. Geoffrey Harding, who joined the DA in 2001 and was currently serving as Chairman, died suddenly at his home in June, aged 73. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Maureen, and to his family and friends. His local knowledge, enthusiasm and wry sense of humour will be sadly missed. His well-attended funeral was held on Tuesday 20th June at St Luke’s Parish Church, Countess Wear, Exeter.

Vice Chairman Neill Macaulay will head the committee until the AGM in November (2017), when Bob Hodgson and Tony Buller will stand for election as temporary Chairman and Vice Chairman, respectively.

Antony T Buller

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