President’s Symposium, April 2013

The Inspiration of Devon.

The outstandingly successful 2013 presidential symposium was conceived by The Reverend Peter Beacham OBE. Over 150 delegates attended the event at the Mint Methodist Church Centre in Exeter on Saturday 13 April.

The success of one DA Symposium after another must lie in their creation by a series of connoisseurs each with a different vision, a personal imprimatur and, conditio sine qua non, a commitment to Devon. Peter Beacham‘s Symposium, The inspiration of Devon, was no exception, drawing on creative insights from the present as well as the past, celebrating some of the most distinguished work of recent years in painting, photography and topographical literature.

Photography was the first insight in the form of a wonderful exposition, Fields of vision, by Robin Ravilious on the record of Devon life and landscape left by her husband, James Ravilious. She showed an array of evocative black-and-white studies intended particularly, she said, to capture scenes likely to change – milk churns, old orchards, hay-making. James was often up early to find unusual lighting and in all weathers to create an honest and real picture (“no trimming, no re-touching”) of farming and rural life.

David Fursdon described the challenge of moving in 1979 into an unfurnished house and 700-acre estate as the current ‘Fursdon of Fursdon’, preceded by an unbroken male succession of over 750 years. Typifying the smaller estates of the Devon gentry, Fursdon was the product of the family – “not of Capability Brown and his like” – and it has needed flair and commitment to enable the estate to thrive in the modern world as a home, a farming enterprise, and as a place to stay and enjoy historic landscapes.

In The genius of W.G. Hoskins, Peter Beacham surveyed the qualities and achievements – at times understated – of the founder of landscape history who left a huge legacy, not least in restoring local history to a respected place in the world of learning. Hoskins (1908–1992) had the talent to connect with a wide audience in prose, by radio and on television, teaching us how to read the landscape, making use of “a rich cultural hinterland behind a scholarly exterior worn lightly”. In his pioneering study, Devon (1954), he wrote of this “immemorial, provincial England, stable, rooted deep in the soil, unmoving, contented, and sane”. Occasionally, as in the last chapter of The making of the English landcape (1955), a streak of dark melancholia brought censure of modern changes which have “uglified [the English landscape] or destroyed its meaning”. Hoskins used his skills of description and synthesis to show, as in his striking account of Tetcott (Devon, pp. 492–3), how “Even the historian feels his reason wavering as the genius loci takes possession of his senses …”

Benedict Rubbra‘s The edge of the landscape brought us straight to the unfolding relationship between artist and painting, from the confrontation with the blank canvas and “entering the landscape” to the creative core of constructing the painting, establishing limits and boundaries and changing muddle into order. He has worked in portraiture and developed a process of making models based on ideas drawn from the landscape that then become the starting point for his paintings. The talk was illustrated by a rich variety of Benedict Rubbra’s work and by insights into the conceptions behind them. To show the influence of music, he played an original recording of the Viola Concerto written by his father, Edmund Rubbra, a significant composer (11 symphonies, 59 vocal and choral works). The speaker concluded by quoting Delacroix: “the first virtue of a painting is that it be a feast for the eyes”.

Summarising this Symposium as ‘inspired’ may sound trite, but all five speakers gave ample evidence of The inspiration of Devon from beginning to end.

Paul Luscombe
(originally published in DA News, Autumn 2013)