home features exhibitions | interviewsprofileswebprojects archive


Sam Smiles on 200 years of art in Devon

Sam Smiles is Emeritus Professor of Art History at Plymouth University and the author of many books on art. e-interview Rupert White.



Pycroft, writing in the 19th century (1883), suggests that Devon produced more artists than any other provincial county. Is there an explanation for this?

No explanation - but it's not strictly accurate, either!

Norfolk in the 19c. was very strong, for example. Also Lancashire. But Pycroft was ignorant (or, more charitably, he didn't have the means to know that when he was writing).


Were there supportive patrons in Devon at that time? Which artists benefitted most from them?

Reynolds famously said that Plymouth had the fewest number of patrons for a town that size that he knew of. In both 18c. Plymouth and Exeter there were a handful of patrons (gentry mainly; some aristocrats too) who bought old masters and occasionally supported local artists. In Reynolds' day the Parkers at Saltram (picture above) were the most munificent and he, in particular, did well from that;  but their descendants in the 19c. were much less active.

When Exeter tried mounting exhibitions of contemporary art in the 19c. the local well-to-do tried to get in on the reduced prices set aside for artisans, which says something about their attitudes to supporting the arts! Most local artists survived by teaching and/or having an arts-related business (e.g. carving and gilding, picture restoring, picture dealing, print-making). Very few could live by sales alone.


To what extent did Joshua Reynolds’ success, (in 1768 he became first President of the Royal Academy), reflect back on Devon?

Reynolds' success was directly important for an artist like James Northcote who studied with him (as Reynolds had with Thomas Hudson, also Devon-born). But simply coming from Devon was not especially significant - all artists either succeeded or failed in London by their own merits.


When did Devon first become attractive to tourists?

Although a handful of pioneers toured the county relatively early (e.g. Daniel Defoe, Celia Fiennes), tourism developed in Devon in the last quarter of the 18c. as watering places developed on both coasts. Mass tourism was promoted by steam - by boat from Bristol or along the south coast from the 1820s, and from the 1840s by train.


So Devon was already a tourist destination of sorts when J.M.W. Turner visited. Would he have travelled down by boat? What drew him to the area?

Turner's habit on all his tours was to take the coach from London and then, once he got to the area, he travelled by foot, pony or horse and cart. He came to the South West first in summer 1811 on commission to produce topographical watercolours for engraving in W.B. Cooke and George Cooke's 'Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England', (engraving above left is of Teignmouth) travelling along the Channel coast from Dorset through Devon and Cornwall and then the north Cornish coast, north Devon and Somerset.

His father was born in South Molton, and Turner called on his uncles in Exeter and Barnstaple when he was here. The engravings were published from 1814-26. He returned to Devon in 1813 and 1814, not on commission, and concentrated his activities in and around Plymouth and the Tamar valley.


In one of your books (Perfection of England: Artist Visitors to Devon) you explain that by the mid-1800's Devon was second only to Kent as the most represented county at the Royal Academy. Did tourism contribute to its popularity?

Devon's popularity with artists at that time was probably a combination of things. Yes, tourism had made it increasingly familiar so chances of sales were better.

But also, its geographical variety meant that there was always a kind of scenery that matched the changes in aesthetic taste - 'soft' southern or 'stern' northern coastlines, estuaries, broad rivers and rocky streambeds, woods and moorland, 'whimsical' thatch and quaint country folk etc. - so landscape artists could work here successfully. And once travel became easier more and more came.

And by then landscape art had became more important as a genre than portraiture. Did a particular local Devon style or school develop?

There was no particular Devon style except to say that some of the more favoured local artists - e.g. William Traies and James Leakey in Exeter; Ambrose Bowden Johns in Plymouth (picture (Mount Edgcumbe) above right) - were very traditional (out of date!) when compared to the work of their contemporaries elsewhere. But there were some artists whose work is comparable to what their contemporaries were producing - e.g. John Gendall in Exeter and Samuel Cook in Plymouth.

What were the hallmarks of the more contemporary works at that time? Thinking eg of Gendall and Cook, what was it about their art that made it more contemporary?

I think it's a generational thing. Those artists born in the 1770s, before better communications were established, if they didn't move to London were working in a limited arena. Those born in the 1790s or afterwards could take advantage of a much bigger national art world and knew much more about what was happening in London, even if they didn't work there.

Thus, Leakey's (1775-1865) landscape style has a mannered 18c quality with little interest in naturalism and bright enamel-like colour. His work as a genre and portrait painter is less obviously out of sync with his contemporaries. Traies (1789-1872) painted Devon landscapes that looked back to classical landscapes for their colour and tone. They would have fitted in with a conservative taste in the homes of those who bought them.

Johns (1776-1858) did so too, but to a lesser extent. His later work is more colourful and he also made oil sketches from nature which shows that he could be a little bit more adventurous on occasion. His work was once confused with the early work of Turner, whom he had befriended in the 1810s when Turner was visiting Devon. But he never moved squarely into the aesthetic of London-based landscape painters working in the mid-19c and their move to a lighter-toned palette and eventually came to think of Turner's work as that of a madman.

Gendall (1790-1865 - picture above left) had worked in London as a young man and returned to Exeter in 1824 full of what was current. Cook (1806-59) trained as a decorative painter but his talent was such that he rapidly developed. Membership of the Plymouth Society of Artists and Amateurs, established by Johns, helped broaden his horizons. Gendall's oils are not as arresting as his watercolurs, which show an awareness of the idea of making compositions with colour (as opposed to making tinted drawings). Cook was a watercolour specialist. He was good enough to be elected to the (national) New Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1850.

Moving on to the 20th century,  Dartington Hall started up in 1925 - thanks to the enthusiasm and wealth of Dorothy Elmhirst - and it attracted some important artists into Devon. How did this all come about?

The Dartington experiment was based on a holistic idea of rural regeneration at a time when rural communities were declining.

For the Elmhirsts that meant not only experimenting with the most up-to-date agricultural thinking but also attending to the intellectual and creative life of the local community. Dorothy had a strong interest in all the creative arts including visual art and also design. Some of those who came were employed as teachers, some were there to develop design and architecture projects; some were visitors. Dorothy had a big role in all of these activities but there was also a formal committee to oversee the work of the art dept. She was also an active patron, relying on an art advisor for the most part.


Who were the most important artists involved with Dartington and did they benefit from contact with one another?

Mark Tobey for painting (picture above right - 1956) and Hein Heckroth for design would be top of anyone's list I think. Some would champion Cecil Collins (below left - 1939). But other names could easily be put forward and a list of artists and designers associated with the place between the wars would be very long. I think the benefits came from the whole set-up, the experimental nature of the community, and the interaction of all the arts - visual art, ceramics, design, architecture, theatre, music, dance, poetry, film etc.

Dartington was almost a British Bauhaus, as Walter Gropius acknowledged when he visited. And don't forget that the Arts Council owes its origins, and perhaps its very nature, to Dartington precisely because of this wide perspective.


I wasn't aware of Dartington's role in the formation of the Arts Council. Can you expand on this please?

Its complicated but goes like this: under the guidance of Christopher Martin a management group was set up in early 1939. It was called the Arts Council of Dartington Hall and it comprised the heads of the various sections of the Art dept.

The outbreak of war affected the teaching staff because some of them had been offered sanctuary there having fled Hitler's Germany. By 1941 therefore Dartington's position had to be rethought. Martin was in touch with The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) which had proposed that the Darting-ton Arts Dept. should be its SW regional office and Imogen Holst (daughter of the composer and a musician herself) based herself there in that capacity from 1942.

Martin believed in making multiple links with organizations funded by public money - CEMA, Carnegie, Society for Education in Art, Association of Art Teachers etc. - rather than Dartington operating only with its own resources. In the same spirit of collaboration, in 1941 he inaugurated four national surveys, collectively known as the Arts Enquiry, whose purpose was to examine the conditions currently existing in the arts and how they would be sustained when the war was over. Although the fourth report on Theatre wasn't completed, the three others - The Visual Arts, Music and Factual Film - were funded by Dartington and published by the non-governmental planning organization P.E.P (Political and Economic Planning).

The Arts Enquiry committee first met in November 1941. The membership of the Visual Arts survey (the most comprehensive of the three reports) included people from CEMA, the British Council, Nuffield College, the Carnegie Trust, the Ministry for Reconstruction, the Society for Education in Art, the National Gallery, the V&A, and PEP.

Martin was increasingly laid low by tuberculosis (he died in 1944) and from 1942 Julian Huxely took over the central role in the Visual Arts Survey. He later reported that it had been an uphill battle to convince, for example, the Board of Education that the visual arts was more than just copying things but he reflected later that 'The group certainly achieved some important results, notably in persuading the Government to set up the Arts Council and the Council for Industrial Design, with adequate financial support; but it also improved the professional art schools, and the position of the arts in the general school curriculum. It led in various ways to a better appreciation, both of classical and modem art, by the general public...'

In fact, the first draft of the report (submitted in 1944) included a final chapter entitled 'An Arts Council' which stated: 'The conclusions we have reached in each section of our report lead on to others of a general nature concerning some central organization of the arts in this country and the form such organization should take.' In making such recommendations the Enquiry was technically exceeding its brief, which was to provide a factual report, but Martin dug his heels in and the report's central recommendations were these:  the establishment of two authoritative bodies: a Design Council, to take the place of the Council of Art and Industry; and an Arts Council, to take over and develop the work of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (C.E.M.A).

The Council of Industrial Design and Arts Council were announced by the government in 1944, members of which were beneficiaries of the Dartington Survey.

Anyone who needs to know more should read my brilliant student Rachel Harrison's PhD thesis: DOROTHY ELMHIRST AND THE VISUAL ARTS AT DARTINGTON HALL 1925-1945 (University of Plymouth, 2002). The last chapter is all about the Enquiry.

As well as the Dartington artists, were there other Devonshire-based artists active during the 'high-modernist' period??

Not consistently. The artists' colony at Applehayes in the 1910s is probably the best known - Slade students, such as Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, Spencer Gore, Robert Bevan (right), Charles Ginner all painted there - not all at the same time. Other than that, some artists made painting trips but none settled. David Bomberg's Devon landscapes in the 1940s (one of them is in RAMM's collection) are, in my view, the most significant results of these kinds of foray.


Coming to the present, how has the art-world changed in the period between say 1800 and 2000? Has it become more or less centralised on London during that time for example?

The growth of art schools throughout the country (now mostly contained within universities) has been hugely significant. Post-war it has allowed thousands of students to work to professional standards as good as anywhere in the UK all over the country, rather than in London alone.  Even so, London art schools have enormous cachet and London, of course, is an unrivalled international centre for making and seeing art. The provinces can never hope to compete with that.

I believe that every city with a population of 100,000 or more should have an art school as a generator of creative activity. It is a great regret to me that Exeter lost its art school, one of the oldest in the country, when it merged with Plymouth Polytechnic (now the University of Plymouth) and the school was relocated to the Plymouth campus. Plymouth already had an art school of its own so it is doubly blessed now; but Exeter is bereft.

How has the perception of Devon and its landscape changed in this period and what are the implications for artists now?

Devon's landscape is so varied that successive generations of artists have found new things in it. For artists now the challenge is to find new ways of making landscape painting a meaningful activity. What are the messages that such paintings convey? Why should anyone pay attention to them? These are open questions and it is up to artists to show us repeatedly why landscape still matters.