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Ernest Walbourn: Edwardian artist

So what’s next, now that Brexit and Covid have reduced normal life to a standstill?  Well, there will be gardening…and generally adjusting to a slower, less frantic pace. It’s hard to imagine what the future might hold but there’s writing to do and the past to be mined, so here’s a first post about my wife Penny’s grandfather, landscape artist Ernest Walbourn.

Ernest died in 1927 at the age of 55 and we have a number of his paintings, mostly unfinished oil sketches, and this is their back story. It begins in 1783, when James Waldbourn, a young and not very accomplished pickpocket from Philadelphia, was arrested  in London for stealing a handkerchief. He then must have spent four years in a prison hulk before being sentenced to transportation in 1787.

That same year one Sophia Lewis, a maidservant, was sentenced to the same fate for a much more enterprising felony, not only nicking two handkerchiefs but also her master’s coat, penknife, and a silk purse full of coins.

Perhaps she flashed her eyes at the judge, or maybe he was instinctively inclined to mercy – if you add up the value of the goods the total is a lot more than the 39 shillings of the guilty verdict. Had it been 40 shillings she would have been hanged.

They were among the first convicts, known as the First Fleeters, sent to Australia,  he on the Scarborough and she on the Lady Penrhyn. We don’t know if they knew each other in London, but in March 1788, two months after they set foot in the new country, they were among the first Europeans to marry there.

It may have been a pragmatic arrangement rather than a love match; James and Sophia had a troubled relationship and eventually parted, each given the custody of one of their children. Their descendants prospered however, and a century later were reaping the benefits of owning the property allotted to their felonious forebears. It was the income from this that enabled the young Ernest Walbourn to devote his life to painting rather than architecture as his parents would have preferred. The crimes of James and Sophia paid off in the end.

Ernest’s middle son Peter, Penny’s father, in turn became a war artist and then a portrait painter (ironically, his painting of the Queen Mum hangs in the Middle Temple not far from where his ancestors’ story began). When Peter died Penny inherited a pile of Ernest’s oil sketches and an old wooden box bursting with faded snapshots of comfortable middle class life between the wars, confident young men sporting blazers or more languid family groups with not a care in the world.

Most of our sketches are on fragile pieces of card, sometimes used on both sides, on which Ernest had quickly roughed out landscapes during summer field trips which he made with his wife Eva (also a painter in her own right) and three sons. His usual practice was to work up the sketches during the winter months, often adding peasant figures (usually modelled by Eva or the family’s gypsy maid Phoebe) and turning them into the rather sentimentalised romantic landscapes for which there was a ready market both in London galleries and in the more lucrative Europe-wide business of coloured prints. You can still find them on greetings cards, chocolate boxes and the like. The sketches have an immediacy and freshness which sometimes didn’t survive into the finished work. He was particularly good at water, trees and vegetables. A cunning critic at a Royal Academy Exhibition in the twenties once satirised him in Punch as ‘Mr Walbourn, earnestly painting cabbages’.

Most of his work is quintessentially English, and his summer painting excursions took him all over the country from Devon and Cornwall to Wales and Scotland. In 1902 he travelled to Australia to sell the family’s Tasmanian property and stopped off in Capetown, where he sketched Table Mountain. The First Fleet had put in there 114 years earlier on its voyage into the unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

In Penny’s pile of old cardboard were several almost-finished oils of French market scenes dating from a visit to Brittany in 1923. There is a family story that Ernest was once painting a Breton woman sitting outside her cottage, spinning; invited inside, he discovered that her few possessions included a print of one of his own pictures, which hung on the otherwise bare walls.

We’d often wondered where these very French scenes might be, and what they might be like now. Then in 2005 my ensemble Red Byrd was booked for a concert in Poitiers, so Penny and I decided to drive down and stop off in Brittany on the way. We took copies of Ernest’s sketches with us, hoping to track down the places painted and photograph each one from the same spot. It turned out to be an extraordinary trip, which I’ll attempt to chronicle in a future post…

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