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Ernest Walbourn in Brittany

This is the second post about Edwardian landscape painter Ernest Walbourn. The earlier post can be found here.

In the summer of 2005 Penny and I set off for France with our copies of Ernest Walbourn’s 1923 oil sketches, hoping to track down the scenes that Penny’s grandfather had painted 82 years before. Intriguingly, with the collection of Ernest’s paintings there was a small notebook in which her father Peter, his talent already obvious at the age of 12, had made drawings of his own.

There are detailed drawings of trains and cars as you’d expect from a young boy, but also some portraits and several pictures that looked like same viewsErnest had painted on the same trip. For Peter and his two brothers it must have been an idyllic time, painting and fishing for the long summer months while their father faithfully recorded the Breton countryside and its inhabitants.

None of the oil sketches can have taken longer than a day to produce so the holiday perhaps yielded around a hundred roughs to be taken home for further work. Of the 12 that came down to us only one appears to be finished, but four of them have names scribbled in pencil on the back.

One of the paintings is of the interior of a church, and on the back Peter had written two names: Le Faouët and St Fiacre. We assumed that he couldn’t remember which of these it might be so had written both. Two townscapes were identified as Pont-Aven and Rochefort-en-Terre and there was a rather anonymous field marked Lannion on the back. The one signed picture is of a busy timber framed covered market with vegetable stalls and other products spilling out of it, and several others depict what might be the same market. We had no idea where any of these might be until we looked up St Fiacre on the web and read that it had a famous chapel with a unique carved rood screen and was close to Le Faouët which had an extraordinary 16th century covered market.  There was no screen in our church picture but the market hall sounded promising.

We didn’t have much to go on but we set off very optimistically for Rochefort-en-Terre, which we thought might lead us to the sites of at least two of Ernest’s paintings and several of Peter’s drawings.  It turned out to be a beautiful village, absolutely unspoiled and surely very like it was all those years ago, but there was nothing remotely like our Ernest views and we drew a complete blank.  The one hotel was full so we tried nearby Vannes, which had a large square with a mounted knight in it a bit like one of Peter’s sketches  but all their hotels were full too, and the knight’s arm was in the wrong place.  We eventually found somewhere to stay on the way to Pont-Aven, our next hope. This little town is also much as it must have been and here we had our first success. After thinking that Peter must have got it wrong about this town as well, Penny realised that we were looking at a bridge in one of the unidentified paintings. We even managed to photograph it with a heavy lorry approaching the same turning as a large covered wagon in the painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buoyed up by all this we drove on to St Fiacre in a state of great excitement. The chapel is famous for its unique painted wooden screen dating from 1450 and featuring the seven deadly sins in minute and colourful detail.

There was nothing like that in our picture, which is a very impressionistic sketch of something vaguely church-like and largely covered in green mould. You can’t miss the riotously exuberant  screen as you enter the cold stone of the chapel, but Ernest had ignored it and for some reason ghosted an outline of a side isle. Or perhaps there’s a wonderfully detailed painting of the screen that he actually finished out there somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view was almost identical, and although the walls were now pristine the floor showed unmistakable signs of green mould still growing between the slabs. By now we were getting quite emotional, having stood several times in the same places and recorded the same views as Penny’s grandfather eight decades ago.

We drove on to Quimperlé, which the map showed had a suitable river which might match one of the unidentified views and desperately tried to make it fit the sketches. The river was just right, complete with an avenue of trees on each side and a church in the background, and there were some lovely half timbered houses in the town.

 

Nothing quite matched up though, however much we tried to make things fit. We tried to persuade each other that this or that building must have been demolished or rebuilt, and even the local residents we asked thought that Quimperlé must be the place in the picture. Another puzzling feature of these paintings was that the view from one side of the bridge seemed to be autumnal, whereas we knew that Ernest had only been there in the summer. Nevertheless, we had high hopes of Le Faouët’s market hall, and the next day went to have a look.

 

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