:: Ernest Walbourn

Ernest Walbourn in Brittany

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

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 views Ernest 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.

to be continued…



















Ernest Walbourn: Edwardian artist

Monday, January 11th, 2021

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…