AS THE TWIG IS BENT

Chapter 23 - Visit to Torquay, January 1924

The more I saw of the landscape within a stone’s throw of our house the more depressed I became.  There were dozens or hundreds of subjects I wanted to paint.  My lack of skill or facility was appalling and I started reckoning how long it would take me to paint these subjects at my present rate of production. It would take about fifty years!  What was I to do?  Was there really any hope for me?  I thought of Turner’s twenty thousand drawings and paintings, of the output of Tintoretto and Rembrandt and, of course Brangwyn.  Frank Brangwyn was every student’s hero in those days; his output and the scale on which he worked (even his etchings were enormous) dazzled us and we were quite uncritical in our hero worship.

Father must have realised that all was not as it should be so he put forward a suggestion.  The sun (which never shone on our house in the winter for about three months as it did not rise above the rocks) was necessary for Mother’s health.  He thought she should try Torquay and that I should get leave from school (provided I worked) and go with her.  We talked it over and having decided that the plan be adopted we engaged two rooms in a boarding house overlooking the harbour and bay.

The journey was a long one but when we were nearing the end of it I became very excited and Mother was much amused at the cause of it.  It was quite dark.  I did not know the country at all.  I had never been further South West than Weymouth.  The train had reached a stage in the journey when it stopped at every little station.   I was beginning to get impatient when suddenly I heard a crash.  I sat up, looking at Mother 'What was that?' I said, and then there was another one just the same and it seemed to come from just outside the window.  I stared at Mother in amazement.  'It’s the sea!' I said and indeed it was.  I flung down the window and leaned out.   I couldn’t see a thing.  Then there was another crash of a breaker and I realised that we must be on the sea shore.  As my eyes became accustomed a bit to the darkness I could just make out a white moving patch in the darkness, lit by the lights from the railway carriage windows.  The mysteriousness of that blackness beyond, knowing as I did what was going on in that void, was thrilling as I hadn’t seen the sea for so long.  We were evidently travelling along the coast of Dawlish and on our return journey by daylight I was entranced by seeing what I had only heard before.

We had some mild weather in Torquay and I was out painting the cliffs near Hope’s Nose most days.  When it was wet I went to the little museum and drew stuffed animals and birds; there was a snarling badger I particularly liked.  But we also had some very high seas which I could watch and draw from Mother’s window.  Some schooners ran for shelter into the harbour, their masts swaying about like pendulums.  I went to the harbour and studied the waves curling and breaking against the breakwater and I started painting from these drawings in my room.  On sunny days the procession of Brixham trawlers with their red sails edging their way across Torbay was a heartening sight but I couldn’t seem to make use of them in a painting.  However I made drawings of the schooners which came in very useful years later when all this accumulated experience flowered into a series of sailing ship paintings.  But the sound of these breakers at night on the shore at Dawlish is what I remember.  The stimulation of the imagination by sound has often conjured up a picture in my mind more memorable than one of great visual beauty.

Torquay - Sketch-0715 (1924)
A quick drawing of the harbour at Torquay from his mother’s hotel bedroom window...

I have always loved to walk by the sea at night.  I used to do this at Weymouth and later at Lyme Regis where I spent a winter before having my first one man show of paintings.  But on one of the earlier visits to Weymouth I spent a memorable night down in the harbour 'fishing'.    I was not in the least interested in fishing.   If I caught one I would not know what to do with it.  When we had mackerel lines out when sailing in the bay, if there seemed to be a tug on my line I always suggested that someone else should haul it in and deal with the gasping fish.  But the postman had informed my fishing cousin that there was plenty of bass to be had down in the harbour at night.  The postman had a reputation of being a fisherman of great experience and achievement.  He only had one arm but he had constructed some sort of davit which aided him when he landed an eel said to be six feet long.

Well, Cousin Bill persuaded me to come fishing with him off the 'Fusee' in the harbour at midnight.  I think the Fusee was either a customs boat (rather like a small tug) or the Harbour Master’s ship.  Anyway it was always there and we settled down on its deck for the night.  As I say, I wasn’t really interested in fishing but Bill always kept a running commentary going when he was on the job.  It was always racy.  When the bait had been put on the hooks and the lines lowered overboard, a commentary soon started owing to the strange disappearance of the bait time after time.  At last a line was pulled up extra smartly only to find a crab carefully removing the bait without getting impaled.

But the harbour was wonderful.  There was a Jersey boat being loaded by the light of arc lamps and the reflections of these in the still water interested me very much.  The reflection of a light in midstream would suddenly jump like a ball on an elastic string, almost to one’s feet, owing to a slight movement of the great weight of water and then skip back again.

The absence of trippers and sightseers was a blessing and in fact for the moment, the harbour was ours.  A light moving outside the harbour denoted that a small craft of some sort was approaching.  The light came steadily on and then the shadow of a motor boat or pinnace could be discerned.  As it swept past us the voices of men on board conversing were carried across the water.

I was taking all this in and trying to consider how much real colour was visible at night when Bill gave a shout.  He said there was something on the line at last!  He hauled in and as the hook appeared a violent disturbance took place and we soon had a protesting violent eel as company on deck.  We got it off the hook but then it eluded us and a game of hide and seek all round the deck for some time ended in Bill cutting the eel’s head with his knife, but though decapitated the body plunged around even when it had been imprisoned in a tin.

We caught nothing more but we were happy and tired as we trudged home as daylight was making its presence felt in the dark sky.  A frying pan had been put ready for our catch perhaps ironically, but we ate that troublesome eel and it was very good.

My adventures by night with the sea came to a climax when during the war I carried a cup of coffee from the galley which was aft, along the deck which was awash, to the bridge of a destroyer, in darkness.