One of our favourite items from across our collections is our 18th Century oil painting of Barnstaple which can be found taking pride of place in the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon.
Hanging on the wall over looking the staircase in our old building, the painting is by an unknown artist and is believed to have been painted around 1730 or 1740. An artist’s impression of Barnstaple, Pilton and surrounding area of the time, not much else is known about the painting itself. However, there are paintings at Dunster Castle over the County border in Somerset which look similar in style to this painting which may have been done around the same time as ours.
It must have been relatively expensive for whoever commissioned it and must have been carried out after 1723 when the Square the museum now stands in was created! Before the early eighteenth century the Square was little more than a marshy area which flooded with high tide – not the most picturesque entrance to the town if you were coming from the ancient bridge.
You can see two spires in the painting, one belongs to the Church of St. Peter’s (the artist clearly painted it without its characteristic twist) and the other belongs to St. Nicholas Chapel or Quay Hall. The Chapel stood at the corner of Cross Street and the Strand and was next to the town’s west gate. In th sixteenth century the chapel was purchased by the Mayor and Corporation and used as a warehouse for imported goods.
The seventeenth century had been a very prosperous time for Barnstaple and evidence of this can still be seen today in the stunning seventeenth century plaster ceiling in 62 The Bank – next door to the Royal and Fortescue Hotel in Boutport Street. Barnstaple made one of its fortunes in the wool trade and the manufacture of woollen goods. Barnstaple Baize was a well-known material.
Although the trade took a significant downward turn in later part of the eighteenth century (especially around the time of the American War of Independence in 1775) the beginning of the century saw Barnstaple become one of only eight ports in the country allowed to trade in Irish wool.
The painting conveys a sense of a compact and bustling town with lots going on, ships coming up and down the river, the drying racks in Pilton for the wool trade, the sheep on marshy Anchor Wood, the pack-horse making its way across the bridge.
The town today has spread far beyond its original confines of Boutport Street and the river a process which started roughly a century later. More land was reclaimed to create Taw Vale and Rock Park. New buildings were erected in the Square to provide a “fitting entrance” to Barnstaple from the ancient bridge which was also widened. The remaining gates and Quay Hall were demolished to make way for new buildings, the railway came and along with it an iron bridge across the river, parts of which can still be seen at low tide. The railway also lead to the expansion of the town on the other side of the river, in what was a part of Tawstock.
If you were to paint a picture of the town today the fields in the foreground would show Barnstaple’ industrial heritage in the form of the Shapland buildings. The background of hills and fields would be partially covered with houses from the estates built in the 1950s and 60s and that is just the start.
It is a snapshot in time and well worth a second or third look…