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Celebrated artist depicts canal on River Tamar in historic paintings

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 23, 2013

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Two stunning exhibition-quality paintings by the celebrated South West artist Philip Mitchell (1814-1896) are among the highlights in Elford Fine Art's Christmas exhibition and sale, opening in Tavistock next Saturday.

The watercolours, which are of great social and historic importance, accurately depict the Navigation Canal on the River Tamar near Gunnislake more than 150 years ago. Measuring an impressive 28 x 46½in (71cm x 118cm), the paintings were completed in 1862 and show the scenes looking downriver and upriver.

The Tamar Navigation Canal was opened in 1808 as a 500-yard spur in the river. It was needed to bypass a weir which had been constructed centuries earlier by the Abbots of Tavistock, on the stretch between Morwellham and Gunnislake, to attract spawning salmon. However, the weir prevented boats from sailing further upstream and a detour was vital for the area's economy. The canal, which cost £11,000 to build, allowed barges to transport their cargoes of lime, sand, bricks, manure, coal and granite to important industrial, horticultural and agricultural sites in the Tamar Valley and remained in use for more than 100 years.

Mitchell's view upriver, from the Cornwall bank of the Tamar, shows the small island which was created between the new canal and the river itself. Lock gates were built at either end of the short stretch of waterway and, in the centre of the picture, the lockkeeper's cottage can be seen perched on the southern tip of the island.

Looking downriver, we have a bird's-eye view from the steep, granite rocks high up on the Devon side of The Tamar. A sailing barge, navigating the canal, approaches the lock gates, and we can even see a rowing crew enjoying an outing on the river. Far into the distance, other vessels follow the meanderings of the Tamar as it winds its way towards Calstock and on to Plymouth Sound and the open sea.

These are two beautiful pictures which are rich in historical content, and their scale, combined with Philip Mitchell's remarkable attention to detail, creates a compelling record of this important part of the Tamar Valley in the mid-19th century.

Mitchell, who was born in Devonport, served in the Royal Navy before becoming a professional artist. He worked almost exclusively in watercolours, specialising in landscapes and coastal scenes in Devon and Cornwall. He was a member of The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, where he exhibited 114 pictures, and his work appears in public and private collections worldwide.

Like Mitchell, the eminent maritime painter Nicholas Matthew Condy (1816-1851) was also intended for a military career. At an early age, though, he had already displayed a talent for art and he chose to follow in the footsteps of his father, the established Plymouth painter Nicholas Condy Senior. It was a wise decision. His work attracted the admiration of J M W Turner's patron, the Earl of Egremont, and Nicholas Matthew went on to exhibit at The Royal Academy. He continued to live and work in Plymouth, where his association with ships and the sea gave him a detailed and accurate knowledge of rigging which is so much admired in his work.

Elford Fine Art's exhibition includes an oil painting by him from 1840, featuring the 484-ton brig-sloop HMS Persian in Plymouth Sound. With her crew of 110, and armed with fourteen 32-pound guns and two 18-pounders, HMS Persian played a vital role in the fight against slavery, patrolling the coast of West Africa and detaining and capturing slave ships. She served the Royal Navy with distinction for many years, suffering losses to her crew in those actions, before she was broken up in 1866.

The exhibition includes traditional views of the South West from the Isles of Scilly to East Devon, complemented by an exciting variety of 21st century pictures full of scintillating light and colour. These include a selection of coastal pastels direct from the family of Julie Brett (1939-2010), summer beaches and harbours in oils by Duncan Palmar, impressionist Venetian scenes by Cecil Rice and the latest collection of exquisitely detailed watercolours by Rosalind Pierson, who has just taken over as president of the Royal Miniature Society.

Elford Fine Art's Christmas event begins next Saturday at The Gallery, 3 Drake Road in the centre of Tavistock, next to Lloyds Bank. Opening times are 10.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Saturday. A colour catalogue is available on request. Telephone 07712 137272 or visit elfordfine art.co.uk for more details.

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