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Sketching at Topsham

Sketching & walking around Topsham I can enjoy my love of history, wildlife and all things maritime. There is a real sense of history, with all of Topsham’s Dutch roofed houses. I love all of the old slips heading down to the Exe Estuary and peeping through the garden gates that do the same. You can walk along picturing the past in your mind’s eye, sit and quietly sketch. With the smell of the sea and the sound of Gulls, Curlew and Oystercatcher.

Featured painting above:

Winter Sunset

Watercolour Painting ~ A4

Materials Used

Most of these sketches were drawn or painted in a Daler Rowney, Red & Yellow cartridge pad. However, one is on watercolour paper – Langton 5 x 7”, ‘Not’ Watercolour Pad. I often sketch quickly first with a 6B pencil, before adding watercolour or pen. I use my trusty Winsor & Newton, watercolour field paint box, with two round brushes, sable no.1 & no.6. The pen used is a waterproof fineliner. The Oils were painted with Michael Harding Oil Paints and Winsor & Newton, Artists’ Oil Paints, with round and flat brushes. Finally for the Oil Pastel sketch, I used them on coloured Daler Rowney, Ingres Pastel Paper Pad, 9 x 12”

The Sketches

Oil painting of the Sailing Barge 'Vigilant' at Topsham Quay.

‘ Vigilant’ being restored

Oil on Canvas Board (30 x 40 cm). Sailing Barge ‘Vigilant’ (Official No. 116176, 73 tons) being restored at Topsham Quay. Originally built of wood at Ipswich in 1904 by Orvis & Fuller. In 2004 she was at St Osyth, in Essex, in a sorry state. She was bought by Otter Brewery. Patched up with plywood and motored around the South Coast, under her own steam. Where considerable restoration has taken place. New frames, hatch combings, transom and re-planking.
Oil painting of the sunset looking down the Exe Estuary.

Sunset over the Exe

May 18th, Oil on Canvas Board (20 x 20 cm), Sold
Watercolour painting showing 'Wixel's' a house on the Exe Estuary.


January 22nd – Watercolour, A5

“I love the ‘Mediterranean’ feel to this house (Wixels), with its Dutch roof. Nestled in its walled enclosure, on the edge of the estuary. Wixels became a house in the 1920s, before that it was a small collection of warehouses and sheds. Originally the buildings stored stone, coal and guano – not quite as posh.”

Black & white pen drawing, 'feeding the ducks at Topsham'

Down to the ducks

January 2012, Waterproof Fineliner Pen, with a brush & ink to block in areas ~ A5, Sold “The slip next to Wixels at the base of the church wall, via the long flight of steps. Feeding the ducks, swans, geese and pigeons. Today though I think they have already been visited by more children as they are not mobbing us, in there usual hungry way!”
Watercolour sketch of Topsham Lock.

Northwards up the Exe Estuary

June 16th, Pencil and watercolour wash ~ A5 “Looking out from the top of the church wall. This is the derelict Topsham Lock of the Exeter Ship Canal, from the Topsham side of the Exe Estuary. I find this old lock, with its cottage fascinating.”
Watercolour sketch looking through the garden gateway at Topsham, through to the Estuary beyond.

Topsham Gateway

June 8th – watercolour, A5 ~ Sold. “This sketch shows the view through one of the Topsham gardens that lead down to the Exe Estuary, with the lavender in bloom. Strolling along towards the ‘Goat Walk’, stopping to look at all the little beaches along the way.”
Watercolour sketch by artist showing the view from the end of the Goat Walk looking north towards Topsham.

After the rain at Topsham

June 12th, June 8th – watercolour, A5 “Today has been a day of wild weather in Devon, we have had our rain butts overflowing, fence panels blew down and plants snapped off. This evening is quieter but still windy. I have come down to Topsham to do some sketching. Sitting at the end of the ‘Goat Walk’ looking back towards the town. When putting down the watercolour washes I can see the wind blowing the liquid about on the paper! Bit chilly by the time I’ve finished, but it’s nice to get out in the fresh air.”
Watercolor sketch looking down the Exe Estuary from Topsham, showing the boats aground at low tide.

Low tide at Topsham

May 14th, June 8th – watercolour, A5 “This sketch is looking down the estuary to the boats aground at low tide. A man is working in the mud on his little tender. It’s a glorious day, with a light breeze blowing down the river.”
Watercolour sketch, Slip on the Exe

Slip on the Exe

January 22nd – watercolour and brush pen, A5 – Sold. “Cold day at Topsham, with a gentle breeze blowing along the Exe. With the puddles still frozen. This sketch is at low tide looking down the long slip of Fisherman’s Causeway (next to Hannaford’s Quay) and across the river to the reeds and countryside beyond.”
Oil pastel sketch, a Topsham Evening on the slip

Topsham Evening

January 8th, Oil Pastel on Coloured Paper ~ A4 “Sun going down, lovely low wintery light. Reasonably quiet and quite mild, one person standing on Fisherman’s Causeway, opposite Higher Shapter Street, looking upriver.”
Watercolour painting of the start of the Goat Walk at Topsham

Goat Walk

March 18th, watercolour, A5 “A grey day, spitting with rain. Small flocks of birds going past Curlew & Sandpiper. This was just going to be a quick sketch, but as often happens, became more involved as I got into it. It’s interesting how each sketch could have been different – depending on how it’s going or how much time you have”
Watercolour sketch looking 'Down the Exe' from the Goat Walk, Topsham.

Down the Exe

December 13th, watercolour, A5 “Another still day today, with me sat at the end of the ‘Goat Walk’. Looking south down the Exe Estuary. It’s only just gone 3 o’clock, but already the sky has a yellowy/orange colour to it. I’ve also got cold hands again today! Now to see if I can finish off the last of my Christmas shopping.”
Watercolour and black ink painting of the evening light over the River Exe.

Failing light on the Exe

September 14th, watercolour, Brush & Ink A4, Sold “Watercolour washes with black ink applied with a brush. The large black areas I finished off later as I was running out of light, way too fast.”

A Little History

There is so much history in and around Topsham that I can’t do it justice in this post about sketching. So I’ll just give you a brief potted history about the shoreline. Early groups of people walked this estuary shore leaving behind tools and a stone axe head. Later, around 1AD the Romans arrived building a quay, fort and the straight road, that we still use today, to get into Exeter. Or as they knew it Isca Dumnoniorum. Anglo Saxons arrived after the Romans, forming a settlement, with headman ‘Toppa’. Ham was their word for village, so we have ‘Toppa’s Ham’ or Topsham.

In 1316 Edward 1 granted a Royal Charter to Topsham to hold a Saturday market elevating the village to a town.

Shipbuilding was becoming an important part of Topsham. With fishing and trading vessels being built in yards along the shore. In 1588, Exeter, Topsham and Lympstone supplied three ships to help fight the Spanish Armada. The Bartholomew, Gyfte, Rose and Grace of God left the estuary on the 16th July to join Drake, Howard and the English Fleet.

In the 17th Century, it is said that Topsham was the busiest port in England except for London! By 1790 there were at least seven shipbuilders in Topsham. The local yards were busy, building at least 92 vessels between 1800 & 1830. Twentyseven warships were built, the largest frigate being the Fawn of 500 tons. The largest ship built in Topsham was the General Chasse, a barque of 540 tons. Two of the major shipbuilding operations were Davey’s and Holman’s yards (Holman’s lower shipbuilding yard was situated where the flats now are on The Strand). The Holman’s employed around 200 men and apprentices. As well as supporting other maritime industries, such as sail, rope & nail making and foundries forging chains and anchors. However, with the advent of iron ships, the town’s shipbuilding industry went into decline. The Holman Yard closed in 1874 and was then converted into a ship repair yard.

The steam packet Zephyr called at Topsham Quay, leaving every Saturday for Cowes, Portsmouth and London. In 1861 the railway arrived in the town, a small branch line went from the station down to the steamer quay. Loading up Guano and bringing in barrels for the Topsham fishermen to load with Sprats. However, by 1958 the line was closed and the goods yard at Topsham Station closed in 1967.

Today all seems quiet as you stroll along the shore looking down all of the slips running into the water. However, they are still busy, now used by the many pleasure craft pulled up or lying on their moorings.

Find out more in the splendid Topsham Museum.


Charcoal sketch - Low light on the Exe

Low Light on the Exe

January 22nd ~ Charcoal & White Pastel on Grey Pastel Paper, A4, Keeping things simple, but hopefully effective. Cycling along the Exe Estuary, even though it’s not very late the light is still low. There are many wading birds walking about on the mud, including Avocets around the Goat Walk at Topsham, where I am now. Sitting looking across the Estuary, chilly but lovely.

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