Sunday, August 19, 2018


Back in the summer of 1987 my father bought an oil painting by the Cornish artist Billie Waters and it was quite obvious even without reading the auctioneer’s description that it depicted Hayle harbour. Although somewhat stylised it showed clearly the old factory buildings and storehouses plus the distinctive row of houses that still stand above the inner harbour. The style is typical of between the world wars and I could immediately see how the deceptively simple almost child-like image had caught my father’s eye. The subtle soft pallet of colours indicated the brushwork of a female hand and it soon found a home on the upstairs landing. On the reverse of the canvas was another abandoned oil sketch of a harbour and what I took to be a view of Hayle harbour from a different view point. The rather heavy half round moulded frame did not please my father and it was changed for something lighter, while making sure that the original was stored safely away.
Thirty years on and the painting hung in my brother house having been reunited with its original frame and I was once again intrigued by the abandoned sketch. As I was going to St Ives the following day I took a photograph and when stopping off in Hayle to buy a vegetarian pasty would take a wander around the harbour area. With pasty in hand I walked in and around the harbour taking in all the most likely spots but nothing fell into place and it became obvious that the sketch was not of Hayle. Cornwall is well off for harbours and I began to think it was an impossible task to now make any sense of the sketch, so I logged the image away in my head and thought no more about it.
A full year passed and on a stormy winters day I was invited with my brother down to Porth Leaven for lunch with a friend. After a delicious lasagna lunch we battle against the wind down to the harbour front and as we arrived alongside the outer entrance it all slipped into place. That logged Billie Waters sketch came back to me and I rushed up the side street with camera in hand to take some shots of where thought it might have been drawn from. My memory had not failed me and it was obvious that the sketch was indeed of Porth Leaven harbour. It took another visit to locate more exactly the original observation point as close to the old war memorial and at that point I knew that I had to complete the painting.
 I took a tracing of the sketch as a guide and tried to interoperate every possible relevant brush stroke and with the aid of my present day photographs I completed the image. One thing still puzzled me with the south facing fa├žade of the central foreground building in that in the sketch it was painted white and there were only three windows on each floor. On examining the building it was obvious that two larger windows had been added on each floor, but was it ever white? Researching some old black and white photos indicated that at one point the building had indeed been painted white. So this modern trend to paint everything white including natural stone is not an entirely recent thing.
Billie Waters had abandoned that sketch probably eighty years ago and it was now my task to complete the picture. After three days I felt I had arrived at a passable effort that would sit comfortably alongside the original making a pair to Hayle harbour.
The story however is not entirely over because while the oil sketch of Porth Leaven was clear enough there also remains another partial sketch beneath this. The most obvious part of the second sketch is a large blue oval body of what looks like water to the left with three black splodges. There are other indications of brushwork that have been whited over and bare no relation to the harbour sketch but I can as yet make little sense of these other than it could be an attempt from closer quarters to capture the flow of water out of through the inner habour wall. Could this yet turn out to be three for the price of one?              


  1. What a tale Tom. Proper detective work, family interest, art history, geography, counterfeiting and a cliffhanger to cap it all off! And brilliant illustrations. Thank you so much. C

  2. Tom - What an incredible story. This is June's daughter Jo wirting!. We met many years ago when I bought one of your paintings from an exhibition you held at Dierdre & Ian's house in Rode...remember?
    I spend my days in Porthleven working for the owner of the Harbour & Dock Company so you disovery was a delight to read about.. And what a fantastic job you did to create a painting which I feel sure Billie Waters would be proud of. Are of the mind to sell it? If you are, please do let me know... Maybe see you next time you are in Cornwall!
    All the best - Jo Sharp