Friday, 9 January 2015

A Budleigh artist’s “utter disregard of danger”: George Ellis Carpenter and his painting ‘Rainy Day’

There is a fine picture of rain
That I look at again and again.
For the artist, I’ve found,
Was a hero renowned
For a courage you could call insane.

'Rainy Day' is an attractive oil painting of Budleigh Salterton High Street by George Ellis Carpenter.  The painting, part of Fairlynch Museum’s art collection, is interesting as a historical record. A twin picture of Rolle Street in Exmouth was painted by the artist, but its whereabouts are currently unknown.

The antiques shop on the right, currently a barber’s shop, was run by David Thorn, who took it over from his father in the 1960s. The business had originated in the previous decade. A strongroom, one of the features in the antiques shop was a relic from the time when the building had belonged to the Westminster Bank. 

Opposite the antiques shop at No 1 High Street was Milne's, a chemist's shop.  I was told, however, that the painter was criticised for his artistic licence in adding a non-existent pedestrian crossing to this scene of Budleigh. 

Rain is a popular subject for artists. I like the way in which Carpenter has combined the distorting effect of water with the effects of light. He has transformed Budleigh High Street into a floating liquid world; the darker depiction of some of the distant figures - things as well as people -  makes them less important than their reflections in the flooded street, while the rain-soaked far distance envelops buildings in greyness. It’s almost as if the street is turning into a mad and misty torrent, heading westward. 

Yet this seems to be the end of a rainy day. The sun is breaking through from the south, giving colour to the nearer figures and buildings; even the orange globe of the Belisha beacon plays its part in the process.  One of the two girls in the foreground, without an umbrella, is holding out a hand as if to tell us that the rain is stopping. The lighter sky in the west is a hopeful sign.

George Carpenter was very much an amateur painter. Originally from Yarmouth, Suffolk, he served in World War One on the Western Front. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers and gained an MC for exemplary gallantry in January 1918 at the age of 27.

The story of his bravery deserves telling even though he was not born in the Lower Otter Valley. Originally from Yarmouth, Suffolk, he had started out as a Private in the Civil Service Rifles, otherwise known as the 15th (County of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Prince of Wales's Own Civil Service Rifles).

By January 1915, he  is recorded in the London Gazette of 15 January 1915 [p.495] as being seconded as a Second Lieutenant in The Post Office Rifles, or to give it its full title, the 8th (City of London) Battalion of The London Regiment.


Today, it has been said, the Post Office Rifles are best remembered for their involvement as infantry on the Western Front in the First World War, distinguished by their bravery, tenacity and character in the grim conditions of the trenches.

Two years later, on 26 September 1917, George Carpenter’s appointment as acting Captain with the Royal Engineers was announced in the London Gazette.


Men of R. E. Signals, 1st Corps, burying cable along trench in wooden cases.  © IWM (Q 27152)

His role was in the specialist area of communications on the front line rather than in combat.  As trench warfare came to characterise much of the conflict on the Western Front, the opposing armies relied on traditional techniques of communication such as semaphore and lamps, but also on the widespread use of wires for messaging between the front lines and command HQs.

It’s been estimated that tens of thousands of miles of copper-core cables were laid for both Morse telegraphy and for voice telephony. In many cases, wires were laid on the ground or on low poles, or buried in the ground down to 30 cm deep. Even at that depth they could be destroyed by artillery fire or explosions; a depth of at least 130 cm was needed to afford suitable protection. 


Three men of the Royal Engineers Cable Section carry drums of cable    Image credit:

When attacks were planned, brave technicians like George Carpenter were expected to venture out into no-man’s land in order to lay communication lines, risking their lives while facing the threat of snipers and artillery shells.  Only towards the end of the war did wireless communication become more common, with sets being made small enough to be carried by troops.

On 8 January 1918, the London Gazette announced the award of a Military Cross to acting Captain George Ellis Carpenter.  

 The citation read as follows:    

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on numerous occasions. He has continually shown absolute fearlessness and the greatest ability in the execution of his work, on at least two occasions going forward under heavy shell fire and making a personal and successful reconnaissance for the laying out of lines which were urgently needed. His splendid personal example and utter disregard of danger have on all occasions set a very high standard to the linesmen in his company.”

Having moved to Budleigh as Manager of the town's Gas Works he took up art as a hobby and was a founder member of the Exmouth Art Group, acting as its part-time Secretary.

George Carpenter, standing, third from the left, with members of Budleigh Salterton Drama Club. 
Image from Fairlynch Museum archives  

He also became involved in amateur dramatics, particularly with pantomime. He took the occasional acting role. In 1930, one of a cast of 14, he played the part of Horace, the Court Physician, in a production of The Sleeping Beauty in the Public Hall.  A document in Fairlynch Museum dated December 1937 lists him as one of the founder members of Budleigh Salterton Drama Club. He was also responsible for the lighting in many productions, and his scenery painting skills were much valued.

He obviously demanded high standards. Friend of Fairlynch Museum Anita Jennings recalled an incident involving fellow Drama Club member Ron Cox, who told her the story of how he was apprenticed to George Carpenter.

“For one play he was allowed to paint the scenery,” she said. “Less experienced than the master, but keen to make his mark Ron worked at it for hours.... only to discover that at some unearthly hour George Carpenter had been to the Club and painted over all of Ron's work.” 

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 


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