Case Study Site 15 – Cornish Harbours

Case Study Site 15 – Cornish Harbours

1.         Location

This generic case study examines the role that art and photographic images can fulfil in supporting understanding of coastal change affecting nine of Cornwall’s harbours.  Eight of these are located on the south coast of Cornwall and, one, Boscastle, is situated on the north coast. 

2.         Why were the Case Study Sites selected?

Cornwall’s historic ports and harbours have fulfilled a vital role for centuries in support of the local economy through the fishing and mining industries in particular and, more recently, tourism.  Their physical location in the narrow and steep coastal zone give the Cornish harbours a unique character, which is recognised as a key component of Cornwall’s historic environment and heritage.  Many of the harbours and their protective walls have been in existence for hundreds of years and this illustrates their resilience but also their vulnerability in the face of potentially increasing storminess and unsettled weather patterns.  The case studies examine, over time, how artists have depicted the harbour structures and the changes that can be observed through the artworks over the last 200 years. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

Most of the harbour case studies are located along the south coast of Cornwall.  Those to the east of the Lizard are situated within the Devonian sandstones and limestones (Polperro, Polkerris, Mevagissey, Gorran Haven) whilst Newlyn Harbour, Mousehole and Lamorna lie just to the east of the igneous massif that forms the Land’s End peninsula; Mullion is situated to the east of Mount’s Bay.  On the north coast, Boscastle is situated within the Carboniferous Limestones and sandstones which form a narrow outcrop in the central part of Bude Bay.  Although many of the harbours are protected by a combination of their natural situations and substantial harbour walls, they are all prone to severe attack at times by Atlantic generated storm waves, as witnessed by the storm events of winter 2013/14. 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

Along the southern Cornish coast between Rame Head and Gribbin Head, a frontage which includes Polperro and Polkerris, the coast generally faces south or south-west, and is composed of hard rocky cliffs and natural inlets within which harbours are constructed.  Rates of erosion are extremely slow but flooding has also been noted as an issue (Royal Haskoning, 20111).  Between Gribbin Head and Dodman Point the coastline faces south and east, and the alignment of the coast presents a degree of protection for these frontages.  Despite this, erosion issues arise at Charlestown and the harbour there, as well as at Mevagissey and Gorran Haven, is vulnerable to flooding.  A deterioration of the harbour at Mevagissey has been observed (Royal Haskoning, 20111). 

The coastal section down to The Lizard is predominantly east facing, with hard rocky headlands and exposed open cliffs; the Gorran Haven frontage is exposed to both cliff erosion and flood risks. 

On the western side of The Lizard peninsula the coastline faces the open Atlantic Ocean and is exposed to extreme attack by storm waves.  The harbour at Mullion is owned by the National Trust and, as part of its coastal policy for its landholdings (National Trust, 20142), a policy of ‘no maintenance or repair’ has been agreed.  The objective, in the long term, will be to allow the harbour to return to a natural cove.  Within Mount’s Bay the harbours of Newlyn and Mousehole face to the east, and are, therefore, offered a degree of protection from the prevailing storm waves.  However, just to the west, Lamorna Cove, which is slightly more exposed, is vulnerable to wave attack as well as flood risk, and the privately owned key structures are in the need of repair (Royal Haskoning, 20111). 

The harbour at Boscastle lies on the north coast of Cornwall and faces north-westwards.  Although the harbour itself is protected by a long and winding entrance the outer breakwater has suffered from damage as a result of wave attack (Royal Haskoning, 20111). 

It can be seen, therefore, that although some Cornish Harbours such as Porthleven are affected by their exposed locations most (such as Falmouth) are well protected from the Atlantic storms.   

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

The nine harbours that are highlighted through this case study are illustrated in particular through the works of the three particularly active artists between 1825 and 1990.  The first of these, William Daniell RA, visited the south coast of Cornwall towards the end of his eleven year ‘Voyage Round Great Britain’ (Daniell & Ayton, 1814-18253).  Daniell is regarded as perhaps the finest British topographical draughtsmen of the nineteenth century, and his aquatint engravings provide a ‘State of the British Coast’ for the second decade of the nineteenth century.  In the late 1980s the architect and distinguished watercolour artist, David Addey, was commissioned to retrace Daniell’s footsteps and paint present day views from as close as possible to Daniell’s earlier vantage points.  Both Daniell’s and Addey’s works have a particular strength in terms of their architectural draughtsmanship (there was some exaggeration in a few of Daniell’s views in relation to the topography).  However, comparison of changes over the 150 year period between the works of these two artists allow interesting comparisons to be made.  These comparisons are further enhanced through the watercolour artworks of another prolific artist of the early twentieth century, Alfred Robert Quinton.  Quinton painted over 2,000 views around the coastline of England and Wales between about 1904 and 1934, including nearly 100 views of the coastline of south-west England.  These tended to be views of the more popular coastal resorts and villages, but also the Cornish harbours where a favourite subject.  For example, in the case of Polperro, he painted at least six watercolour views of the harbour from different vantage points.  Because of the accuracy of Quinton’s work and its timeframe between those of Daniell and Addey, we have a chronology of views of Cornish harbours covering this extensive time period.  To confirm or supplement the artworks in this case study a number of photographic postcards are included, which help to allow us to verify the artistic works; they also allow us to consider the relative advantages or disadvantages of the artworks being in colour as opposed to the black and white photography. 

Through the artworks, we can examine the nature, extent and condition of the harbour walls and we can see how they fulfilled their role in protecting the fishing communities over this long time period.  Apart from the natural risks (coastal erosion and flooding) the works of these artists depict the progressive changes that have taken place to these historic villages over time, showing when particular parts of the coastline were developed, altered or otherwise substantially changed.  The artworks do, therefore, provide a unique record in colour to support existing information contained in the often comprehensive Historic Environment Records and other resources held by Cornwall County Council. 

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this case study?

The artworks from this frontage show the detailed record left by artists that can be used to inform us of changing conditions affecting Cornish harbours since 1825.  They illustrate the detail that was achievable by artists, particularly those with an architectural background, in terms of providing a detailed record of the changing built environment since the early nineteenth century. 

Figure 15.1: ‘Polperro’ by William Daniell RA was engraved in 1825, near the end of his eleven year ‘Voyage Round Great Britain’.  It compares with the view by David Addey painted in 1988 (Figure 15.2).  Daniell has foreshortened the western side of the entrance to the harbour, and has slightly exaggerated the height of the scenery.  Daniell said of Polperro “the town is very irregularly built; the inhabitants are mostly fishermen, and in the pilchard season, whatever inclination they may have for cleanliness, they cannot be otherwise than dirty.  Of course little can be said of the beauty, and nothing of the elegance of Polperro; but the environs abound in picturesque features, though of a humble kind, such as uncouth cottages, so strangely planted amongst the rocks, that they seem to have been dropped there and left to take their chance of a settlement”. The harbour piers at Polperro were damaged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and nearly destroyed in 1824.  A new pier was constructed in 1824 and improved in 1897, due to the growth of the fishing industry.  It is possible that Daniell’s aquatint engraving was produced as the new pier was being completed.  The harbour and pier is listed Grade II.  Today the village has become a major tourist attraction and its development is well illustrated in the series of views by Alfred Robert Quinton (below).  

Image Courtesy of David Addey. 

Figures 15.3 and 15.4 show two views of the entrance to the harbour at Polperro taken from the same spot.  Figure 3 is a watercolour by Alfred Robert Quinton, painted in about 1920, and, for comparison, a photographic postcard (c.1930) shows an almost identical scene to that painted by Quinton, who was quite meticulous in his detail. 

Image Courtesy (Figure 15.3): J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 15.5 shows the overall situation of Polperro and the adjacent open coast painted in 1920. 

Image Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks. 

Figures 15.6-15.8 are a series of views, again, by Alfred Robert Quinton, which show the interior of the harbour, together with the harbour arm, painted in about 1915.

Figure 15.8 shows the overall setting of Polperro, looking from behind the village, out towards the sea.  Quinton’s work allows us to examine the nature of the harbourside buildings and the structure of the harbour wall itself.  This can be compared with the works of other artists who often painted from the same location. 

All images courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks. 

Figures 15.9-15.11 show views of the picturesque harbour of Polkerris.  The quay here was built in about 1740 to support the pilchard industry at this location.  The quay was built of slate and was described by Daniell in the following way: “the village of Polkerris, with its pier, presented an inviting subject for the pencil.  The inhabitants were employed in the pilchard industry.  The precipitous bank seen in the view is much worn by the sea and the pier is much exposed to the violence of the westerly winds. In tempestuous weather the waves beat over it so complete as to form an arch, and on these occasions it often happens that the portion of the structure is washed away”.

Figure 15.10 shows a view of Polkerris harbour in about 1920.  The buildings on the right appear quite similar to those associated with the pilchard industry that are shown in Daniell’s view on the edge of the shore.  However, the harbour arm has deteriorated perhaps through coastal erosion at its landward end.  Figure 15.11 shows David Addey’s view (1988) with further retreat of the cliff on the right leaving the remains of the harbour arm separated from the shore. 

Figures 15.12 and 15.13 show two views of Mevagissey Harbour by William Daniell, engraved in 1825.  The nature of the harbour construction is clearly depicted in Figure 15.12 and the conditions of the water appear rough outside and more tranquil inside the harbour.  In David Addey’s 1988 view he observed that the two main piers are basically unchanged, although a building of pleasing architectural design, had been added to the nearer pier on the left.  The rounded end of the main harbour arm, as depicted by Daniell, has been squared off in Addey’s view. 

It is believed that Mevagissey Harbour dates from as early as the fifteenth century, although, in 1775, a new pier was built enclosing the present day inner harbour, and additional wharfs and jetties were constructed in the late eighteenth century. 

The harbour was enlarged in the 1880s with two outer enclosing breakwaters.  These were destroyed in the Great Blizzard of 1891, necessitating the harbour to be rebuilt in 1897 (HER, Cornwall County Council, 2012). 

Figure 15.15 shows Daniell’s view of Gorran Haven, a quay which has existed since Medieval times.  Daniell’s 1825 engraving of the harbour arm appears very similar in design to that depicted by David Addey in 1988.  Daniell noted “at Gorran Haven there is a little pier for the shelter of the pilchard boats.  The rocks here and in the neighbourhood are of a bold and picturesque aspect.  On the high ground there is a signal post for the preventive service”.  David Addey noted that, for his watercolour, “the view has remained almost unchanged since Daniell’s visit on the same day 167 years earlier”. 

Image Courtesy of David Addey.

Figures 15.17-15.19 show the dramatic physical location of Mullion Harbour.  At the time Daniell visited the location a harbour did not exist, and he says “the scenery around Mullion Harbour is rocky and as wild as possible.  In heavy gales from the south-west the cave affords safe shelter for small vessels, whilst the Gull Rock protects them from the sudden and dangerous influence of the ground swell”.  Figure 15.18 (middle) shows a fine depiction of Mullion Harbour in 1988 by David Addey.  The harbour appears to be in good condition at this time.  Figure 15.19 (bottom) shows the harbour depicted from further uphill by Alfred Robert Quinton in about 1920.  Quinton’s view provides a panorama along this part of the south-west coast; in the distance the masts of Poldhu can be seen on the headland. 

Image Courtesy: J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks. 

Figures 15.20 and 15.21 show two views of the old harbour at Newlyn.  The old harbour is believed to date from 1435, and is of massive granite block construction.  It is evident from examination that the stonework has undergone various episodes of repair and alteration over time.  The Grade II* structure has survived in fair condition in its sheltered location within the wider Newlyn harbour.  The postcard (Figure 15.21 middle) was taken in about 1947 and is viewed from the road leading above the harbour toward Mousehole.  Figure 15.22 (bottom), a watercolour by George Wolfe, painted in 1860, shows a view looking down on the historic harbour of Mousehole.  This ancient fishing harbour, which supported the pilchard and mackerel fishing industries, is believed to be the first harbour in Cornwall to have a pier, which was built in the late fourteenth century.  At this time the location was perhaps the most important fishing harbour in Cornwall.  The pier was extended in 1840 and again in 1861 when a new pier was built (the year after Wolfe’s painting).  Wolfe’s view shows the disposition of vessels inside the south pier at that time and shows how art can help understanding of development and historical character.  At the harbour entrance, as protection in heavy weather, baulks of timber can be placed between the piers to stop the sea breaking into the harbour.

Images Courtesy of Penlee House Art Gallery and Museum, Penzance.

Figures 15.23-15.25 show three further views of Mousehole.  Figure 15.23 shows a view of the interior of the harbour by Stanhope Forbes, an oil painting that he completed in 1919.  He shows the nature of the cottages clustered around the edge of the harbour, and the apparent state of the interior harbour walls at that time. 

Image Courtesy: Private Collection/ Richard Green Gallery, London.

Figure 15.24 and 15.25 show two views taken from almost the same spot; the first by the artist, Alfred Robert Quinton, in about 1920 and, below, a photograph also looking down into the harbour.  There is a remarkable similarity between all aspects of the artwork and the photograph confirming Quinton’s eye for detail.

A. R. Quinton Image Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 15.26 and 15.27 show two views of Lamorna Cove, which is located in the parish of St. Buryan.  The old quay dates from about 1540 and was used for the shipment of granite.  In the severe storms of January and February 2014, Lamorna Quay suffered severe damage and has partly collapsed into the sea.  Figure 15.27, a postcard dating from about 1920, shows the view from the east and condition of the harbour at that time, together with the cottages in the Cove. 

Images Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks. 

Figure 15.28 shows the harbour and quay at Boscastle on the north Cornish coast.  The harbour is of Medieval age, whilst the quay was constructed later.  This busy port exported corn, slate, bark for leather tanning, as well as Manganese ore from the mines near Launceston and, after 1865, China Clay from Bodmin Moor.   The view by Daniell (figure 15.26 top) shows the extraordinary natural location of the harbour of which Daniell said “the harbour is very frightful; the crookedness of the channel at Boscastle is the cause of many difficulties; the most serious is the contrarity of the wind, which may be fair in one reach and foul in another, and thus occasionally, in so narrow a passage, extreme confusion in the steerage of the vessel and the management of her sails.  The pier is very small but forms a pretty line, which is very picturesque in itself and harmonises with the form of the objects above it”. 

Figures 15.29 and 15.30 show two further views of Boscastle harbour by Alfred Robert Quinton.  Figure 15.29 (middle) is taken from a similar angle to that of the view by Daniell looking out to sea, whilst Figure 15.30 (bottom) looks inland up through the harbour towards the village.  The harbour is now in the care of the National Trust although it and appears to have changed little since Daniell’s visit the flood damage in 2004 necessitated rebuilding of many properties flanking the inner end of the harbour as well as the widening and strengthening of the river’s channel leading into the harbour. 

Images Courtesy of J. &. F. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.  

7.         References

  1. Royal Haskoning, 2011.  ‘Cornwall and Isle of Scilly SMP2’.
  2. The National Trust, 2014. ‘Shifting Shores – Adapting to Change’.
  3. Daniell W. & Ayton, R., 1814-1825.  ‘A Voyage Round Great Britain’.  Longman & Co.