Friday - 25 April 2014

Old Uncle Tom’s legacy

09 December 2004Written by ATG Reporter

Tom Pearse, Tom Pearse, lend me your grey mare, All along, down along, out along lee, For I want to go to Widecombe Fair, With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.The traditional song Widecombe Fair was well known in Devon around the middle of the 19th century, as was the name Thomas Cobley Gent, of Buttsford, Colebrooke.

He was a prominent local farmer, a considerable landowner, a keen rider to hounds and a breeder who specialised in a strain of grey horses.

Depending on which account you read, he was also either the father to all red-headed children within a 30-mile radius or a bachelor who disinherited his son Thomas for being too free with the girls and left his considerable estate to his nephew.

The story goes that the song was written by one of Cobley's relatives who was a parson and that he kept his own name out of it for fear of scandal. We owe its survival to the eccentric Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould of the parish of Lewtrenchard in West Devon. In addition to teaching at Hurstpierpoint College with his pet bat on his shoulder, he published the lyrics of many traditional local verses.

What is certain is that Cobley died in 1844, aged 82, and is buried in Spreyton churchyard.

Pictures of the man are rare indeed. One portrait of a weather-beaten Thomas Cobley with his dog apparently took so long that the hound and artist had both died before the picture was completed. The lower half of the image was completed by another hand.

Hence the great local interest in the appearance at Chilcotts 450-lot inaugural sale at Tiverton on October 26 of two previously unseen portraits - one of Tom Cobley as a boy and the other of his mother, Mary Heard.

The two mid 18th century English School oils on canvas, in very good but filthy condition, were possibly painted by one of the many gifted Devon provincial artists or by a visiting Dutch artist. Tom Cobley's portrait shows him as a pretty flaxen-haired boy, with a linnet or a greenfinch on his finger. The paintings have passed down through the family to the present owner of one of Tom Cobley's farmhouses near Spreyton and were discovered in a contents valuation of the farmhouse by Duncan and Elizabeth Chilcott. The unmarried Tom Cobley had a considerable extended family of some 25 relatives including eight nieces and nephews - Uncle Tom Cobley indeed.

Estimated at £2000-3000, it sold for £3500 (plus 15 per cent buyer's premium), while the portrait of Cobley's kind-eyed but rather plainer mother, sold for an above top estimate £800. Both pictures were bought by a Kent-based picture dealer.
Written by

ATG Reporter

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