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
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
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
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
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.
Antiques Trade Gazette is the weekly bible of the fine art and antiques industry. Read articles like this every week in the Antiques Trade Gazette or ATG app. Click here to subscribe today.