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Painting Polperro Blue

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Have you ever been to Polperro - well it’s blue - very blue. Not just the Persian Blue seas around and the Duck Egg Blue sky, as oft described by writers, but the ‘doors and sashes, hand rails, too of it’s white painted houses gleam with an intense Blue - Polperro Blue’

The skipper helmed his boat back towards Polperro his voice crackling over the loudspeaker ...

“ ... Real peurtty innit the old ‘arbour, all them blue and whitened stone ‘ouses , zig-zagging up the cliff - like one of them ol’ Greek fishin’ villages - what with them roofs of blue slate, and winders and doors all painted blue - like the sea and Cornish sky ... Polperro Blue we’em call it ‘yerabouts- no‘but knows nor tellin’, where it comes from - tho’ some says it comes from a snail … an’ there’s an old story summat told of a buried stash of indigo, long hidden with booty in the caves  ... look you’m there’s a cave now below Willy Wilcox’s cottage ... the one with blue painted shutters and doors ... ” 

The skippers oft repeated patter perhaps has its origins in a book by James Reynolds - celebrated Irish Raconteur, Author, Artist and Traveller - ‘Sovereign Britain’ (1955) ... He wrote then of the Persian Blue seas of Cornwall and the Duck Egg Blue sky ... The old fishing ports, celebrated in songs and innumerable novels of Cornwall, owe a great deal of their allure to the high, narrow gray or whitened stone houses, roofed in cloudy blue slate, their window sashes painted black, hot red, white, or yellow, which appear to march in tightly closed ranks, zigzag up the cliff. If the village is Polperro, its doors and sashes, hand rails, too, will gleam with the intense Polperro Blue, a dye that is found in a mollusc among adjacent rocks …. (My Italics)

As to the stash of Indigo this story harks back to the wreck of the ‘Albemarle' in 1708. Local residents have long pondered over whether its valuable cargo of diamonds and other goods as well as Indigo will ever be found. It is said that for weeks afterwards, the winter seas off Polperro turned blue with the melting of the indigo that had been among the Albemarle's cargo.

It’s a good yarn - now part of local folklore - a story for the telling ...

Well - if you have ever been to Polperro you’ll know it’s true! While many other Cornish fishing villages are notable for their richness of colour, with their ‘high, narrow gray or whitened stone houses, roofed in cloudy blue slate, their window sashes painted black, hot red, white, or yellow’ ... Polperro is stubbornly, beautifully blue.

This overall sense of blue was perhaps first written about in The Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall (1881-1882). 

“... Polperro, when not disturbed from its usual quiet, presents a striking appearance of calm industry. Contrasting well with the brown rocks and fishing nets, blue is the prevailing colour. Not only does it pervade sea and sky, but the garb of the men and boys is blue also — tho’ of a deeper hue [traditionally dyed Indigo]— for nearly all of them are clad in jerseys [Ganseys or Knit Frocks]. The women and girls stand at the doors of their cottages, or in groups with their neighbours, patiently knitting such garments. As they chat with each other their quickly moving needles tick like watches ...”

Naturally isolated, and at one time accessible only by sea and cart track, Polperro is unique in Cornish fishing villages in that the harbour is owned by the village - bought by the community in 1894. Was it a conscious choice then by the harbour trustees to paint it blue; it has the feel of a common hand - or happy coincidence ...

The sun was shining from a perfect blue sky reflected in the harbour waters along with the blue and white houses and boats as I sat at the end of the inner harbour wall, as so many artists had before me, my easel set up paper taped and my palette including phthalo blue, cobalt blue, ultramarine, and cerulean blue, to depict the sky and sea and blue painted houses, with perhaps some magenta and raw sienna ready mixed.

A cerulean blue wash first for the sky - I mused ... 

I was minded of some earlier paintings of ‘Polperro Harbour’ by G F Nicholls 1925 and JOSHUA ANDERSON HAGUE (1850 – 1916) – Both showing a house at the end of the quay with blue doors which I think becomes the Blue Peter Inn. And another of ‘The Three Pilchards’ Polperro by DUDLEY; William Harold (1890 – 1949).

The artists almost certainly used a similar palette to depict the sky and sea and blue painted houses.

Today the juxtaposition of the sea sky and blue painted boats and harbour houses continues to inspire artists - two recent paintings by local Cornish artists David Weston and Glyn Macey have titles ‘Polperro Blue’ and ‘Polperro Blues’, respectively.

My painting was coming along nicely - a touch of magenta to the skyline - perhaps some raw sienna for some of the cottage roofs - picking out the windows and doors I unthinkingly use cobalt blue; my mind wandered - did the painters and decorators of the time also use  cobalt blue ...

Cobalt was mined locally in Cornwall and used in the English potteries - could it also have been used as a paint pigment.

There is some evidence to support this as Cobalt (mixed with Linseed Oil and White Zinc Oxide) was used recently to paint the exterior woodwork on the Estate Houses and Workshops at Chatsworth. There were  Cobalt Mines in Cornwall, Cheshire and Germany: although no more than a few Cornish mines - The Wheal Sparnon Cobalt Mines at Redruth, the Wherry mine at Penzance, Dolcoath, Pednandrea, Pengreep and East Pool - were ever involved in its production ("The Geology of Cornwall" - Selwood, Durrance and Bristow, 1998).

And Linseed oil paint was, and still is, a great wood preservative and gives the surface a glistening look .... 

Yet I can find no historical reference to Cobalt being used in Cornwall, or the UK for that matter, to make a paint.

I thought back to the skippers story ...

Could it really be - a blue pigment obtained from  a mollusc - a sea snail - found in nearby rocks ... like the story says, or is this just a fanciful yarn - a romantic notion - harking back to Phoenician times  (1000 B. C.) ... when Cornish Tin Miners traded with the Phonenicians, exchanging Tin for cloth dyed with Tyrian Purple/Blue (extracted from a mollusc).

There is a record of dye extraction from molluscs (a blue dye from Dog Whelks) in Cornwall from Roman times where evidence was found at Duckpool, Morwenstow (Cornish Archaelogy No 34 1995). So mebbe there’s summat in it ... mind you - you’d need an awful lot of molluscs!

But what about that hidden stash of Indigo hidden in the caves beneath Polperro ...

Indigo - (imported from the Americas or India) or Woad (Isatis tinctoria) was one of the oldest sources of blue dye or pigment in Britain and Northern Europe (indeed in the world - the oldest known fabric dyed Indigo dating to 6,000 years ago in Peru). It is chemically similar to Tyrian Blue - that pigment extracted from a mollusc.

And Indigo, from Woad, was and still is, used in Europe, as a pigment in paint (the paint on the shutters at Le Tecoure date back to the C14 ) though there is little evidence of its use as a paint in the UK.

Now what shall I use for the sea - Indigo, Ultramarine, or for a warmer feel, French Ultramarine ... perhaps with a modern touch of Quinacridone Gold for a delightful blue-green harbour swell.

For a time in the 1980's I lived in Calstock. A favourite walk took me past the old Lime Kilns then through the woods to Cothele where there were more kilns on the Quay. One day looking up towards the roof of one of the kilns, I was excited by a flash of blue bouncing off the walls. Was it just a chance reflection of the sky - or was this like Goethe (1787) had seen in the Lime Kilns near Palermo. He wrote that the glassy blue masses (French Ultramarine) were cut and used locally as a substitute for ‘lapis’ in decorative work. Could the Lime Kilns in Polperro have yielded a similar blue pigment ... . 

Now here’s a thing tho’. Not long after the village bought the harbour, a cheap source of Ultramarine (Synthetic Ultramarine) became readily available - ‘Dolly Blue’, or ‘Reckitts Blue’. A blueing agent used to whiten clothes, used in every household in the early 1900s as an aid to the washday blues – but here’s the crunch line - it could also be used as a pigment in paint ... mixed with linseed oil and maybe a little kaolin, it makes a gleaming and intense blue - ‘Polperro Blue’ ... !

A touch of Ultramarine let into the sky to finish my painting, mebbe ...

But wait, here's a thought I leave you to ponder, dreckly. Strolling along the shore in Polperro – along towards Talland – a flash of blue caught my eye. Yes there it is again from among the rocks and old fossilised fish beds – a blue crystal growing in an old mollusc shell - Vivianite. First discovered as a mineral by John Vivian (1785 – 1855) at Wheal Kind, St Agnes but in its earthy form (blue ochre) used for centuries as a blue pigment in paint. It has an endearing quality that allows me to finish my story more or less as I began ...

“... If the village is Polperro, its doors and sashes, hand rails, too, will gleam with an intense blue - Polperro Blue (a pigment found in molluscs among adjacent rocks) … .”

So if you fancy a walk, on a bright sunny day, along the shore toward Talland – you never know you may just come across that blue crystal growing in an old mollusc shell … Serendipity indeed!

And what of my painting - well it never was - just a pigment of my imagination.

Notes: A creative non-fictional essay tracing some possible origin(s) of Polperro Blue ... a reworking of an original article that first appeared in the Journal of the Polperro Family History Society (Spring 2017).

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June 27, 2019 5:08 pm

This made me want to go there! And where does the name Polperro come from?

Josie Holford
Reply to  cathytea
June 27, 2019 6:39 pm

According to Wikipedia:
The name Polperro derives from the Cornish Porthpyra, meaning harbour named after Pyran.

Lovely post.

June 27, 2019 10:52 pm

This is fascinating. We must all be being captivated by these intense summer blues. I call the blue sky I love Andalusian blue. I wonder what the Spanish painters used. Sorollo has lovely blues and blue was famous on the Portuguese blue tiles. Azulejos. I loved Polperro and you transport me back there.

Helen White
June 27, 2019 11:11 pm

Yes I have…many years ago. You’ve made me want to go back! Fascinating story.

JC home
March 4, 2022 9:50 pm

Never been to or even heard of Polperro but for the folklore alone it sounds like a great, peaceful place to live or visit. Seem like the only things there that are not blue are the people!