The Shed has contributed the following to its most recent project, which is the website
Some artists are as good at the business side as they are at the art, says Robin Armstrong. But mostly, he admits, he just paints and relies on luck.
Together with his meticulous talents, this has done him very well at times. But after paying his way through three marriages and two children, he is back to needing the rent and could do with reminding us he is still in business.
Artist at work. Picture by Andrew Pain.
His latest studio, a converted pig barn attached to Ox Park Cottage, at the top of Sortridge, first hill out of Horrabridge on the Whitchurch road, will next year be open to visitors in a rather more organised way than it is now – with the addition of an Open sign, for a start.
He is clearing wall space with an eye on being ready for tourists in spring 2016 but would obviously welcome local interest too.
Robin, born in 1947, has made a living for most of his life, and for a while a very good living, out of his wildlife and fishing pictures.
But he got his eye in on the subjects, and staked his claim as a settler in the Walkham valley, with 10 years living at Sampford Spiney and working as a river warden for the old South West Water Authority.
This was from the late 70s into the late 80s and there were still enough bailiffs and enough poachers to play out the games of old Ealing comedies. Was a time Robin’s bosses told him he was barred from the London Inn for his own good.
His first book, The Painted Stream, told rollicking tales of night chases up and down the Tamar and its tributaries. One episode involved four representatives of law and order going out to catch four locals suspected of being in possession of tools with an illegal purpose, such as a sharpened fork and a big treble hook with its shank weighted with lead wire, to make a castable gaff known as a snatch. The courts took it seriously too. The poachers got fined £150 each, which would have stung a bit. But in retrospect, it looks like the authorities using sledgehammers to crack nuts, Robin agrees.
He says: “We enjoyed it really and the police loved being called out to help because it was proper cops and robbers. But in retrospect I doubt it was all worth it. It was a hangover from when the river bailiff’s first job was to protect his lordship’s domain. There aren’t enough river wardens to even consider it nowadays and the ones we do have are more concerned about environmental problems.”
Salmon farming killed the poachers’ trade, he says. But back in the 80s, top-class salmon could still fetch £15 a pound over the counter and maybe a quarter of that on the black market.
That was enough to interest some of the boys and they were a rough lot, even when sober, including a number of off-duty Horrabridge servicemen and a notorious gang from Bridport, Dorset, where it was possible to organise some very professional kit through the back door of the local net-making industry.
Robin wrote two more books based on his time as a full-timer on the river – Under The Bridge and Split Cane & Sable – and another on expeditions to the Test, Chalk Streams and Lazy Trout.
But for him, the books were a showcase for his paintings and they worked well enough to let him decide to live off his art.
“It’s done me well but I have to keep going,” he sums up.
He might produce a hundred pictures in a year, including reworkings of some of his classic wildlife portraits. When we call, he is working on something quite different, very colourful Hebridean scenes, and thinks he has just sold one for £750. There is a small one on the floor at £90 and he’d take £500 for one in the middle. For visitors who are not in the market, he might come up with packs of cards or something.
Meanwhile, you can still find him at Tavi Market on Tuesdays, showcasing a few paintings and, when times are good, some classic fishing gear.
“At the moment, I’m a bit overstocked with paintings and a bit understocked with fishing gear,” he says. “As soon as I sell enough paintings, I’ll probably spend the money on rods and reels.”
In The Painted Stream (1985), he tells a memorable story of watching a big eel win a fight with a mink on dry land, at Woodtown on the upper Walkham, and escape back into the water.
He also reports a tussle to land a 20-lb salmon talen on a small spoon from one of the pools where the Walkham falls to Double Waters. Nowadays, the right bank down there is all private fishing but full members of the Tavy Walkham Club can fish the left, although the usual visitors’ permits do not cover it.
Robin Armstrong has had enough of salmon and peal nowadays. Still loves to fish for trout on the Dartmoor rivers or the lower Tavy but mainly goes out to sea with a friend. Ironically, considering his career, his one national record is for a pouting, caught from a boat off Berry Head, Brixham, in 1969 – 5 lbs 8oz taken on squid.
His tips for the Walkham? Get a short rod and have a spinner in your pocket for the many places there is not room for a fly.
PS: According to The Painted Stream, Charles 1 once passed through Tavistock at its most glorious and for ever after he would reply to any comment on the weather with the comment: “It is undoubtedly raining in Tavistock, however.”
* Ox Park Studio is at PL20 7UA, on the left-hand side going uphill towards Whitchurch. Call 01822 859165 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
See his picture gallery at http://www.robinarmstrong.co.uk