A favourite item from the Athenaeum collections and one that rewards close examination is this 18th Century oil painting of Barnstaple, Pilton and surrounding area. The view is by an unknown artist, and probably dates from the 1730s. Two spires are to be seen within the town belonging to the Church of St. Peter and to St. Nicholas’ Chapel or Quay Hall, which stood next to the town’s west gate on the Strand. Pilton Causeway is shown leading to Pilton, on the hills beyond which Raleigh House can be seen, where the hospital now stands.
The painting conveys the sense of a compact and bustling town with lots going on – ships coming up and down the river and drawn up in the Great Quay, woollen cloth drying on racks in Pilton, sheep grazing on marsh below Anchor Wood, pack-horses making their way towards the medieval Long Bridge. The bridge was widened in 1796 but this painting shows the narrow mediaeval bridge with passing spaces where pedestrians could wait to allow carts and carriages to pass.
If you were to paint a picture of the town today the fields in the foreground would show Barnstaple’s industrial heritage in the form of the Shapland buildings and the sheep grazed marsh would be covered by the new Taw Wharf development. The background of hills and fields would be partially covered with houses from the estates built in the 1950s and 60s, an expansion which continues today.