I’m rather partial to guide books that are illustrated with paintings or drawings rather than photographs, but I haven’t seen one for a long time. They somehow manage to have a much more subjective quality about them and to be de- rather than pre-scriptive.
This one concentrates on the area of Devon between the Dart in the east and the Yealm in the west, taking in Slapton Sands, Start Point, Kingsbridge, Salcombe and Burgh Island. If you were going to choose an area because of its suitability for the approach rather than any other reason, it’s ideal, providing a wide variety of scenery, landscapes and features.
Topographically, the book is divided into ten sections, each one a set of circular walks and moving progressively round the coast. So far, so conventional. It’s the paintings, however, that make the book what it is and I can’t help feeling that the author has hung the guide on them, rather than the other way round, and it’s for this that it has found its way here.
Taken on their own, I’m not sure that the paintings are the greatest in the world. The problem probably comes down to the panoramic format Gerry has given himself: it’s just a little too far from edge to edge and a centre of interest never quite seems to establish itself. Seen in the abstract (so to speak), they’re not things I’d choose to hang on my wall, but they’re admirably suited to their place in the book. Gerry Miles is a skilled painter who has a pleasing way with light that makes every prospect delightful and something you’d want to visit. The very first one, Dartmouth Royal Regatta, is a case in point. It’s a view of the estuary from above the town with small boats and a couple of warships sailing towards the sea. Subject-wise, it’s really not remarkable. The town is the town and warships, in the middle distance and not in the context of a book about ships, are grey shapes. And yet it’s still inviting; in its context it does its job, which I mean as high, not faint, praise.
Smaller features seen on the walks are illustrated by sensitive pencil drawings, something which, again in this context, gives the book a timeless quality. In fact, that’s why I like guide books illustrated by paintings rather than photographs. A photograph will always be of its time. There’ll be details you can’t edit, issues of image quality and so on that will always tell you roughly when they were taken. A painting doesn’t have to do that. People can be reduced to representative figures that give scale and life; the style of their clothes can be fudged and ceases to matter, an intrusive parked car can be omitted – indeed should be omitted.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I don’t just like artistic guide books, I like this one. The author has understood perfectly what’s required. There’s plenty of written and graphical information to allow you to cover the ground yourself – maps, aerial photographs and descriptive text, but to get the sense of why you should be doing this, well, that’s the job of the artist and Gerry Miles does it supremely well.