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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Torre Abbey

Torre Abbey is a museum in Torquay, South Devon, England. It has a collection of paintings and sculpture and this is a small detail of one of those pictures showing the Abbey. The original monastery was founded in 1196, while the arched gatehouse on the left dates from around 1380 and the white buildings date from around 1740 and were a later Georgian re-modelling.

Before we get to the Abbey I just wanted to show you this photo which I took in a sea front restaurant before we walked to the Abbey after lunch. I didn't realise when I took it that it would feature in the story of Torre Abbey I discovered later. In particular, focus your attention on the right hand third of this image, and I mean the view outside of the beach and the bay.

This is the main entrance of Torre Abbey, below. In 1196 six Premonstratensian canons from Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire founded Torre Abbey when William Brewer, Lord of the Manor of Torre, gave them land. I should add that the original name of Torre was the origin of the name of modern Torquay which grew up around the harbour.

Premonstratensian is one big mouthful, but it boils down to a simple fact, that this order of canons were founded in Prémontré near Laon, France, in 1120.

Cutting a long story short, those of you that are familiar with Henry VIII and his six wives will know that when he eventually fell out with the Pope and threw his toys out of the pram, most of the Catholic institutions of England were destroyed in the "Dissolution of the Monasteries". Torre Abbey was no exception and most of the north and east wings were destroyed and still lie in ruins today.

For some reason the south and east wings survived largely unscathed and passed from hand to hand over quite a period of time until in 1598, when they were converted into a house for Thomas Ridgeway. After a succession of various owners, the house became the possession of the Cary family in 1662. The house continued in the possession of the Cary family until 1930 when the mansion and grounds were sold by Commander Henry Cary to Torquay Borough Council, although the family continued to own the surrounding estate and the (notional) lordship of the manor of Tor Mohun.

The building has since been used as a municipal art gallery; the mayor's parlour and, during World War II, it was used by the Royal Air Force. Torre Abbey is owned and managed by Torbay Council. After a £6.5 million refurbishment made possible by grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and the Friends of Torre Abbey, Torre Abbey reopened in July 2008.

The stone is typical Devonian red sandstone of the area.

The gatehouse dates from around 1380.

The main abbey comprises two Grade I listed buildings. Though the church is little more than a ruin, the west and south sides of the cloisters are still standing.

The barrel vault above the chapel, dates from the 15th century. The room's former history began as The Abbot's Hall of the medieval abbey. Here the abbot would have wined and dined his honoured guests who would have also stayed at the abbey.

The ceiling can be dated as post 1485 because one of the bosses, the decorative features, takes the form of a Tudor Rose, a symbol of national unity only created after the Wars of the Roses.

The double row of bosses above the altar marks the position of the abbot's high table which would have stood on a raised platform. The hall itself dates from 1370.

Here is the complete painting of Torre Abbey, below, from which the opening detail of the house is cropped. I have taken photos of the paintings at odd angles to reduce reflections from both glass and the oil paint.

The title is Torre Abbey from Shedden Hill by John Rawson Walker (1796 - 1893) dated c.1840. Does the view of the sea on the left look familiar? The beach and promontories are the same view as the one from the restaurant window. As if proof were needed I have checked the map and the road behind the restaurant is still called Shedden Hill Road. This was all a coincidence of my visit that day.

It is a romanticised landscape but based on the actual layout. The grounds of Torre Abbey would have run down to the foreshore.

The seafront road in the painting, changed that forever and today, below the window of the restaurant, just out of sight, are four lanes of road, necessitating the spiral pedestrian bridge, visible through the window. The curve of the bay, the beach and the low cliffs remain almost unchanged.

The road was built to link Torquay with Paignton in the distance. Henry George Cary, owner of Torre Abbey at the time, tried in vain to prevent it's construction in 1840. His death the same year aged just 39 was said to have been caused by his distress over the new road.

This is a portrait of George Bernard Shaw by Louise Jopling (1843 - 1933) c.1890. Shaw was the leading playwright of his day, most famous for Pygmalion, which was the basis for the musical, My Fair Lady. This is a sketch in pastel.

During the 1920's George Bernard Shaw was a regular summer visitor to Torquay, staying at the Hydropathic Hotel above Meadfoot Beach.

I recognised this view straight away as nearby Brixham Harbour. By Alwyn Crawshaw, it is dated 1990.

Around 1740 the buildings underwent extensive alterations, giving them a Georgian remodelling that is mostly intact today.

The later renovations in 2008, added more access in the form of ramps and lifts.

This is a detail of a much larger painting, The Clark Sisters Riding by Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878 - 1959) dated 1924.

Once described as "the artist who hated Picasso", Munnings was one of England's finest equestrian painters, blinded in one eye aged 19 following an accident.

Cornish Moor by Tom Maidment, 1940.

The permanent exhibitions focus on paintings of the 19th century including pictures of national standing by William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelite works of Edward Burne-Jones (The Planets, series of cartoons) and William Holman Hunt (The Children's Holiday), below.

If you were wondering why Britain's new King is Charles III then meet his predecessors at Torre Abbey.

King Charles I, after Daniel Mytens the Elder, date 18th century.

The artist of the original painting was contemporary to the King while this copy was made later. Charles became King in 1625 when wars raged in Europe between Catholic and Protestant monarchs. However Charles wife was a Catholic so he had some sympathy which led to better treatment of Catholics in England. This was a relief to the Catholic Cary family. In 1632 George Cary was knighted by Charles I and fought on the side of the King in the English Civil War. Charles was tried, convicted, and executed for high treason in January 1649.

Charles II, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, c. 1680

This painting is actually contemporary to Charles II reign. He came to the throne in 1660 following the Restoration of the monarchy after the Civil War. Son of Charles I. Note how radically fashions had changed during the short period of the Civil War.

Privately he supported religious tolerance and helped Catholic landowners who had helped the royalists during the Civil War. In 1662 Sir George Cary felt sufficiently confident in the support of the King to buy Torre Abbey as a home for his growing family. He paid £4,300 for the property and land, taking out a mortgage of £1,800.

This was a bit of a bargain in today's terms. Today it amounts to £452,000. Then it could have bought you 675 horses or 61 thousand days of skilled labour. Today that sum would get you a two bedroom apartment with the same view as the painting we saw above.

Torre Abbey’s tithe barn was built around 1200 to store taxes paid to the abbey in the form of grain, hay and other farm produce. For centuries, however, it’s been known to locals as the Spanish Barn.

Its place in history was secured in 1588 when the Nuestra Senora del Rosario became among the first of the Spanish Armada invasion force to fall victim to the English fleet. The captured ship was towed to nearby Torbay where the crew were landed, probably on Abbey Sands, to be received by a guard of demi-lances – a type of heavy cavalryman quartered at St Marychurch.

Sir Francis Drake sent the commander of the Rosario, Don Pedro de Valdés, to the Queen while the other 397 prisoners were held in the Barn, making it the only surviving Armada prison in England.

Initially a general order had been given that all Spaniards should be executed wherever found. This order was later cancelled, though the Sheriff of Devon remained convinced that any prisoners should have, in his words, “been made water spaniels”.

Local people were understandably hostile to the new arrivals. The inhabitants of Brixham, Paignton, Cockington, Torre and St Marychurch flocked to see the captives and there were angry demonstrations. A letter to the Privy Council on July 27 reads: “The charge of keeping them is great, the perell greater, and the discontent over country greatest of all that a nation be so mitche misliking unto them should remayne amongst them.”

It was accordingly resolved to relocate the prisoners quickly and after a stay of around a fortnight they were sorted into “those of name and quality” and “the rest of baser sort,” and sent out of the Bay. On August 29 Cary and Gilbert wrote to inform the Privy Council: “The prisoners, being in number 397, whereof we sent to my Lord Lieutenant five of the chiefest of them, whom his Lordship hath committed to the town prison of Exeter, and we have put 226 in our Bridewell… the rest, which are 166, for the ease of our country from the watching and guarding of them and conveying of their provisions and victuals unto them, which was very burdensome to our people in this time of harvest, we have therefore placed them aboard the Spanish shippe.”

For more on the myths and legends of this event see

Devon is a county that gave its name to the Devonian Period of the Paleozoic Era which lasted from 417 million years ago to 354 million years ago. It is here that the old red sandstone of the Devonian was first studied. The same rock used in the construction of Torre Abbey, as we have seen above. The rocks of Lummaton Quarry in Torquay in Devon played an early role in defining the Devonian period.

In Torquay, Kents Cavern, where evidence has been unearthed to show that people have lived in the bay for thousands of years, a human jaw bone has been found and dated from 44,200–41,500 years BP, Europe’s earliest man, along with bones of Cave Bears, Sabre-tooth Cats, and Cave Lions, Cave Hyaena, Fox, Wolves, Wooly Rhinoceros and Mammoth.

So I leave you with this sculpture of a non-wooly variety of Rhinoceros from the museum collection.

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David Nurse
David Nurse
Dec 15, 2022

Great post Gethin.

Great to compare the painting and your photograph of the bay.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Dec 16, 2022
Replying to

Thanks, yes quite a coincidence.


John Durham
John Durham
Dec 12, 2022

What wonderful artwork! That, alone, would be worth the trip, yet, as always with your tours, I love the construction (and restoration) of these magnificent edifices. What do you think - Charles III adopting the look of Charles I? I kind of like that idea. Definitely not the Charles II look - too much of a spaniel motif!🤣

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Dec 13, 2022
Replying to

If Charles was going for a new look I definitely agree Charles I would be preferable, is that a Van Dyke beard? I now get the Spaniel thing for Charles II although hadn't noticed it before. They do say owners look like their dogs. But the real question, was he mimicking the dog in his hairstyle or did he see himself in the dogs look. Chicken or egg?🤣


Unknown member
Dec 10, 2022

What a beautiful view fromt he restaurant. I also liked the photo of the chapel.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Dec 10, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Camellia. A dull day but it probably made a better shot. Too sunny would have it's own problems.

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