John Elford was the first visual artist on Dartmoor for whom we have an individual name. His family farrmed at Longstone in the parish of Sheepstor on the west side of Dartmoor, and were also involved in the tin industry. John attended Cambridge University, and was a member of the Long Parliament which overthrew Charles I. It seems that he became disillusioned with the parliamentarian cause during the Commonwealth, and legend has it that he was pursued by Cromwell’s troops to the extent that he was forced to hide in a cave on Sheepstor where he painted pictures on the granite walls to pass the time. Polwhele, writing in 1787, records the story as follows:
“Here, I am informed, Elford used to hide himself from the search of Cromwell’s party, to whom he was obnoxious. Hence he could command the whole country; and having some talents for painting he amused himself with that art on the walls of his cavern, which I have been told (says Mr. Yonge of Puslinch) by an elderly gentleman who had visited this place, was very fresh in his time. The country people have many superstitious notions respecting this hole”.
As well as living in Sheepstor, he lived at Hayne (near Crediton) and Widecombe for periods of his life. He left four tangible monuments to his artistic bent: two relief sculptures, one of his first wife and three children and one of a skull above an hourglass, in Sheepstor Church; a monument with a poetic epigraph in the form of an acrostic to his third wife Mary in Widecombe Church; and another monument to his first wife in Newton St Cyres Church. The style of his writing and the imagery he used are reminiscent of passages in John Ford’s work, and the two men may have come across each other when Ford returned to Devon in the late 1630s, while Elford was living in Widecombe, close to Ilsington.