The British artist Walter Sickert spent a lot of time in Dieppe, living in le quartier Pollet, the old town. One of his most well-known paintings is of Dieppe's l'église Saint Jacques. A small information board in front of the church tells you that you are standing in the exact spot he stood in, when doing this painting – the reproduction of it is in tasteful terracotta shades with splashes of yellow, which also fits with this day of hot sun and cloudless skies.
Other well-known painters who fell under the spell of this small seaport town include Eugene Delacroix, who rented a house on the quai Duquesne. While he was here he painted one of his major works 'La mer vue des hauteurs de Dieppe,' which now hangs in the Louvre. Among the French impressionists there was Renoir, Monet and Camille Pissarro. The latter was particularly taken with Dieppe, spending the summers of 1901 and 1902 there. He called the town 'an admirable place for a painter who enjoys life, movement and colour.' Like Sickert, he too painted l'église Saint Jacques, though from a different angle. He also painted a series of 18 views of the port.
Clearly Dieppe's charm has not diminished in the past century. Its steep cliffs with their dark shadows falling on the beach, the pale greenish sea with changing moods, that combination of water and land, with its constant relationship, its rustle and whisper, and the hazy horizon with its visible slight thickening at the edge – at least on this clear and sunny day – which might be England.
This town had an instant effect on me as soon as I stepped out of the train station and walked alongside the Bassin Duquesne, lined with fishing boats. Yes it was a hot and sunny summer day, and I was by the sea which I always like, but there was something special, so I felt, about this town. The small shops and cafes on the other side of the Bassin Duquesne are slightly shabby, but there are plenty of people there. And further on, there are arcades, the cafes and restaurants underneath them even more populated as they are in the shade. The main central street, boulevard Henri IV, is pedestrianised and packed with market stalls, lined with more shops and restaurants, and lots of people.
Inside the church Saint Jacques I discover that it is one of the starting points of the Chemin de Saint Jacques, the pilgrimage routes to Compostella. This particular route is called 'la voie des anglais' and continues to Rouen and Chartres. There's an intricate and ornate sculpture wall (Le Mur du Tresor) decorated with all kinds of carved figures, faces and vegetation, though most of these are too high up to see in detail from ground level. To the left of the door there's a pillar entwined by a twisting spiral, similar to the Apprentice Pillar in Scotland's Rosslyn Chapel, though a much more slender version. Above the doorway and to the right, higher up, there are several coquilles de Saint Jacques, the pilgrim shells associated with the saint, which mark the travellers' route.
Dieppe is such a contrast to the glitz and glamour of Mediterranean resorts. It is homely and friendly, utterly unpretentious. It is lively and laid-back too, and makes no claims to sophistication or fashionable elegance. Strangers will speak to you, there's a sense of camaraderie, of acceptance of you, whoever you are. I felt immediately at home here.
Crossing the swing bridge over the narrow neck of water at the end of the Bassin Duquesne, the main harbour is a mass of white boats and the buildings on the far side display colourful facades. I head over to Le Pollet, the old quarter, and climb up a flight of steps between houses, which ends abruptly after turning a corner. But a faint path continues, through rather derelict-looking waste ground, bordered by tall grasses.
I continue doubtfully, thinking it may just be a dead end, but eventually it comes out onto a flight of smooth and well-tended steps, which lead up to the top of the cliffs. The view from the cliff-top shows the harbour and boats in the foreground, the whole spread of the town marked by church spires and towers, and the guardian cliffs beyond them, on the other side of town. A short walk from there, still on the cliff-top, is la Chapelle Notre Dame de Bon Secours, and inside there's an exhibition of paintings.
I speak to the artist, Pascal Voisin, who has thick white hair and a deeply tanned face. He tells me he used to be a fisherman, he has crossed La Manche many times, visited English ports, and has been to Dublin too. He paints streets, houses, boats, seascapes and waterfronts. His paintings are firm and compact, as if he has caught his subjects, grasped them and placed them firmly on the canvas. As you might expect from a fisherman, he is not going to let them get away. They are dense with life, with lines, colours, edges and definitions. One or two are black and white, reminiscent of old photos, with the same near-nostalgic charm. Energy bounces off Monsieur Voisin and this energy is visible in his paintings too, with their thick colours, heavy skies and restless seas.
So Dieppe continues to inspire painters. Of course, I'm seeing it at its best in this glorious summer weather. I wonder what it's like in winter. Perhaps it will be like Pascal Voisin's paintings, with their dark and threatening skies and deserted sea front. When the long shadows cast by the sheer chalk cliffs will devour the beaches and extend thin dark fingers into the sea.
Photograph of Dieppe by Morelle Smith