Tale of a talented and keen artist ends in tragedy

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Robert Blakey, Morpeth tradesman and later the first professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Queen’s College, Belfast, was acquainted in his youth with two famous artists: Thomas Bewick, the wood-engraver, and Luke Clennell.

“Luke Clennell," he says, "was born within a few miles of the town of Morpeth; and, when still a mere boy, was sent to his uncle, Mr Thomas Clennell, a tanner and grocer in that town.

“Here Luke was employed in the shop, and many are the curious stories told of him.

“His uncle was a kind and good-natured man, and entertained a great fondness (for he had no family of his own) for his nephew.

“But the uncle’s patience was often seriously taxed by what he considered the waywardness of his nephew’s turn of mind and the inattention he displayed to the mere drudgery and mechanical routine of a shop-boy’s life.

“It is recorded of Clennell that, at the early age of four years, he was frequently in the habit of sketching little domestic utensils with nothing but a black cinder. Sometimes the whole fireside was scored over; and many a time had his mother to rebuke him for disfiguring her clean and whitewashed walls.

“For some time the youth was very attentive to the avocations of the counter, and his uncle had good hopes that he would now be able to direct his mind into the channel of trade.

“This, however, proved a delusive hope. The force of genius manifested itself by little and little. Whenever his uncle had to be from home for any length of time, then it was that young Clennell would absent himself for days together from the shop, and would often be found in some part of the warehouses in the yard, with pencil and paper, making a drawing of some horse or building, or perchance of his own good and attentive uncle.

“His uncle carried on, along with his other profession, the trade of a tallow-chandler, and one day entrusted some important departments of the business to his nephew, with many injunctions of strict attention to his directions.

“But no sooner was the master out of sight than the pencil and paper were in requisition; and the result was, the make of candles was completely botched, and a most correct likeness of his uncle, in the attitude of giving his last official commands, was produced by the youthful sketcher.

“Mr Clennell hardly knew whether to censure or applaud. The consequence was, however, that his uncle....freely allowed him a certain portion of his time to cultivate the fascinating art."

Thomas Clennell was the Alderman of the Tanners’ Company, and, with near certainty, a friend of Robert’s uncle, Mr John Robertson.

He was: "an influential freeman of the borough, and enthusiastically devoted to the Carlisle interest."

Lord Morpeth, later the Earl of Carlisle, once called on him during an election: “His lordship looked at a drawing framed in the room, and expressed his astonishment that such a production should be found in so remote a part of the country.

“When the uncle told him that it was from the pencil of his nephew, his lordship held up his hands with surprise, and said that, ‘he ought not to be in such a situation a single hour longer’.

“Immediate arrangements were made to apprentice young Clennell to Mr Thomas Bewick, to prosecute the profession of wood-engraving.”

While Robert knew Bewick personally, what he says about Clennell is mostly, if not entirely, second-hand.

Clennell was apprenticed in 1797, when Robert was only two. His articles expired in 1804. Soon after that he went to London, Robert being then about ten. Poor Clennell went mad in London in 1817, never worked again, and died in 1840.

So while Robert may have seen him occasionally when he was a child, he must have got most of his information from his uncle, or from Mr Clennell, or from Bewick. He, incidentally, tells us things about everyday life.

Although most people’s houses then were crude by modern standards, Mrs Clennell’s kitchen walls were “clean and whitewashed”.

Whitewash is easy to apply, gives a good coverage on rough surfaces, and is a mild disinfectant. Being a preparation of lime, it soaks into brick, stone or mortar, and can be re-applied when necessary, either directly to the soiled surface, or after brushing off any loose flakes.

Something else that was usual then was people making their living in several different ways. Thus, Mr Clennell was a tanner, grocer and a tallow chandler.

Robert’s uncle Robertson was the landlord of the Sun Inn at High Church, a market gardener and had a winter business cutting corve rods in the woods around Morpeth.

Acknowledgments: Self-portrait of Luke Clennell by kind permission of the Laing Art Gallery, ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums).

The woodcuts are by Luke Clennell, from Recreations in Natural History. The pictures of goats and swine are from paintings by him, but engraved by other hands.