Monday, 5 October 2009


Thomas Bewick and his apprentices

Luke Clennell and Robert Johnson.

The stories of the apprentice boys who worked in the Bewick workshop feature the ill, the ungrateful, the rogueish, seducers, depressives, and the unlucky. It is tempting to wallow in the melodrama of it all. Indeed some who have told these tales were attracted to them for that very reason.

William Bell Scott for instance, a Victorian witness to the poetry and art world of the North East and a man frequently attracted to tales of heroic failure, revelled in the high drama and emotion of the story of Luke Clennell when he met his son, also called Luke Clennell.

“Over his charming little corner fireplace there hung a water-colour portrait of the Duke of Wellington, evidently from the life. In this I observed some points of great exactness of observation, particularly the continued attachment of the lobe of the ear to the jaw, which distinguished that organ on the head of the Iron Duke. Rising to examine this in an interval of the incessant talk and recitation, I saw the drawing had been violently torn in two and mended again. In an impulse of curiosity I asked him how that had come about. At once a dark cloud came down over his eyes ; he covered his face with both hands, and for a few moments was evidently moved profoundly, occupied, it might be, as indeed he was, in prayer. I learned afterwards that such was his habit when reminded of his father's affliction. Hesitating how best to act or speak so as to show my sympathy, or to appear not to observe his agony, I was relieved by his recovering himself at once ; and he then told me that the drawing was one of the studies for the last picture his father was engaged upon, "The Assembly of Plenipotentiaries after the Peace," and that in a moment of failing reason he tore up this and other preliminary studies. " My dear friend, innocently and unknowingly, you have touched the central sore in my life ; but it is over."

(WBS meets Luke Clennell junior, Autobiographical Notes )

Luke Clennell (1781-1840) was born 8th April at Ulgham.
Clennell’s apprenticeship ran from his sixteenth birthday in 1797 until 1804.
According to fellow apprentice Edward Willis, Luke was ‘rather little, somewhat in-kneed, and having a peculiar look in his eyes’.

After his apprenticeship he worked for a short time in Newcastle then moved to London, where he had some success. He married Elisabeth Warren, daughter of engraver Charles Warren and they had three children. He illustrated Sir Walter Scott’s The Borders Antiquities of England and Scotland (1814-1817) producing 68 out of the 76 engraving. He began to gain a reputation as a watercolourist and oil painter encouraged by friendly support of the history painter Benjamin West.
Dashing hunting and military scenes were a favourite.

In 1814 he was commissioned to paint a giant work The Banquet of the Allied Sovereigns.
Chasing all the portraits was said to be too much for him. Given the way in which he executed the giant task of illustrating Border castles for Scott’s Antiquities, it is probable that Clennell had an obsessive and perfectionist streak.

Within three years melancholia laid him low - one account mentions “uncontrollable insanity”. He was admitted to a London asylum. His wife Elisabeth died in 1817. Luke spent time in Salisbury Asylum where he received some support from the Artists Fund. He returned to the north east ten years later in 1827 to live on the Quayside with his brother but he was never able to revive his career and in 1831 he landed in Newcastle Asylum.

He cut a tragic figure when the historian of engraving William Chatto described his situation in a melodramatic and contradictory passage:

“Poor Clennell, though dead to the world, is still living in a lunatic asylum in Newcastle, where though all recollection of his former self be lost, he still retains his fondness for drawing and sketches and sketches those object which he has an opportunity of observing; such as the labourers he sees riddling the walks, and the peacocks, in the garden; the keeper who locks him up; the tomcat which disturbs his rest at night, and the bird which sings to him in the morning.”

Clennell died in 1840 aged only 59.

He was one of the most accomplished of all the Bewick apprentices. A characteristic of his style is the sweeping, large–leaved foliage in the foreground of many of his vignettes.
Several of the tailpieces in British Birds, II are his:

Today there are art courses and art schools all over this region and the country. The choice is endless for those wishing to develop their creativity or get some sort of art training.
There were few opportunities to learn to be an artist in 18th Century England. Those with a high income and grand social status might employ a drawing master. Those of a lowly status might think of entering a trade. Apprenticeships were the route to do so.

Thomas Bewick has left us an account of his own childhood and the circumstances of his finding a “master”. It is in Chapter 4 of his Memoir.

“Being now nearly fourteen years of age & a stout boy, it was thought time to set me off, and my father & Mother had long been planning & consulting what business it would be best to put me to, in which they were greatly at a loss what to fix upon – Any place where I could see pictures, or where I thought I could have an opportunity of drawing them, was such only as I could think of…” [p.35]

They apply to a bookseller initially but hear reports of his bad character and take it no further.
Bewick godmother, Mrs Simons at Bywell (widow of the vicar Robert Simon [s?]) intervened extolling the boy’s virtues to William and Ralph Bielby.
The Bielbys, Mrs Simon her daughter and Ralph’s daughter arrived at Cherryburn one summer afternoon and the deal was done.
£20 left by Thomas’s grandmother would be the apprentice fee.
Thomas preferred Ralph who would be the master.
The arrangement would start on 1st October 1767.

In old age (70) Bewick had mixed memories of his own time as master who trained apprentices.

“You know a part of those I met with in the course of my business, in which my time was mis-spent – and also the waste of it bestow’d upon useless & wicked pupils – I know you wish me to give you a history and description of such – but to do so, would be an irksome task & I cannot now be troubled to think about it…” [p.195]

Elsewhere in a private letter he wrote: “I find it expected that I will give some account of my pupils – this I feel to be an unpleasant task, as some of them were beneath contempt as either men or Artists….”

Perhaps he had in mind Henry Hole, an apprentice from 1794-1801, for whom Bewick had to make bail to secure his release from prison when accused of being the father of a child out of wedlock,

Looking at this scene by the late Victorian painter John Eyre you would assume that Bewick and his apprentices had an idyllic existence.
Eyre flourished from 1877-1914.
The watercolour, now owned by the Laing, was shown to some acclaim at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1896 and was later engraved for the Illustrated London News.

Eyre was shown the workshop room in St Nicholas’s Churchyard and did a small sketch. The rest (the stuffed birds, the game, the rifle, the litter of sketches) is imaginary.

In the Memoir Bewick admits that he had originally intended to work alone, with no apprentice to bother him:

“I had formed a plan of working alone without any assistance from Apprentices, or of being interrupted by anyone – and I am not certain at this day whether I would not have been happier in doing so than in the way I was led to pursue – I had often in my lonely walks, debated this business over in my mind, but whether it would have been better or worse, I can now only conjecture – I tried the one plan and not the other – perhaps each way might have had advantages and disadvantages – I would not have experienced the envy and ingratitutude of some of my pupils, neither should I on the contrary have felt the pride & the pleasure I derived from so many of them having received medals or premiums for the Encouragement of Arts - & also of their taking the lead, as Engravers on Wood in the Metropolis.” [p.79]

When things were bad with apprentices they could be very bad indeed:
Charles Hickson, apprenticed 18 April 1795, absconded in February 1800. Bewick does not name him in the Memoir but he relates the story as a cautionary tale:
“being obliged to take one of the most impudent – malignant & worst apprentices, we ever had, before the Magistrates” The magistrate thought that the apprentice had fallen into bad company.

The rascally Hickson gets little invective aimed at him compared with the long monologue of disgust which Bewick musters against an un-named apprentice who had the temerity to ask for a share of money earned from some of his workshop efforts. We know this from other sources to be Robert Johnson.

Johnson appears twice in the Memoir: the first time anonymously on page 79 as the subject of Bewick’s disappointment but is named and celebrated later (page 199) for his exceptional skill.
Born in 1771, he was in the workshop longer than most between 1784 and 1794.

Bewick had sold watercolours by Johnson to the Earl of Bute for the princely sum of £30. Johnson then at the end of his apprenticeship demanded that the money should be his. Bewick argued that the productions of the apprentice belonged to the master. The apprentice asserting his independence as an artist argued before a jury that the productions of drawings and watercolours was not a part of his training and as such did not belong to the master.

Bewick was still fuming nearly thirty years later when he makes his Memoir account. Indignation and disappointment ring from the account:

“It is painful to me to dwell on a subject of this kind, which indeed I might spin out to a great length with much additional matter, but it may be sufficient to observe that I have taken a Boy & behaved to him uniformly with the kindness of a Father or a Brother & have watched with every pains in my power to instruct him-been liberal to him in pecuniary matters-employed the best physician to attend him when he was unwell-let him want for no thing-paid him his wages besides, whether at work or not at work, & in this my partner con¬tributed his share,-and along with myself used every endeavour in our power to advance him in the world, & when all this was done, he shewed not a particle of gratitude, but observed that any "cart-man would take care of his Horse", & then put himself under the guidance & directions of a Company or confedracy of ill disposed envious & malignant persons, who after having laboured to poison the ears of the public & of the Jury-to bring us to trial, for the pay for work done without the leave of his masters, while he was our apprentice! & the business was so managed that a verdict was given against us-I did not fail to attack this Jury individually & to send the confiderates a message, that there was not a man among them who was not a coward & a scoundrel.”

Although Bewick comes across in an unsympathetic light here, in general he is thought to have behaved well to apprentices. That he did so was in part due to his own experience learning his trade. Indeed the good character of boys was something that prayed on his mind not least because his own character and reputation for wild behaviour had nearly stopped him from taking up Bielby’s offer of apprenticeship.

At the point in Newcastle when the young Thomas was to be handed over to his new master Ralph hesitated. He had heard Thomas could be trouble. His old teacher and a family friend attested that Thomas was never “saucy or sulky, nor in the least indulging in anything like revenge” {p38] and the deal was done.

At first Bewick lodged with the Bielby family. (in their house at the Town wall) Now Platform One of the railway station.

Bewick tells a tale of youthful indiscretion on his part: taunted by three “low blackguard ‘prentice lads form the Close” he leveled one with a punch before being set upon by the others. From that Sunday onwards Ralph Bielby required TB to attend two church services, morning and afternoon and read the Bible “or some other good book” in the evening.

Bewick does not tell us when he moved out of the Bielby household and began to cater for himself on 4/6 afterwards 5/-. He lived with Aunt Blackett on Pudding Chare. She had cows on the Moor and they drank plenty of milk. She however disliked noise, especially whistling and so the young lad took himself to lodge at ned Hatfield’s. Around this time Bewick developed bookish habits: always reading and working at a “low bench.” He became sickly. Bielby was clearly concerned and called the doctor. Nathaniel Bailes took a liking to Bewick and lectured Bielby on the lack of freedom and long hours the apprentice lad was subject to

“He urged upon me the necessity of temperance and exercise – I then begun to act upon this advise – and to live as he directed, both as to diet and exercise – I had read Lewis Cornaro and other Books which treated of temperance & I greatly valued the advise in the Spectator, which strongly recommended all people to have their days of abstinence, in this thro’ life, I have experienced he uncommon benefits derived from occasionally pursuing that plan – for this always kept the stomach in proper tone…”

He would go to the Hog’s Tavern at Elswick for milk and bread. Run by Goody Coxon the milk was sour and the bread “hot brown cakes.”

But what of the Robert Johnson dispute?
Was Bewick right to be so irked?
Did Johnson have a case?
Did Johnson enjoy a future after taking on his ex-master?
We see echoes of Bewick’s own apprenticeship in the story of Robert Johnson (1771-1796).
He seems to have started in the workshop in 1784, Aged only 13 he was too young to be apprenticed. (14 was the usual age)
Bewick tells us in the Memoir that he lavished attention on the boy. His mother had been a great family favourite. She had intended Thomas to be Robert’s godfather but the 17 year old Bewick was too bashful and Bewick senior stood in his place.
It became part of family legend that young Robert would be apprenticed to Thomas.
“He looked up to me as a kind of deity…” and had drawn pictures from an early age. Keen on drawing and copper–engraving. Did he draw better than Bewick? Chatto certainly thought so.
The boy was sickly and would be sent to work in the open air by Bewick, following Cornaro principles: “he was of so delicate a constitution, that he could not bear confinement, we for that reason set him to work to make sketches & views, where he had both air and exercise.”
Hence by thirteen he could take his place in the workshop living under the “fostering care” of Bewick, then a 30 y old single man living with his sister Ann.
Bewick felt the boy needed hardening and would give him no medicine. Ann felt they would be open to an accusation of mistreating him.
Boys should exercise with dumb bells half and hour or so before bed, Bewick tells us.
He applied Cornaro to Johnson’s diet:
“I began by cutting off for him almost everything he had given him to eat – the animal food with which I helped his plate at dinner, did not exceed in bulk, the size of my three fingers, to this was added, a portion of vegetables – for breakfast and supper he got a pint of milk, with leavened rye bread, to which last article I did not prevent him form helping himself…”
Because or despite Bewick’s dietary regime the boy suddenly began to thrive.
In the workshop apprentice Johnson would be given drawings or designs to copy. Complete accuracy was expected. Bewick describes how he instilled this: if the drawing failed he would put it away, perhaps he would say Oh fie. Otherwise silent disapproval was the order of the day.
Johnson was an excellent colourist and Bewick in the Memoir was very appreciative of his water-colour abilities.
He also praises his ability to draw landscape, trees and figures.
He trained him by encouraging him to draw actual trees, ie not simply to copy artistic styles or predecessors. He recounts sending him to Adonis Grove to draw a particularly memorable tree. [a garden in the suburb of Westgate]
Four years into the apprenticeship the lad became entitled to wages.
Father and mother moved to Newcastle and had the boy move in with them. Bewick is said to have got the father job as the keeper of a poor house. Robert’s health deteriorated from this point on Bewick tells us. He had a year off before finishing his apprenticeship late. Then followed the acrimony of the court case.
Johnson had a year working for himself, taking up oil painting. He received a commission from the Earl of Breadalbane at Kenmore in Scotland. Bewick tells us he became ill and died there aged only 26.
Bewick does not explain how young Johnson happened to be in Scotland.
A Perth bookseller had commissioned a set of engravings for their forthcoming “Gallery of Scottish Portraits.
Johnson was charged with copying 19 works by George Jameson (1586-1644)
He had completed 15 when he became ill. Seized with a fever he was thought by the villagers to be mad. Result his early death was hastened by his being restrained by ropes and beaten. A doctor found him in a poor state but too late.
The portraits were published posthoumously

Pinkerton John "THE SCOTTISH GALLERY; Or, Portraits of Eminent Persons of Scotland."

Bewick was horrified to read that the author claimed that Johnson had drawn the illustrations to Quadrupeds, Bewick first published work of 1790.
“however trivial this may appear to you- it does not by any means appear so to me, & my friends – it is making me look ridiculous (or worse) in the eyes of them & the Public, & must continue to do so, until it is contradicted & they are informed of the truth.”
Bewick felt that an “informant” [the family still bearing a grudge perhaps] had malicious motives and was trying to ruin his good name.
We can leave the final verdict to the Bewick scholar Iain Bain. The poem’s of Burns published by Davison of Alnwick was titled “engravings on wood by Mr Bewick”. However we know that the principal illustrations were drawn on wood by artist john Thurston, they were engraved by Henry White, then an apprentice. The tailpieces were the work of White and other apprentices Nicholson and Willis.

“But they were of the workshop and nothing would have gone out without the check and guidance of the proprietor. Whatever may have been said by Bewick’s detractors and those who attempted to diminish his reputation as an engraver, it is remarkable that, when independent, none of his pupils – with the possible exception of Clennell – came anywhere near to approaching his achievement, nor indeed did they match him in the distinction of character so displayed in his writing.”

There is a page of examples and some basic introductory information on the Bewick Society website.
A good account of Luke Clennell was given last year at the Shipley Art Gallery’s exhibition 18th-Century BLUES Exploring the melancholy mind. You can find the accompanying pamphlet by clicking here.

You can read about the Apprentices in Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver (2006) which includes a detailed list of Workshop Apprentices on page 407-8.

Iain Bain has much to say about them in his notes to Bewick’s memoir published in 1979 by OUP. See in particular pages 263-5. He also contributed the Oxfrod Dictionary of National Biography article on Clennell. There is also an account of Robert Johnson on ODNB, available online use your local library card to log on.

Nigel Tattersfield has gone to great pains to check and update the details of the apprentices’ lives and careers and much new information will be available next year (2010) when his long awaited 3 volume The Complete Illustrative Work of Thomas Bewick is published.

©Peter J. Quinn 2009

Lecture delivered Monday 5th October, Newcastle Arts Centre, Westgate Road. Part of the Visions strand of the Explore Membership Scheme of the North East Centre for Lifelong Learning.

No comments:

Post a Comment