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Clerk of Eldin, John

John Clerk, son of John Clerk 2nd Baronet of Penicuik, was a keen scholar at Dalkeith Grammar school and enrolled at Edinburgh University to study medicine. However he abandoned his studies and entered into business as a merchant (clothier) and, later, manager of a coalmine. In 1753, he married Susannah Adam (younger sister of Robert Adam, architect) and in 1763 he bought the property ‘Eldin’ in Lasswade, near Edinburgh.

His wealthy background enabled him to entertain many interests, including naval tactics, geology, architecture and art.

In Lasswade, Clerk met a former Royal Naval officer and began researching naval tactics on breaking the enemy’s line, eventually publishing his ‘Essay on Naval Tactics’ in 1790 (a work allegedly quoted by Horatio Nelson in his orders to the British fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar).

Clerk learned to draw from an early age and his landscapes generally focus on a particular historical building. He undertook extensive travels, with sketch book, and it is known that he visited Arran and Bute in 1763 and 1768. He accompanied Robert Adam on sketching tours, together with English artist and printmaker Paul Sandby. He became an exceptional amateur artist, with no evidence of having received any formal training.

He conducted several geological surveys with his friend James Hutton in the 1780s. When James Hutton was gathering material for his landmark book, Theory of the Earth, published in two volumes in 1795, Clerk went along and made careful drawings of geological sections and formations that would support Hutton’s argument that the earth is very old and has changed very slowly, mostly due to external forces of weathering and internal forces of heat and pressure.  This included Hutton’s geological work on the Isle of Arran.

Clerk made many more drawings, and they were intended to illustrate volume 3 of Hutton’s work. Hutton unfortunately died before completing the third volume. His manuscript survived, and volume three eventually appeared in 1899, but by that time, the Clerk drawings had disappeared. Happily, they re-emerged in 1968, and in 1978, they were published in facsimile as James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth: The Lost Drawings.

Clerk produced over 110 etchings during his lifetime, making sets of etchings which he sold, at a time well before any concept of formal editions.

In 1783 he was a founder member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy of science and letters.

Clerk died peacefully in Eldin in 1812.

On his death, the collection of prints and plates were retained by his family, and in 1825, with the help of his son John Clerk, Lord Eldin, the Bannatyne Club of Edinburgh issued a volume of etching called 'Etchings, Chiefly Views of Scotland by John Clerk of Eldin'. This publication contained twenty-six views. In 1855, the Bannatyne Club published another issue, this time with seventy-six etchings, as additional plates had been discovered at Eldin. It is understood that The Bannatyne Club then destroyed the plates, their quality having seriously deteriorated.

In Guy Mannering, Sir Walter Scott described Clerk of Eldin in the following manner:

"You who are a worshipper of originality should come a pilgrimage to Edinburgh to see this remarkable man. The table at which he sits is covered with a miscellaneous collection of all sorts — paints and crayons, clay models, books, letters, instruments, specimens of mineralogy of all sorts, vials and chemical liquors for experiments, plans of battles ancient and modern, models of new mechanical engines, maps, sheets of music – in short an emblematical chaos of literature and science."



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