John Clerk, Esq.
In Robert Cromek’s 1808 edition of Robert Blair’s Grave, with designs by Blake, the name of “John Clerk, Esq.” appears in the list of sixteen Edinburgh subscribers to the volume.1↤ 1 See Robert N. Essick and Morton D. Paley, Robert Blair’s The Grave, Illustrated by William Blake; A Study with Facsimile (London: Scolar, 1982). The list of subscribers is unpaginated. No Blake scholar has yet identified this intriguing figure, or discussed his wide influence in artistic, literary, and social circles. Perhaps none of Blake’s first readers were as paradoxical, irascible, immoral, or influential as John Clerk. Clerk (1757-1832) is now such a forgotten figure, however, that few if any modern readers will know of him.2↤ 2 Clerk receives a brief mention in the Dictionary of National Biography; his name does not seem to appear in any other twentieth-century work. In his time, Clerk was famous as an Edinburgh lawyer and judge, and an art collector.
It was almost certainly Blake’s designs, rather than Blair’s poem, which led the 50-year-old lawyer to subscribe to The Grave. Clerk had studied as an artist in his youth. He had little interest in poetry, but for many years he continued to paint and draw in his spare moments. Several of his drawings appeared in the Scots Magazine, and elsewhere.3↤ 3 The last of Clerk’s drawings for the Scots Magazine. “Craig Crook Castle,” was “Engraved by R[obert] Scott,” and appeared as the frontispiece in April 1810 [n.p.]); for information on Robert Scott, the engraver with a “mania for Blake,” who considered the 1808 Grave to be one of the “two greatest books” in his library, see Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott, ed. W. Minto, 2 vols. (London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1892) 1: 68, and my note on “Blake, The Grave, and Edinburgh Literary Society” in Blake 24 (1990): 35-36. A satirical sketch by John Clerk, “The Three Legal Devotees,” may be found in John Kay, A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings, ed. H. Paton, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Black, 1877) 1: plate 119 (attributed to Clerk in the text, 2: 439-40). In suggesting that Clerk “had little interest in poetry,” I have relied on the evidence of the Catalogue of his library, cited in note 4 below. Presumably Clerk found pleasure in Blake’s designs to The Grave; in any event, the book was still in his library when he died.4↤ 4 See anon., Catalogue of the Library of the Late John Clerk of Eldin . . . which will be sold by Auction, by Mr C. B. Tait, . . . On Monday, January 21 1833, and Nine following Days (Edinburgh: Tait, 1833) 56. Item 1382 in the catalogue is described as “Blake’s Illustration [sic] of Blair’s Grave, 13 plates, engraved by Schiavonetti.” In addition to listing the books in Clerk’s library, this catalogue shows that he possessed many original paintings and drawings attributed to Rembrandt, Holbein, Van Dyck, Rubens, Correggio, Salvator Rosa, Breughel, Titian, Tintoretto, Raeburn, and others. It is not known who purchased Clerk’s copy of The Grave, or what price it fetched.
With a personality like “crystallised vinegar,” Clerk was notorious for his atheism, self-righteousness, and “drollery”: “It was impossible that he could be wrong because he acknowledged no judge in heaven or earth but John Clerk.”5↤ 5 John Heiton, The Castes of Edinburgh, 3rd. ed. (Edinburgh: Nimmo, 1861) 56. 57, 57n. Only the third edition of Heiton’s book contains these (and many other) stories about Clerk. Something of his legendary abrasiveness may be gauged from an episode involving his friend Henry Raeburn the painter, when they were both students: begin page 95 | ↤ 6 James White, citing his conversation with Raeburn, in a letter to Allan Cunningham, 29 March 1831, National Library of Scotland MS 832, ff 28-29; cited by permission of the Trustees of the NLS. “Aucht” and “sax” are Scots terms for “eight” and “six.” This excerpt has not previously appeared in print; Cunningham gives a drastically bowdlerized version in his Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters (5: 210). I have included this quotation partly to show that Clerk adhered to Scottish ways and the Scots language; he was not Anglicized. Clerk’s lodgings above Parliament Square would have placed him near the center of Edinburgh’s legal and literary establishment.
One day John [Clerk] asked [Raeburn] to go and dine with him in his garret [above Parliament Square in Edinburgh]; On going into his room the landlady came in and put on the table John’s ordinary dinner—four herrings and three potatoes—John got up in a terrible rage and chucked the two plates out of the window and turned about to the astonished landlady and said What for ye bitch did ye no bring aucht herrings and sax tawties . . .6In later years, Clerk was wealthy and titled; he became “Lord Eldin,” and a judge, in 1823. Although a bachelor, he had several children by different women. Once, accosted by two laborers who demanded money on the grounds that he was their father, Clerk “grinningly drew out his purse” and said, “Weel, there’s five pounds’ and never let me see your ugly mugs again.”7↤ 7 The two men’s mothers were sisters; “The reader has only to count the kin,” comments Heiton, “to understand the morality of [Clerk], who was received into the best society” (Heiton 57n).
Despite his arrogance towards women, children, and the lower classes, Clerk was a prominent reform politician. He was a friend of the critic and politician Francis Jeffrey, and sometimes joined Jeffrey in public demonstrations.8↤ 8 For information on Clerk’s political and literary connections, see Henry Cockburn, Memorials of his Time (Edinburgh: Black, 1856) 407-08, and John Gibson Lockhart, Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1819) 2: 43-52. For an account of a Reform meeting at which Francis Jeffrey and John Clerk shared the stage, see anon., “Celebration of Mr Fox’s Birth Day,” The Scotsman 15 Jan. 1823: 33-36. But he was far removed from the sober rationalism of Jeffrey and his circle. All reports agree that Clerk’s temper and emotionality rendered him “not qualified for the duties of a judge.” Even after his promotion to the bench, Clerk led a scandalous, “Rabelaisian” existence, sometimes “riding down openly in his carriage to his mistress . . . or sitting carousing with the thief Maccoul.”9↤ 9 Heiton 57-58, passim. I have not been able to identify “the thief Maccoul.”
Clerk’s judgments in court became increasingly erratic, until public outrage forced his resignation in 1828. His final years were shrouded by some unnamed disease. He became “ungovernably insane”10↤ 10 Robert P. Gillies, Recollections of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. (London: Fraser, 1837) 284. Gillies is citing his conversation with Scott at Abbotsford in 1829. and “quite imbecile.”11↤ 11 George Thomson, letter to the painter Thomas Stothard, 7 July 1832, National Library of Scotland MS 685, f 88; cited by permission. Perhaps, in his last lucid moments, John Clerk reflected on the theme of Blair’s Grave, and its accompanying designs by Blake.
Admittedly these details tell us nothing about William Blake. But they may help readers to appreciate the diversity of Blake’s original audience, and to perceive more fully the social context in which Blake sold his work. They may also counteract slightly the common assumption that Blake’s work received little attention in contemporary Scotland.