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John Cleveley The Elder

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John Cleveley The Elder Biography


Southwark circa 1712 - 1777 Deptford


John Cleveley the Elder was a highly accomplished painter of ship portraits, dockyard scenes, sea fights and panoramic celebrations of mid-eighteenth century Royal Navy squadrons, the latter sometimes based on compositions by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707). His style is colourful, meticulous and with a thorough understanding of sea and ships. Despite his talent as an artist, officially he spent his entire career as a shipwright in the royal dockyard at Deptford.


Born around 1712, John was the son of Samuel Cleveley, a joiner of Newington Butts, Southwark. On 3rd November 1726 he was apprenticed to the joiner Thomas Miller, and then worked with John Hall, a shipwright and Deptford boat builder. On 9th June 1743 he became a freeman of the Shipwrights’ company. He worked in the royal dockyard and lived in King’s Yard Row, Dogg Street at least from 1747 until his death in May 1777; he is buried in St Paul’s, Deptford. Letters of administration granted to his widow the following year record that Cleveley was a ‘Carpenter belonging to his Majesty’s Ship the Victory in the pay of his Mys Navy’. The Victory was Nelson’s future Trafalgar flagship, held in ordinary (reserve) from her launch in 1765 until first commissioned for sea in March 1778.


Cleveley may have been taught to paint by the artisans employed to give early eighteenth century warships their decoration of coats of arms, classical figures and trophies. After the scandal of the cost of the carving on the Royal Sovereign, the Admiralty in 1704 declared that only the head and stern galleries of warships could be carved, and the number of specialist painters increased. Cleveley’s first known dated painting is of 1747. He produced many scenes of the launch of warships, especially at Deptford, which combine his expert knowledge of shipbuilding, delicate observation of the dockyard buildings and a sense of a gala occasion, crowded with figures. He contributed shipping to the prints of Sheerness, Chatham and Plymouth dockyards (1755-6) by Thomas Milton and made shipbuilding views in East Anglia. Cleveley exhibited at the Free Society from 1764 to 1776.


John Cleveley and his wife Sarah (1722-1798) had seven children. James (b.1752) was a ship’s carpenter in the Resolution on Captain Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific. His twin sons John Cleveley the Younger (1747-1786) and Robert (1747-1809) became marine artists. John Cleveley the Elder signed his works J. Cleveley, while his son signed as Jno Cleveley, Junr. at least until 1782. 


The work of John Cleveley the Elder is represented in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Glasgow City Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT.


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