Rediscovering Clerk of Eldin in the RSA collections. By Geoffrey Bertram

Posted on 21 November 2018

Working in the RSA collections we have the privilege of making our holdings available to researchers for all sorts of projects. The mutual benefits to researcher and collection are often rich and rewarding and this was undeniably the case recently when we welcomed John Clerk of Eldin specialist Geoffrey Bertram back to the collections in August. Geoffrey has very kindly written about his rediscovery of six etchings by Eldin for our blog and you can read it below. Copies of Geoffrey’s 2012 book on Eldin are still available from his website:



I have been an enthusiast for John Clerk of Eldin (1728-1812) since introduced to his etchings in the mid-1970s. Clerk became the subject of my M.Litt thesis at University of Edinburgh, the paper submitted in 1981. In my initial research I relied heavily on the catalogue of Clerk’s etchings published by Ernest Lumsden RSA (Royal Scottish Academy) who can be said to have rediscovered Clerk and recognised the importance of his etchings within the history of Scottish printmaking.

Lumsden was a distinguished painter, noted etcher and authority on etching. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1923 and a full member in 1933; he was President of the Society of Artist Printers from 1929 to 1947. At some time he was introduced to Clerk of Eldin, whom he re-introduced to the world in his book The Art of Etching (1924) and through the Print Collector’s Quarterly; ‘The Etchings of John Clerk of Eldin, Catalogue and Description’ was published in volume 12 ,1924 with ‘An Addition to the Catalogue’ in Volume 13, 1925. The importance of Lumsden’s catalogue cannot be overstated. In it he listed 104 landscape etchings that illustrate Clerk’s enthusiasm for Scottish architecture, towns and buildings presented within their settings. (There are a handful of non-landscape prints within Clerk’s oeuvre – caricatures of Jacobite volunteers of the 1745 rebellion.)

Having left John Clerk of Eldin behind after completing my degree I was re-introduced to him in 2007 through the research of another. I realised then that the 200th anniversary of his death was approaching, 2012, and this was an opportunity to complete what I had started so many years before. I was able to produce and publish a book and organised exhibitions of Clerk of Eldin’s etchings in Edinburgh and London – City Art Centre and Fleming Collection respectively. However, in completing the book, an illustrated catalogue raisonné, I was unable to find visual examples of seven early prints. They had been included in Lumsden’s catalogue and I had subsequently included them in mine in 1981 but on searching through collections I knew held significant quantities of Clerk’s prints I failed to find any trace of them at this later time. My book was published in 2012 with the seven etchings catalogued but unillustrated.

Last year, 2017, I visited the RSA’s excellent exhibition Ages of Wonder: Scotland’s Art 1540 to Now’. Within the room of historical prints, I found on display an album of Clerk of Eldin’s etchings. Since my initial research on Clerk I have no recollection that this album existed, so I was keen to review it. This I was able to do recently. It is an extraordinary single collection of Clerk of Eldin’s etchings that were donated to the RSA in 1950 by Sir Frank Charles Mears PPRSA when he stepped down as President. The volume contains 110 etchings (including a small number of duplicates) with eight sundry prints and studies, some by other members of his family. One is signed by John Clerk, Lord Eldin, his eldest son.
The greatest surprise for me was to find that this volume contains six of the seven missing etchings. As far as I know they are the only known copies that have survived. They are early trials and experiments which would not have been extensively printed. Five are no larger than a postage stamp (there are eight of these within Clerk’s catalogue), three in squarish format and two set within a circle.

B3 Castle in a Circle 34 mm dia B5 Craigmillar Castle in a Circle, 27mm dia

B8 College near Dumfries 26 x 31 mm B14 Old Cottage with Trees 26 x 31 mm

B15 Landscape with Loch & Tower 28 x 37 mm

It was not uncommon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for designs to be set within a circle, or within an oval (landscape or portrait format). Clerk’s designs indicate a knowledge of the very early prints of his friend Paul Sandby (Sandby worked in Scotland between 1747 and 1751) who had learned his first printmaking skills while in Edinburgh and who designed some of his early plates (c1750) in similar fashion.

The sixth rediscovered etching is of a larger scale than the other five, in a format that Clerk was to use widely throughout his etching career. This experimental print is poorly drawn and roughly etched though, in assessing later prints, tells us much about what he was trying to achieve. This is clearly an unfinished print, the numerous surface scratches likely to have led him to give up on it.

B6 Landscape with Figures 85 x 107 mm

I am delighted to have re-discovered these six etchings. How did they come to be there? Collecting prints and pasting them into books was usual practice in the 18th and 19th centuries, not dissimilar to the practice of stamp collectors. The album in its current form looks to have been bound or rebound in 1871 – there is a handwritten date indicating this on the inside back paper – the contents organised into their present layout at that time.

The reason I suggest rebound centres on the inclusion of Durham (B61) which is printed on to a different paper to the rest of the album. A second unique feature of this Durham print is that it has been printed using chine collé, a special technique (not used in printing Clerk of Eldin’s etchings within his lifetime) in which the image is transferred to a thin Chinese paper, trimmed to the dimensions of the plate, that is bonded to the heavier backing paper. This suggests therefore that the Durham print was purchased at a later date and then added into the main volume on rebinding. However, until further research is undertaken into how the album came to be in the Mears family (passed on through inheritances?) any further comment on how the collection was built can only be speculative. In addition, while reflecting of Lumsden’s 1924 catalogue I will conjecture that he was aware of the Mears volume but further research is required here also if we are to establish if this was the case.

B61 Durham

I never expected that I would encounter six of the seven missing etchings within the RSA album. I am extremely grateful to Sandy Wood and Robin Rodger and of the RSA Collections Department for giving me the opportunity to inspect this John Clerk of Eldin collection. It has been a rare experience.

Geoffrey Bertram
August 2018

NOTE: The numbers with the letter ‘B’ refer to my 2012 catalogue.