c.1712 - 1777

John Cleveley was born at Southwark, London and baptised at St Dunstan, Stepney on 27 February 1713/4, son of James Cleveley and his wife Ann née Stacy, who married at Stepney on 6 March 1708. John was not from an artistic background, and his father intended him to follow the family trade of joinery, so in around 1742, he set up as a carpenter or shipwright at the Deptford Dockyard and continuing his work in that area throughout his life. He is referred to as ‘carpenter belonging to His Majesty’s Ship Victory, in the pay of His M[ajest]ys Navy’ in letters of administration granted to his widow by the Admiralty in 1778, probably when she was first fitting out. From about 1745 he also worked as a painter, mostly ship portraits, dockyard scenes of shipbuilding and launches, and some other marine views. Mostly self-taught, it is possible that dockyard ship-painters also gave him some training in this area and his pictures combined his knowledge of shipbuilding with accurate architectural and topographical detail and he toured East Anglia, producing some paintings from notes made on that trip. The illustration of the launching on the River Orwell is believed to be a picture of the first three naval vessels built by John Barnard the Younger for the Navy Board. It is a composite in both time and subject and is thought to show the 'Hampshire', fifty guns, on the stocks, the 'Biddeford', twenty guns, being towed downstream and, in the left foreground, the 'Grenado', a bomb-vessel. The location is the River Orwell and the artist was positioned in the immediate vicinity of the Freston Tower, a couple of miles downstream of Ipswich, immediately identifiable in the middle distance. The land on which the ship sits ready for launch, is 'John's Ness' where the 'Hampshire' was the only fifty-gun ship that was built and launched there in 1741. The 'Biddeford', a sixth rate, was built upstream at St Clement's Yard and launched in 1740. She was towed downstream to Harwich to be rigged: no other 20-gun ship was built upstream of 'John's Ness'. The 'Grenado' was also built at the St Clement's Yard, the only bomb ketch ever built there, and was launched in 1742, the bomb ketch was a uncommon vessel with distinctive lines and in the picture, she is shown without masts, but the positioning of her mizzenmast indicates her rig. It is not known why Cleveley selected these three Barnard-built ships launched in different years to appear in the same picture. John was married and had twin sons John (1747-1786) and Robert (1747-1809) who were both marine painters who exhibited at the Royal Academy. John Cleverley, the elder, died on 21 May 1777.

Works by This Artist