John Cranch

Devon Notes & Queries, vol. I, (January 1900 to January 1901), pp. 193-4.


J. Brooking Rowe

Prepared by Michael Steer

John Cranch (1751–1821), painter, born at Kingsbridge, Devonshire, 12 Oct. 1751, taught himself as a boy drawing, writing, and music, and while a clerk at Axminster received instruction from a Roman Catholic priest. Inheriting some money, he came to London and painted portraits and historical pictures. He failed, however, to get a place on the walls of the Royal Academy, but was more successful at the Society of Artists and at the British Institution, to which he contributed eight pictures in 1808. The extract, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

157. JOHN CRANCH. John Cranch was born at Kingsbridge, Devon, 12th Oct., 1751, and having when a youth evinced unusual quickness and understanding and great skill in writing was engaged by Mr. John Knight, a land surveyor of Axminster, the steward of Lord Petre's estates, as a writer in his office at a salary of fifteen pounds a year. While there the Rev. William Sutton, a Roman Catholic priest, gave him instruction in Latin and other branches of learning, to which, as well as to his employment with Mr. Knight, he attended with the greatest diligence.
The beauty, rapidity and correct- ness of his writing were extraordinary, and in addition to his severer studies he made considerable progress in music and drawing. His peculiar talent for the last mentioned art was manifested in a circumstance quite consonant with his decisive and original style of thought and action. During the absence of his employer from the office on a winter's day Cranch amused himself in front of the fireplace by executing a design on the panels of a large oaken chimney-piece with the pointed end of a red-hot poker, producing an effect by the boldness of style and execution which was greatly admired.
At the end of five years Cranch engaged himself with Mr. Simon Bunter, an attorney in Axminster, who gave him his articles of clerkship and so highly esteemed his character that he left him by will more than two thousand pounds and made him his trustee and executor. Cranch then settled in London, where, for a time, he followed his profession with such assiduity that if it had been continued would have secured him a handsome independence.
He published a work on the "Economy of Testaments" (1794) which attracted attention, but prosperity became his ruin, and his taste for the fine arts led him to neglect his business and to desert the interests of his clients for the more agreeable occupations of music and painting. The latter he is said to have practised under the instruction of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who used to say that Cranch was the best critic and possessed the greatest judgment in painting of any man he ever knew.
His picture of the death of Chatterton, and others of less consequence attracted public notice. He also painted some portraits. The D.N.B. says that he failed to get a place on the walls of the Academy, but he was more successful at the Society of Artists to which he contributed "Burning of the Albion Mills," and at the British Institution to which he contributed eight pictures in 1808.
There is a picture of his at South Kensington. He also executed many poker pictures, but stability of character was not one of his qualifications, and painting was neglected for the still more hazardous profession of authorship. He projected a series of periodical essays in the style of the Spectator, some few of which were published, but not even the title of them has survived.
He was a diligent transcriber of remarkable epitaphs, of which he had a large manuscript collection, but which failed in teaching him the folly of a misspent life and the misery of its close. In 1811 he published "Inducements to promote the Fine Arts of Great Britain by exciting Native genius to independent Effort and Original Design." The versatility of his genius and the variety of characters with whom his talents brought him into association led him into irregularity of habits, and a deficiency of right principle suffered him to become the slave of intemperance.
He lived many years at Bath, and died there unmarried in the year 1823, in his seventieth year, in almost the extreme of poverty and wretchedness, too indolent to exert himself for his own support, and too proud to accept relief when proffered by the hands of those who had known him and esteemed his character in early life a melancholy instance of the little value of natural genius and elegant acquirements, when not under the correction and control of proper principles or sound judgment.
It is probable that John Cranch was related to John Cranch, of Plympton, died 1772, who assisted Reynolds so materially. His father, also John, was of Modbury.        J.B.R.