Shipley Art Gallery Analyses The Melancholy Mind

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 18 August 2008
A small drawing of a man in 18th-century clothing

Work by Northumberland artist, Luke Clennell, is showcased in Shipley Art Gallery's current exhibition. Courtesy Shipley Art Gallery

Exhibition preview – 18th Century Blues: Exploring the Melancholy Mind at Shipley Art Gallery until August 31 2008.

In Shipley Art Gallery’s current exhibition, 18th-Century Blues: Exploring the Melancholy Mind, a relationship is drawn out between art and states of mind and the interplay between the two.

In the case of Northumberland artist Luke Clennell (1781-1840), his depiction of landscapes reveals an ability to evoke his internal world through his atmospheric paintings of familiar places.

Born at Ulgham near Morpeth, his promise, first as a draughtsman, then as a water colourist and finally an oil painter, was dashed by his suffering severe mental illness.

He began to exhibit successfully in London in 1810 but in 1817 a major depressive illness overwhelmed him while undertaking a commission for London’s Guildhall. This led to his being committed to the London Asylum.

It was not until 1827 that he was able to return home to Northumberland. His short period of freedom from anguish was brought to an end however when he was once more consumed by what he called ‘uncontrollable insanity’. He spent his last years in Newcastle Asylum.

A detail from an oil painting of people, animals and lightning

The Baggage Wagon (1812) by Luke Clennell. Courtesy Shipley Art Gallery

The pictures he made projected his mental state on to the landscapes he knew well and for this reason, are being showcased in Shipley Art Gallery’s exhibition.

Among other paintings on show, for instance by Blake and Hogarth, Goya and Dura, his work stands its ground.

Co-curator of the Shipley exhibition, Dr Leigh Wetherall-Dickson says of Clennell that while his work was overshadowed by mental illness, “he does have an extraordinary gift for conveying a melancholic atmosphere, particularly in his rendering of well-known landmarks of the North East…It is for all these aspects and not just the breakdown of his mental health that Clennell deserves to be remembered.”

While Clennell can be admired and explored as one artist with well-documented mental illness, this exhibition is part of an inter-disciplinary research project, Before Depression, which is considering a wider question. How did society and people respond to different mental states before these 'conditions' were given the names and modern diagnoses with which we are familiar?

With a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, researchers from the Universities of Northumbria and Sunderland have explored and drawn out new interpretations of how depression was represented and how it influenced art and literature between 1660 and the early years of the 19th century.

A painting of a woman sitting looking sad with a small dog at her feet

Maria and her dog Silvio by Joseph Wright of Derby.
© Derby Museum & Art Gallery

The project is also considering how before the mid-19th century, ‘melancholy’ and ‘gloom’ permeated culture as themes before these states were confined within the walls of psychiatry and medicine.

The exhibition at Shipley Art Gallery as an element of this research allows us all to glean a hint of the experience Clennell and many others had. The artists in the exhibition who were either affected by mental illness or conveying the moods of those around them, produced work which may be associated with depression but which can also be regarded as beyond simple analysis.

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