CLEVELEY, John the Elder
(b. ca. 1712, Southwark, d. 1777, Southwark)


English painter, part of a family of artists. He was apprenticed to a joiner in 1726 and became a professional painter by the late 1740s. He lived and worked at King's Yard Row (part of the Royal Dockyard) in Deptford, near London. A high proportion of his extant paintings depict local subjects, notably shipbuilding and ship launches, e.g. 'HMS Buckingham' on the Stocks at Deptford (1752; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). These views are characterized by an attractively gauche sense of perspective, flat patterns and bold colours; they combine topographical accuracy in architectural detail with lively descriptions of quayside strollers, painted with a precision comparable to Canaletto's contemporary London subjects.

Cleveley's considerable knowledge of shipbuilding (he apparently continued to work as a carpenter 'in the pay of His Mjs Navy') was put to good use in these works, but his artistic imagination was somewhat limited. His attempts at more conventional marine subject-matter, such as The Loss of the 'Luxborough' Galley in 1727 and the Escape of Some of her Crew (set of six, 1760; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich), are markedly less original, and he frequently repeated compositions. He exhibited at the Free Society of Artists in London as early as 1765.

His twin sons, Robert (1747-1809) and John the Younger, were also artists. They lived in Deptford and worked in the Royal Dockyard, sometimes as caulkers or in other shipyard professions. Robert died as a result of falling over a cliff at Dover.