sketcher, clergyman and geologist, was born on 2 June 1798 at East Bergholt, Suffolk, eldest child of William Clarke, schoolmaster, and Sarah, née Branwhite. He was educated locally and at Jesus College, Cambridge (BA 1821, MA 1824) before entering holy orders (deacon 1821, priest 1823). After several curacies Clarke succeeded his father at the village school, resigning in 1831 to accept the living of Longfleet in Dorset. Ill-health and no great prospect of advancement in England led him in 1838 to seek a chaplaincy in New South Wales. In June 1839 he became headmaster of The King’s School, Parramatta, with parochial responsibility for Castle Hill and Dural. Poor health forced him to leave the school towards the end of 1840. In 1844 he took over parish duties at Campbelltown. Nearly two years later he moved as rector to the new parish of St Thomas, St Leonards (now North Sydney), which remained his charge until retirement in 1871. Clarke died at North Sydney on 16 June 1878.
Although a devoted pastor, Clarke’s fame derives chiefly from his contributions to the geological knowledge of Australia, work recognised by many honours during his lifetime, the most notable being a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1876. He gained wide public notice through his study of the Australian goldfields. Clarke’s scientific achievements are recorded elsewhere but his artistic interests and connections are less known. Pen, pencil, and wash sketches of landscapes and fossils in notebooks and letters testify to his talent.
Clarke’s enthusiasm for geology began at Cambridge; the sources of his interest in nature and art lie in his origins. His mother’s kinsman, Nathan Branwhite (1775-1857) from Lavenham, was exhibiting at the Royal Academy, London, when Clarke was a child. A more immediate influence was John Dunthorne (1770-1844), the plumber and glazier of East Bergholt who had first encouraged another villager, John Constable, to sketch and appreciate nature out-of-doors. Clarke grew up with Dunthorne’s son, also John (1798-1832), later Constable’s protégé and, in Clarke’s opinion, 'an extraordinary instance of genius and talent’ in art. The 'young Willy Clarke’ of Constable’s correspondence was born into stimulating company. Accident, too, led him in 1834 to join one 'J.R.’ in scientific-aesthetic writings about the Swiss Alps. The dialogist, of whose identity Clarke probably knew nothing at the time, was none other than John Ruskin, then aged fifteen. These early connections with nature, art and artists had their counterpart in the long and practical friendship at North Sydney between Clarke and his churchwarden, Conrad Martens .
Clarke’s scientific collections, sketches and papers, purchased after his death by the New South Wales government, were destroyed in the Garden Palace fire of 1882. Surviving examples of his sketches are in the Mitchell Library, in private Australian collections and in public and private archives in the United Kingdom.
- Vallance, T. G.
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