About this artwork

Leith was one of Scotland’s principal ports, and was independent from the City of Edinburgh until 1920. Clerk shows a variety of boats in the harbour, possibly sheltering from the storm clouds approaching from the East. The rough sea and menacing sky have been painted with thick brushstrokes of dark wash. The round building at the edge of the harbour is the Signal Tower, built in 1686 by Robert Mylne. Originally it was a windmill, used to extract oil from rape-seed. In 1805, the sails and domed roof were replaced with a parapet, from which flags were flown as signals to ships.

John Clerk of Eldin

John Clerk of Eldin

Clerk was an exceptional amateur artist. His wealthy background afforded him the luxury of entertaining numerous careers, including medicine and business, and he also showed a considerable interest in geology. In the 1740s he began sketching alongside his brother-in-law, Robert Adam, and the artist Paul Sandby. Clerk travelled extensively throughout Scotland, recording a wide range of landscapes and ancient buildings. His sketches of Edinburgh and the surrounding areas are highly personal representations of his native countryside. Clerk's youthful fascination with the sea and the navy resulted in his famous study 'An Essay on Naval Tactics' (1790), which he developed throughout the 1790s.