Clerk, John, of Eldin.


Edinburgh, printed for Archd. Constable & Co., and London : T. N. Longman & O. Rees, 2nd.ed., 1804. Xvi + 287 pp., 52 plates (fldg. & partly hand-coloured). 19th c. black half-morocco ; dark green faux-leather boards ; raised bands ; gold lettering & centre-panel decorations to spine ;fore & lower edges uncut ; marbled e.p’s. 29 x 23cm. Some marks & rubbing to binding ; spine lightly discoloured ; most of top-edge of title cut replaced with paper professionally inserted ; general foxing as usual ; V.G. Bookplate of the late Lily Lambert McCarthy (1914-2006) who generously gave her important Nelson collection to the Royal Navy, housed in her gallery in Portsmouth Dockyard since 1972 . John Clerk (1728-1812) was a remarkable man by any standards and he had a profound influence on naval tactics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The younger son of Sir John Clerk (1684-1755), the author was a successful merchant living in Edinburgh who practised the art of drawing and etching, and although he had no sea experience he turned his mind to the study of naval tactics and the result has been a matter of controversy ever since, with claims that his work influenced Nelson and his contemporaries and helped to bring about great naval victories. Laughton gave his considered opinion when he wrote a century ago : The lessons he [Clerk] taught were in reality not new, but they had become so overlaid by the pedantry of routine that they had been virtually lost sight of, and notwithstanding the great victories of Hawke and Rodney, might not have been recognised by the Naval Service at large had not this civilian, from an outsider’s point of view, given one more proof that a looker-on often sees most of the game. Clerk published the first of his four parts (only) in 1782 but this was printed for private circulation only, among his friends. The first part was published again, with Additions and Improvements for the public domain, in 1790. Parts two to four did not appear until the war was well under way in 1797. This second edition, considered to be the best edition, was the first to contain all four parts and was published in 1804, the year before Trafalgar. Clerk’s work is important for at least two reasons. Firstly it was the first book in English to treat naval tactics in an analytic manner. Secondly it was the first book on the subject to be published from the British viewpoint rather than the French – all previous studies had been translated from the French with limited circulation and little official standing. Clerk demonstrates the art of Fleet attack from windward, the emphasis being upon cutting out the rearward ships of the enemy line rather than trying to engage the fleet as a whole. The analysis of this mode of attack uses examples from fleet actions of recent years and proposes methods of attack for future application. He goes on to consider attacks by fleets from the leeward, with general and miscellaneous principles and ideas. He includes important letters from admirals, observations, descriptions, and examples of great sea-fights. Actions include Matthew’s engagement off Toulon in 1744, Byng’s engagement off Minorca in 1756, Keppel’s controversial action off Ushant in 1778, Byron’s engagement off Grenada in 1779, Rodney’s engagement off Martinico in 1780, Arbuthnot’s action off the mouth of the Chesapeake in 1781, Sir Samuel Hood’s engagement off Port Royal in 1781, Admiral Parker’s fight on the Dogger Bank in 1781, Hood’s fight with De Grasse off St. Christopher in 1782, Rodney’s celebrated engagement in April 1782, Sir Edward Hughes’s engagement in the East Indies with M. Suffren in 1782, etc. The book is illustrated with 52 folding and partly hand-coloured battle-plans. An attractive copy from the library of Lily McCarthy.

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