A PORTRAIT of one of the North East’s leading lights of the 19th Century returned home yesterday after its owners ran out of walls to hang it on.
A 6ft by 4ft painting of John Clayton – who saved large tracts of the Roman Wall in the 19th Century – was unveiled at English Heritage’s Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.
The Chesters estate was the home of archaeologist and lawyer Mr Clayton, who as town clerk of Newcastle for 45 years worked closely with developer Richard Grainger and architect John Dobson to create what is now known as Grainger Town in the city. He died in 1890, aged 98.
His portrait has hung on the walls of law firms in Newcastle since it was painted in 1863, when Clayton was 71.
But it was donated to Chesters fort by the Newcastle office of lawyers Eversheds after the firm moved to open plan offices and no longer had anywhere to hang it.
The newly-restored portrait will hang in the recently-refurbished on-site Edwardian museum, which houses Clayton’s stunning collection of Roman antiquities.
Kevin Booth, senior curator with English Heritage North East collections team, said: “Clayton was a great man, as well as a respected antiquarian, and it’s wonderful to see the portrait hanging so close to the fort.
“We’re very grateful to Eversheds for gifting the portrait to us and returning it to a place that honours the role and work that Clayton put into the conservation of Hadrian’s Wall.”
The portrait of Clayton depicts him dressed in his familiar black suit with robe and cravat and the portrait highlights his achievements as he gestures towards a window leading to Grey Street in Newcastle – which he was involved in creating. Clayton was a reluctant sitter and there are only three paintings of him in existence.
Even less is known about the artist. Census data suggests that he could be Edward Sawyer, born in 1828 in North Shields but living first in Bishopwearmouth in Sunderland and then Newcastle.
The final pieces of the painting’s history will be pieced together by English Heritage. Interpreting Clayton’s robes, searching for more historical reference to the commissioning of the portrait and finding out more about the artist are all planned.
Also unveiled at Chesters yesterday was a viewing platform to allow people to look over the Roman bridge abutment on the far side of the Tyne – the structure that supported the base of the bridge at either side of the river bank. A new model, situated close to the visitor centre will help people to orientate themselves with the fort on arrival and will also act as a tactile resource for visitors with impaired sight and mobility who cannot easily reach the Roman remains.