John Clerk of Eldin and James Hutton had been friends since their days at the University of Edinburgh where they were in the same anatomy class of Alexander Monro Primus. Theirs was a friendship that lasted throughout their lives.

Clerk’s artistic abilities were well known to Hutton and it should be of no surprise that Hutton came to Clerk for assistance in providing the illustrations for his book Theory of the Earth. In order to get first hand knowledge of the selected sites, Clerk undertook several journeys with Hutton, travelling to Glen Tilt (1785), Galloway (1786), Jedburgh (1787) and Arran (1788).

Hutton was rethinking traditional concepts of geological time and age. His principal theories had evolved in the 1760s and 1770s and he had communicated his ideas to very few people, in John Playfair’s opinion “…to none but his friends Dr Black and Mr Clerk of Eldin”. The drawings that Clerk executed in these journeys around Scotland were intended specifically for the last volumes of Theory of the Earth. The first two parts were published in 1795 while last two volumes with the drawings were not ready for publication before Hutton's death in 1797. The drawings probably never left Clerk of Eldin's hands. They disappeared from sight for nearly one hundred and seventy years, eventually rediscovered in 1968 in the Clerk of Penicuik archive.

The drawings are surprisingly accurate in their technical detail, and beautifully executed in pencil, pen and various types of wash. They have a delicacy and clarity which is hardly seen in his picturesque drawings, understandable perhaps in that they were intended to be engraved. In tribute to Clerk’s work, seeing as “..... Mr Clerk's pencil was ever at the command of his friend, and has certainly rendered him most essential service”, Hutton dedicated the first copy of Theory of the Earth “to Mr Clerk of Eldin, from his most affectionate friend and fellow traveler (sic), Dr James Hutton”.

(Quotes are from John Playfair, ‘Biographical Account of the Late Dr. James Hutton. F.R.S. Edinburgh’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Vol.5, no.iii, 1805, pp.39-99.)

For the fullest description of the drawings and their relationship to Theory of the Earth, see James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth: The Lost Drawings, Scottish Academic Press 1978, edited by G.Y.Craig with texts by G.Y.Craig, D.B.McIntyre and C.D.Waterson. ISBN 0 7030 218 9.    A selection of the drawings

Geoffrey Bertram
January 2012