ERNEST CLEGG [1876-1954]
Ernest Costain Clegg [1876-1954] has until now remained a relatively little-known figure in the history of 20th Century decorative cartography, calligraphy and graphic design. My recent series of Blog posts (Parts 1, 2 & 3) have, I hope, gone some way to redressing that over-long obscurity. These have uncovered a wealth of new biographical information & facts about Clegg, from which it has been possible to piece together a truly remarkable life story and to reveal an immensely talented artist & accomplished map maker. Here is a man who, in my opinion, deserves to be brought out of the shadows & unwarranted decades of obscurity to take his rightful place in the pantheon of “greats” of 20th Century map making and graphic design.
Born in the suburbs of Birmingham in 1876, he was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Aston before gaining a place at the Birmingham School of Art. Heavily influenced by the Victorian Arts & Crafts Movement, Clegg soon established himself as a specialist calligrapher, drawing inspiration from the richly gilded & beautifully hand-decorated illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period.
Already a volunteer with the local Shropshire Yeomanry Cavalry, at the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 he enlisted as a trooper with the 7th Dragoon Guards and saw active service in South Africa in 1900-1901 during the British advance into the Orange River Colony & Transvaal with units of the 4th Cavalry Brigade under the Divisional command of General French. Invalided home in May 1901, Clegg quickly recovered & re-enlisted with Robert Baden-Powell’s newly formed South African Constabulary. Missing the end of wartime hostilities in South Africa due to a severe bout of enteric fever, he was eventually posted to the SAC’s Harrismith sub-divisional HQ in the Transvaal in the summer of 1902. A year later he was transferred to the SAC Reserve and took up a 6 month post in the offices of the District Engineer of Railways in Harrismith. After returning to Birmingham in early 1905 and re-enrolling at the Birmingham School of Art, he emigrated to the United States in 1909, having been recruited as a jewellery designer by the New York firm of Tiffany. In 1911 he married Australian actress, Rita Holden Macdonnell, in Bermuda.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, in late 1914 he returned yet again to England and took a commission with the 7th (Service) Battalion, The Bedfordshire Regiment (“The Shiny 7th”). He served with the Bedfordshires on the Western Front from early 1915 and by early 1916 had been promoted to the rank of Major and was for a short period, temporary Commanding Officer of the Battalion. It was during this period, whilst on home leave in May 1916, that a chance visit to HMS Revenge at Scapa Flow resulted in Clegg being the only British Army officer to witness at first hand, from the decks of that ship, the unfolding events of the naval Battle of Jutland. He would repeat the feat again at the end of the War, when as a guest on board the same vessel, he also witnessed the final surrender of the German High Seas Fleet. He would later record both these historic events and the individual ships involved in a series of attractive watercolours, several of which now hang on display at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.
Badly wounded on the front line in a German artillery bombardment just days before the Battle of the Somme in late June 1916, he eventually returned to active service in France in early 1917 but ended the war in a series of Home postings, perhaps tacit recognition by his superiors of the deep physical & psychological scars left by his earlier front line experiences in France.
Returning to the United States in late 1919, Clegg became a well-known figure in the US & British veteran community in New York and attracted increasing patronage once more as a specialist calligrapher & graphic designer. In late 1921 he worked with the New York Fine Art publisher, William Edward Rudge, in beautifully lettering & illustrating a special limited edition of Canadian war poet John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Further book commissions soon followed, including an illuminated manuscript wedding gift presented to the British Princess Royal (Princess Mary) on the occasion of her marriage to Viscount Lascelles in 1922. By the mid 1920’s Clegg had moved increasingly into decorative cartography & map design. In 1928 the New York John Day Company published his large & beautifully designed map celebrating American aviator Charles Lindbergh’s historic first solo flight across the Atlantic in May of the previous year. In the late 1920’s & early 1930’s Clegg was also increasingly active as a graphic illustrator & magazine artist, producing advertising designs for the likes of Firestone Tyres as well as illustrations & maps for articles in popular US magazines.
A keen yachtsman himself, in the early 1930’s Clegg designed a series of decorative printed charts which recorded the three successive Americas Cup competitions which took place off Newport, Rhode Island in 1930, 1934 & 1937. Skippered on each occasion by US railway magnate, Harold S Vanderbilt [1884-1970], the J-Class American yachts – Enterprise, Rainbow & Ranger – defeated their British contenders in all three contests. Clegg’s charts provide a unique complimentary record of this high point of American international yacht racing in the pre-War era.
Though he remained in New York in the early stages of World War Two, in late 1944 Clegg again returned to England, it is said following a personal request from the British Ambassador in Washington, Lord Halifax. Initially settling in Bournemouth he was soon employed in producing a series of decorative County map designs which first appeared in print in early 1945. Their purpose was to raise money for the Women’s Land Army Benevolent Fund, providing post-war financial support for the many thousands of women volunteers who had done so much to sustain British food production and agriculture throughout the war years. The maps were promoted by the Countryman magazine and were printed & published by Leeds game manufacturer, John Waddington & Sons Ltd (perhaps best known for the game of Monopoly). Sadly a full set of these County maps never appeared, though by early 1947 Waddingtons had published well over a dozen of Clegg’s maps which proved extremely popular & were marketed for sale both at home & abroad. The rising cost of post-war paper appear to have condemned the project to a sudden & premature end, though Clegg himself was recognized for his much-valued services with the award of an M.B.E. in the New Year’s Honours List of 1947.
The final years of Clegg’s life in an impoverished post-war Britain proved increasingly challenging. His wife’s death in 1949, which he took very hard, was followed by successive residential moves around the London suburbs & Home counties, before the aged war veteran finally took up up residence in a small British Army retirement home, Huntly, near Bishopsteignton on the South Devon coast in about 1952. In declining health, Ernest Clegg finally passed away in complete obscurity in a nearby Paignton nursing home on 7th December 1954.