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antiques: IT'S TIME TO SOLVE DIAL ART MYSTERY By Christopher Proudlove.

REGULAR readers of this column will know by now I enjoy unearthing previously forgotten artists. It is also no secret I'm a great fan of antique clocks.

I have seen hundreds of longcase clocks on my travels and I've often wondered who might have been responsible for painting the decoration on their white enamelled dials.

I'm grateful, therefore, to Maggie Parker - with her husband, Lionel, she organises the Haydock Park Northern Clock and Watch Fairs - whose suggestion for a topic this week kills two birds with one stone.

From May 25 to June 22 in 1907, one John Finnie (1829-1907) was lauded at a memorial exhibition of paintings in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, an event marked by a splendidly produced catalogue of which Maggie has a rare copy.

A biographical sketch on the opening pages makes a fascinating read. The words are almost all Finnie's, compiled from memoranda and many conversations with him by the author, who is sadly identified only by the initials ERD.

I discovered this week, via ERD, that not only does Finnie fall into the "forgotten" camp, but thanks to Maggie Parker I now know the wonderful, naive and picturesque scenes on our clocks were down to journeyman artists like him.

But forgotten? Finnie was headmaster of Liverpool's Mechanics' Institute and, when he retired to North Wales, he became a member of the Royal Cambrian Academy. Today, however, his name and his work have both fallen into obscurity.

A restorer of clocks and their dials, Maggie explained: "While doing research for a talk, I became convinced of a connection between artists who eventually went on to earn a living painting and exhibiting, and dial painters."

Finnie's Walker catalogue provided the evidence. He was born in Aberdeen, the son of a brass founder whose ambition was to make steel from Scottish iron. The venture failed and Finnie senior emigrated to Australia, leaving the boy to fend for himself.

Aged 10, Finnie enrolled at a mechanics' institute in Scotland where he was instructed in the art of drawing. At 13 or 14, he apprenticed himself to an Edinburgh house painter and decorator.

Circumstances later found him in Wolverhampton, where he became an apprentice japanner, painting the decoration on enamelled tea trays.

Eighteen months later, the company he worked for failed and he returned to Edinburgh finding work in another japanner's shop.

"By the time I was 16 I could have had a job as foreman, but I was a restless dog and wanted to see the world. So I shouldered my kit and set out to go around it, armed with a trade at my fingers' end as passport," he said.

"My first objective was Paris, and I got as far on the way there as Glasgow, where I settled down for a while to paint clock faces a 30 shillings a week."

Returning to Edinburgh, Finnie made good money as a painter and decorator but then moved to Newcastle on Tyne, where he worked for the next five years as a glass painter and picture restorer. In his spare time he attanded the School of Design under W Bell Scott. In 1853, he moved to London, intent on becoming an independent artist. He said: "I painted six pictures, but when it came to selling them I could only get the price of the frames. I also painted portraits (which the sitters didn't like)."

Unable to support himself, he swallowed his pride and, with a letter of recommendation from Scott, enrolled in a training school to teach art.

He found work in charge of a night class at the Westminster School of Art, and moved to Liverpool in 1855 to become master of the Art School at the city's Mechanics' Institution.

With support from art patron and educator Sir Henry Cole and the artist Richard Redgrave, Finnie introduced the systematic teaching of drawing in all the city's elementary schools.

He retired in 1896, having been headmaster for 41 years, whereupon he started a new phase in his life as a full-time artist. He sold his home at 20 Huskisson Street and although he retained his studio in Islington, he moved to Tywyn. There, he joined Conwy's Royal Cambrian Academy, becoming its treasurer the following year.

The Walker has a number of Finnie's paintings in its collection, including Snowdon from Capel Curig, which was painted in 1870.

The fair at Haydock Park Racecourse is on Sunday August 24. Doors open at 9am and entry is pounds 5 (pounds 2 after 10.30am). More details on 01691 8311622


Painted enamel dials from Victorian longcase clocks - sadly unsigned and anonymous - and the catalogue to the Walker Art Gallery memorial exhibition of John Finnie's paintings
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 16, 2008
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