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Kay's Originals Vol. 2


BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. 439 In politics Mr. Clerk was a keen Whig ; and in 1806, when that party came into power for a short time, he was appointed Solicitor-General in the room of Robert Blair of Aventoun. This appointment he held only during the limited period of one year, while his friends were in office ; and his elevation to the bench did not occur till 1823. In consequence of the infirmities of age, his lordship resigned five years afterwards, and died at his house in Picardy Place, on the 30th May 1832. At the time Lord Eldin was raised to the bench he was advanced in years, and a gradual decrease of business had previously given intimation that he had ceased to be regarded by agents as the vigorous and energetic pleader he once was. Perhaps at no period of his legal career would John Clerk ever have given satisfaction as a judge ; for, with all his talent and professional skill, he was one of those persons who could only see one side in a cause ; and although this may be an advantage at the bai for the client, it is assuredly a serious disadvantage on the bench for a suitor. As it was, no fair chance occurred to test the judicial talents of this once distinguished barrister ; for his faculties at the date of his elevation were seriously impaired-an assertion, the truth of which his decisions afford ample proof. On one occasion, shortly before his removal from the judgment-seat, a debate had been partly heard before him one day and concluded the next. The astonishment of counsel may be conceived, when, at the termination, the judge candidly announced he did not know what the parties were talking about, and proposed that they should recommence the debate, and repeat all they had previously said. This was one of his last appearances in Court. Mr. Clerk was not remarkable either for symmetry of person or beauty of countenance. He was about as plain a looking man as could well be imagined. His inattention to dress was proverbial. In walking he had a considerable halt, one of his legs being shorter than the other. Proceeding down the High Street one day from the Court of Session, he overheard a young lady saying to her companion rather loudly, “ There goes Johnnie Clerk, the lame lawyer.” Upon which be turned round, and, with his usual face of expression, said, “ No, madam ; I may be a lame man, but not a lame lawyer 1,’ In Peter’s Letters occurs the following character of him while at the bar, which, though a little exaggerated, is on the whole a fair portraiture :- ‘‘ By the unanimous consent of his brethren, bfr. John Clerk is the present Choryphaeus of the bar-‘Juris consultomm mi seculi faeile primp.’ Others there are that surpass him in a In 1797 Mr. Smellie was employed to print a new edition of that work, with remarks by Admiral Rodney, whose engagement at the Dover Bank, in 1782, was said to have been gained in consequence of following the tactics recommended by Mr. Clerk, of whose manuscript he had obtained a perusal prior to that period. Although Mr. Clerk had revised and corrected the whole of the proof-sheets with his own hands, Mr. Smellie was surprised, on presenting hi account, to be told by Mr. Clerk that he had no recollection of ever employing him to print the work ; and even after having been shown the proofsheets, with his own corrections, he could hardly be persuaded of the fact. A similar instance of forgetfulness is told of his son, Lord Eldin. He employed Nr. Hutchison to print a work for him, and afterwards denied ever having done so. Latterly his memory failed entirely.’ His father, the author of “Naval Tactics,” laboured under the same infirmity.
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440 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. few particular points both of learning and of practice, but on the whole, his superiority is entirely unrivalled and undisputed. Those who approach the nearest to him are indeed so much his juniors, that he cannot fail to have an immense ascendancy over them, both from the actual advantages of his longer study and experience, and, without offence to him or them be it added, from the effects of their early admiration of him, while he was rn yet far above their sphere. Do not suppose, however, that I mean to represent any part of the respect with which these gentlemen treat their senior, as the result of empty prejudice. Never was any man less of a quack than Mr. Clerk ; the very essence of his character is scorn of ornament, and utter loathing of affectation. He is the plainest, the shrewdest, and the most sarcastic of men ; his sceptre owes the whole of its power to its weight-nothing to glitter. ‘ I It is impossible to imagine a physiognomy more expressive of the character of a great lawyer and barrister. The features are in theinselves good-at least a painter would call them so ; and the upper part of the profile has as fine lines as could be wished. But then, how the habits of the mind have stamped their traces on every part of his face ! What sharpness, what razor-like sharpness, has indented itself about the wrinkles of his eyelids ; the eyes themselves, so quick, so gray, such bafflers of scrutiny, such exquisite scrutinisers, how they change their expression-it seems almost how they change their colour-shifting from contracted, concentrated blackness, through every shade of brown, blue, green, and hazel, back into their open, gleaming gray again. How they glisten into a smile of disdain !-Aristotle says, that all laughter springs from emotions of conscious superiority. I never saw the Stagyrite so well illustrated as in the smile of this gentleman, He seems to be affected with the most dclightful and balmy feelings, by the contemplation of some soft-headed, prosing driveller racking his poor brain, or bellowing his lungs out-all about something which he, the smiler, sees through so thoroughly, so distinctly. Blunder follows blunder ; the mist thickens about the brain of the bewildered hammerer ; and every plunge of the bogtrotter-every decpcning shade of his confusion-is attested by some more copious infusion of Sardonic suavity into the horrible, ghastly, grinning smile of the happy Mr. Clerk. How he chuckles over the solemn spoon whom he hath fairly got into his power. When he rises at the conclusion of his display, he seems to collect himself like a kite above a covey of partridges ; he is in no hurry to come down, but holds his victims ‘with his glittering eye,’ and smiles sweetly, and yet more sweetly, the bitter assurance of their coming fate ; then out he stretches his arm, as the kite may his wing, and changing the smile by degrees into a frown, and drawing down his eyebrows from their altitude among the wrinkles of his forehead, and making them to hang like fringes quite over his diminishing and brightening eyes, and mingling a tincture of deeper scorn in the wave of his lips, and projecting his chin, and suffusing his whole face with the very livery of wrath, how he pounces with a scream upon his prey-and may the Lord have mercy upon their unhappy souls ! ” Although his legal studies must have engrossed the greater part of his time, Mr. Clerk still found leisure to indulge a taste for the fine arts. He occasionally amused himself in drawing and painting. He was a skilful modeller ; and even while seated on the bench with his colleagues, he was known to gratify his fondness for the ludicrous, by pencilling any object that might strike his fancy.’ In the course of his long life he had collected a very extensive selection of paintings,’ sketches, and rare prints. At the saie of these, by auction, at his lordship’s house in Picardy Place, a short time after his death, a serious accident occurred. The floor of the apartment gave way, and the crowd of purchasers were precipitated from the drawing-room to the dining-room flat, in a previous part of this Work. agent happened to call on him next day. “I know not,” was the reply. painting of a cat, which he said he would not have given one shilling for. We believe he furnished Kay with the original sketch of the “Three Legal Devotees,” given in Mr. Clerk had been paid a fee of one hundred guineas for pleading in a particular case. The ‘ I John,” said Clerk, ‘ I where do you think your fee is ? ” “There it is,” said he. On looking up the agent perceived a small
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