James Clarke Hook (1819-1907)

by Gillian Devine

James Clark Hook by Ralph Winwood Robinson, published by C. Whittingham & Co platinum print, circa 1891. NPG x7370. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Licensed under Creative Commons.

I think it is fair to say that the Victorian artist, James Clarke Hook, (1819-1907) exerted an enormous influence on the development of, what was in the late nineteenth century, the poor and isolated village of Churt.

Hook was an English painter and etcher of marine, genre and historical scenes, and landscapes. He was a famous painter in his day, though now less known than he deserves.

He was born in London and studied at the Royal Academy Schools from 1836. He was elected Associate of the RA in 1850 and member in 1860. He was a prolific artist and exhibited some 200 paintings at the RA. From 1856 to 1902 he continued to paint and exhibit his "Hookscapes," as they came to be known, regularly every year.

In 1857, he left London and settled in Witley, near Godalming, but in 1865 he bought a farm and a large acreage of land in Churt. He built his country house, "Silverbeck", on the land and lived there with his family for the rest of his life. Mr Hook was one of the first middle class or professional people to make Churt their home. By 1895 he was one of the principal landowners.

The arrival of such a prominent artist must have put Churt on the map. Many famous artists including Myles Birkett Foster and John Everett Millais visited Silverbeck, exotic visitors to an area which in 1871 had been described in the Surrey Advertiser like this:

At a distance of about seven or eight miles from Farnham, and about midway between that town and Haslemere, from the latter of which it is separated by the Hindhead hills, lies the most sequestered portion of the most romantic scenery in the wilds of Surrey, embosomed in which is situated the picturesque village of Churt, with its verdant fields and leafy lanes, standing forth in the midst of “brown heath and shaggy wood”, like oases in the broad desert. The primitive appearance of the place, the quaint character of its few early buildings, the nearly new church on the hill, and other features suggest comparison with a missionary station in a foreign land’. ‘The resemblance is equally close in another point of view, the intellectual and moral condition of the inhabitants having been up to a comparatively recent period of a low standard: and we are led to believe that its secluded lanes were associated only with deeds of violence and horror, while they afforded a safe retreat for smugglers and highwaymen.

In fact when Mr Hook travelled from Witley to Churt carrying money with which to pay the workmen building Silverbeck he carried a pistol in fear of robbery.

In the years after Hook first came to Churt he built a large number of properties on his land in the north west of Churt whilst removing several old cottages. Hook had been brought up as a Methodist and was a very committed Liberal. He was a friend of many of the other Pre-Raphaelite artists including Millais, William Holman Hunt and G. F and Mary Watts, who visited him in Churt. It is likely that these connections explain why the memorial to the first World War in St John’s church was created by Mary Watts’ Compton potters.

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