The Rev. John Clubbe was one of Gainsborough’s drinking buddies in Suffolk and known as an author of humorous and satirical tracts. His is a gentle and leisurely humor, said with a twinkle of his eye, rather than a snarl of the lips.
Born in Suffolk around 1703, he went up to Cambridge, graduating B.A. from King’s College in 1725. He was ordained (as a deacon) in 1725 and became vicar of Debenham in Suffolk in 1730. In 1735, he succeeded his father, Rev. George Clubbe, as Rector of Whatfield, a post he retained for the rest of his life. Whatfield is about two miles from Hadleigh, and ten from Ipswich. In 1732, Clubbe married Susannah Beeston and they had twelve children, of whom eight survived him.
Clubbe’s first publication was a sermon from 1751, or, more fully, A sermon preached before the Incorporated Society for the Relief of the Widows and Orphans of Clergymen within the County of Suffolk; at their anniversary meeting in the parish-church of St. Mary at Tower, Ipswich, on Thursday the 18th of July 1751. Published at the Request of several of the Members then present. By John Clubb, Rector of Whatfield, and Vicar of Debenham, Suffolk. This was his only strictly serious work. He followed the sermon in 1758 with, The history and antiquities of the ancient villa of Wheatfield, in the county of Suffolk, a burlesque on Morant’s History and Antiquities of Colchester published ten years earlier. To give you a feel for his writing, I quote the opening of his preface:
It is a customary Respect generally paid to the Reader to give him, by way of Preface, some Account of the Book he has been at the Expence of purchasing, and purposes to be at the Trouble of Reading : I call it Respect, in concert with my Fellow-writers ; but I do not, in the least, desire him to entertain a more favorable Opinion, either of my Manners, or of my Regard for him from this Circumstance ; for I can assure him, we durst not hazard our Works into the World, absolutely upon their own Bottom, but are obliged previously to point out the Beauties, &c. lest they should not strike the Reader so forcibly as, perhaps, they have us, the Authors, or Editors.
As this is one Reason, and generally the principal one, for Prefaces, so there is another, a much more humble one, which indeed gave Birth to this ; and that is to acquaint the Publick with what Labor, Injury to Health, and Loss of Eyes I have finished the following History. Indeed, courteous Reader, I have spent the major Part of a long Life in this Study, and I have inverted, as it were, the very Form of my Body in your Service ; which was once plumpish, and inclining to fat upwards, but by my Sedentariness is now fallen downwards, to the no small Increase of my Legs…
The text rolls on in similar vein. Later we read,
Nothing since the Conquest of this Island by the Duke of Normandy, commonly called WILLIAM the Conqueror, has happened to this Village in particular
And after exploring all the different historical groups leading to the present, the rector describes his parish as the melting-pot of Suffolk:
The present State of this Parish differs nothing from the ancient in Point of Fruitfulness. The People by Intermarriages, and other ways, have passed through so many Combinations, that they are all set down under the common Denomination of English. They are Christians, as appears most evidently from the Parish Register ; and all of them, when they do not stay at Home, go to the same Place of Worship ; except one — —, who retaining some Tenets of his British Paganism, pays his Devotions under an Oak, or a Walnut-Tree, with a modern Druid, every Sabbath-Day.
It was around this time that Gainsborough painted Clubbe’s portrait.
In 1763, Clubbe published his next work another spoof called Physiognomy, or to give its full 18th –century title, Physiognomy; being a sketch only of a larger work upon the same plan: wherein the different tempers, passions, and manners of men, will be particularly considered. This book is dedicated to Hogarth, who, as he did for Kirby, provided a frontispiece.
The caption reads “A. absolute Gravity, B. Conatus against absolute Gravity, C. partial Gravity, D. comparative Gravity, E. horizontal, or good Sence, F. Wit, G. comparative Levity or Coxcombe, H. partial Levity or pert Fool, I. absolute Levity or Stark Fool”, these being the heads under which Clubbe weighs his subjects.
In 1765, Clubbe published what probably became his best-known work, A letter of free advice to a young clergyman, which does exactly what it says. It is a serious work, and touches on some of the same themes of the life of the clergy that he explored in his sermon of 1751, but the advice is given with his customary gentle grace. Here is the opening:
If Age and Experience were always productive of Wisdom, you certainly judged right in asking my Advice, who have a great Share of both; for, on this Sea of Life, the Man, who lives to make the most Voyages, stands the best Chance of discovering the Rocks and Sands that lie concealed in it. But the Misfortune is, some Men keep no Journals at all, others will not be so kind to let us peruse theirs, and others have not Humanity enough to drop a cautionary Buoy for the Benefit of the next Adventurers ; as if they had an Interest in the Wreck, or took Pleasure in seeing Men drown. Old-Age oftentimes looks no farther backward than to the Funeral of it’s past Pleasures, not forward beyond it’s Crutches ; and Experience itself is frequently unaccompanied with Observation and Reflexion.
He also counsels the young clergyman against the dangers of sudden preferment:
You tell me you are now in full Orders, and think you could manage a good Rectory with a little of my Assistance.—I believe you could without it, as well as any one of your Years ; but excuse me if I do not desire to see you possessed of one at present. When Preferment comes very early in Life, I have seen many a rising Genius ruined by it ; some Men taking into a Life of Pleasure, others into an easy Chair of Sleep and Indolence, and others into Sordidness and Illiberality of Mind : So that Books stand upon their Shelves like Mural Monuments is some of our Churches covered over with Dust, to record the Idleness and Sloth of their departed Readers, as the other the Forgetfulness and Disrespect of their surviving Friends.
All in all, he seems to have been a genial and likeable person, loved by his family, and admired in his time, but less known now. So here’s to Rev. John Clubbe clinking tankards with Gainsborough at The Tankard in Ipswich.