The life of John Thomas Blight - a Victorian-era Cornish artist, archaeologist and author who should be more renowned than he is - links us to three of the things that are important for all of us: place, people and purpose.
John was born in Redruth in 1835, but moved in his infancy to Penzance. His childhood explorations across the west of the Penwith peninsula forged a strong bond between him and the landscape – his place. John’s parents ran a well-regarded boys’ school in Penzance, and their presence in the town, and that of a young lady for whom he developed deep affection, were the most prominent relationships in his life – his people. Purpose, however – a clear means by which he could use his talents to make a living - eluded John, and brought the frustrations in to his life that would lead to him being committed to Bodmin Asylum at the age of just 35.
Born to an educated Methodist family, John and his younger brother Joseph (born in 1837) had impressive artistic abilities; they were encouraged to sketch, and later to create fine-textured woodcuts of their drawings – the means by which images were reproduced in a pre-digital era. John won acclaim (and prizes, from the Polytechnic in Falmouth) for his work, and it must have seemed likely that his talent would provide him with his living; he had been born in to a family of excellent education and moderate means, but without the inheritance or land ownership that freed those described as ‘gentlemen’ from the need to earn their income.
John’s childhood and teen years spent rambling across Penwith – described in detail in the wonderful biography of John by Selina Bates & Keith Spurgin – were combined with his father’s transmitted interest in pre-history, and he shared a concern of many antiquarians at that time: that the population expansion, and concomitant enclosure of moors for farmland, was leading to the sequestering and destruction of some of these ancient features. John made many detailed sketches and descriptions of the antiquities he saw, publishing some of them in his first book ‘Ancient crosses and other antiquities of West Cornwall’ in 1856. His work was well received, and five years later he authored and illustrated a more comprehensive guide to the ancient wonders of Penwith - ‘A Week at the Land’s End’. This latter book was published in 1861, arriving, aptly, just two years after the first direct train service from London to Penzance!
Though the rail-links from London to Penzance improved from the early 1860s, John’s connections to the influential (and wealthy) in London society remained remote. He was unable to find a reliable champion of his work, thus it was almost impossible for him to acquire the steady stream of commissions he would need to earn a living sufficient to support a wife and family from his artistic endevours alone. Only a reliable source of alternative income would allow him to cease his part-time tutoring at his father’s school and feel himself to be a respected artist,, but this ambition was not to materialise. When he fell in love with a gentlewoman of Penzance – Evelina Pidwell, with whose family he had lodged – and his interest was not reciprocated, his frustrations seemed to spiral out of control. His increasingly erratic thoughts throughout the mid-1860s are documented by his biographers (Bates & Spurgin) via the letters he wrote at this time. We can speculate that John’s feelings of rebuke from Evelina were enhanced by the impression that his advances would have been more favourably received had he possessed a more secure financial standing.
In an era when poor mental health was seen as an embarrassment to be hidden rather than a situation to be remedied, John Thomas Blight began to be shunned by some of those he had associated with, further compounding his misery. Even the long walks in Penwith, which had previously exerted a stabilising influence on his mindset at times of difficulty, were not able to offer solace from his thoughts. His behaviour became increasingly erratic – and from the perspective of Evelina, increasingly uncomfortable – and by mid-1871, his actions were deemed to be sufficiently unpredictable and embarrassing as to justify his removal to Bodmin Asylum.
As we approach the end of National Mental Health Awareness Week – though perhaps every week should be designated as such – it is exactly two weeks shy of the 150th year since John entered Bodmin Asylum. It seems an appropriate point at which to reflect on how the confluence of John’s artistic talent, sensitivity to landscape and inability to find a sense of true purpose in his life collided so disastrously. Though his talents were prodigious – we can only guess at the books that he didn’t write – the difficulties he faced in balancing his needs with the constraints of reality, are still pertinent today, reminding us that mental wellbeing is a real and important factor in our lives, though it is not seen.
John’s talents remain accessible to us today through the pages of his books; his writing allows us to renew our own connections to the landscapes we live in, and rediscover that which is important. As an epitaph, the books of John Thomas Blight – who is laid to rest in an unknown grave in Bodmin – are as durable as any of the dolmens and crosses that dot the landscape that he knew so well.
Books published by John Thomas Blight include:
1858 Ancient crosses and other antiquities in the East of Cornwall
1861 A week at the Land’s End
1865 Churches of West Cornwall, with notes of Antiquities of the District
1872 Ancient Crosses and Other Antiquities in the East of Cornwall 3rd edition
...and he made contributions of images and notes to works of other authors
Biography of John Thomas Blight:
The Dust of Heroes – the life of Cornish artist, archaeologist and writer John Thomas Blight 1835 – 1911. Authors: Selina Bates & Keith Spurgin. Pub. 2006