In 1806 Clarkson Stanfield was apprenticed to a heraldic coach painter but in 1808 went to sea in a Shields collier. In 1812 he was pressed into the Navy serving on the Sheerness guardship Namur under Roderick Bland in London. Here his talents were noticed.
In 1816 he began working as a scene-painter in London’s minor theatres, becoming associated with the Scottish painter David Roberts. In 1822 both were engaged by Elliston, the ‘Great Lessee’ of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Over the next twelve years here, Stanfield established his dominance as the greatest theatrical painter of the age, with work that both raised scenic standards and helped to develop a popular taste for landscape art. He was famous for his great ‘moving dioramas’ in Christmas pantomime – vast land and seascape travelogues, some twenty feet high and several hundred feet long that unrolled across the stage with complex effects of light and mechanics. He painted similar exhibitions for showing outside the theatre, panoramas of the Destruction of Algiers in 1816 and the Battle of Navarino in 1827 which he painted with Roberts and others.
Stanfield’s rise as an easel artist was contemporaneous with and encourage by his scenic fame. Though both landscape and marine artist, he most successfully combined the two in coastal views. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1820 and between 1830 and his death, in 1867, he only failed to contribute in 1839. Some of his early successes were at the British Institution from 1820 and in 1823 he was an original member of the SBA becoming is president in 1829. In 1830 a stormy piece tilted ‘St. Michaels Mount’ (RA 1830, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) attracted the attention of William IV and earned him two royal commissions, ‘Portsmouth Harbour’ and ‘The Opening of New London Bridge’ (BI 1832, RA 1832). After this Stanfield’s prosperity was assured and he was elected ARA in 1832 and RA in 1835 only weeks after giving up theatre work.
The occasional scenic work which he later did for friends only added to his fame; his marine act-drop of the Eddystone Light for his close friend Charles Dickens’ amateur production of Wilkie Collins’ The Lighthouse in 1855, is one of the earliest surviving pieces of English scene-painting. (Dickens House, London)
He was almost entirely self-taught by his association with artist-scene-painters, notably those of northern connection. He was a friend and admirer of John ‘Jock’ Wilson (q.v.) and was advised by Wilson’s master, Alexander Nasmyth; at the Coburg Theatre (from 1818) he worked for a time under J.T. Serres (q.v.).
Stanfield did much work for engraving beginning in 1827 with contributions to the London and its Vicinity of George Cooke, whose son Edward (q.v.) he encouraged as a painter and who became his principle follower. His wide British and European travels furnished material for other works, notably his own Coast Scenery (1836) and Sketches on the Moselle… etc. (1838). He also illustrated The Pirate and The Three Cutters (1836) and Poor Jack (1840), sea stories by his friend Captain Marryat.
Stanfield received several artistic honours and was appointed he first Curator of Pictures at Greenwich Hospital in 1844.