A tale of two brothers: Thomas and John Graham Lough

John Graham Lough in his studio by Ralph Hedley: According to Joshua Lax in his 1884 book Historical and Descriptive Poems, this was the sculptor's 'make or break' moment. John Graham Lough's room was too small for him to use his chisel on his statue of Milo, so..."With the recklessness of a bold genius reduced to desperation, he actually broke through the ceiling of the room above him, and made for himself sufficient space to work at his statue. The owner began to take steps for instituting legal proceedings, and even consulted Mr. Brougham (afterwards Lord Brougham) for this purpose. Brougham went to look at the Milo, and see for himself what Lough had done... The news of the strange affair soon spread, and, before long, the whole street where Lough's room was situated was lined with the carriages of ladies and gentlemen, who had come to view the place, and to see Milo."

One would achieve international renown as one of the finest sculptors of his time, the other would die a pauper in a County Durham workhouse; the Lough brothers were born more than 200 years ago into an ordinary rural working class family, but their lives would take extraordinary - and very diverging - directions.

John Graham and Thomas were two of 11 children born to William and Barbara (nee Clemetson) Lough, John Graham being born on January 8 1798 and Thomas on May 7 1801.

John Graham Lough shot to sculptural stardom while still in his twenties; he'd travelled to London to study the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum in 1824. By 1826 he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy, and was feted by London society and bankrolled by wealthy patrons.

The burn in Ramshaw
The Ramshaw Flood... subject of Thomas Lough's 1848 poem

His works include the Collingwood Monument at Tynemouth, others that grace the interiors of St Paul's and Canterbury Cathedrals, statues of Victoria and Albert at the Royal Exchange, and even the lions at the foot of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.

By contrast, his brother Tom's career took the course that was more or less expected of a young man from a humble home; he went into his father's trade, and probably his grandfather's before that.

Local historian in the 1960s Fred Wade writes a pitying account of Thomas Lough's wasted talents: "He served his apprenticeship as a blacksmith in his father's shop at Greenhead and later was employed as a blacksmith at the Ramshaw Lead Mines, but he soon left his honourable means of earning a livelihood and took to a life of roaming. He was an able artist, poet and musician, and might have made a name for himself in any one of these professions, but he wasted his talents, and became what we in North West Durham call a "Rodney". All he earned at fairs, shows and hirings by his fiddle went in tobacco and strong drink, which was more to him than nectar to the gods."

Other records suggest Tom's decline wasn't quite as definitive as Fred Wade believed; Fred says Lough roamed the counties of Durham and Northumberland for more than 50 years, but he's listed in the 1839 account of Blanchland's Riding the Bounds as one of dozens of 'runners' who joined in with the 'perambulations' of the estate boundaries on foot (and admittedly much beer was consumed at the rest points and in the pubs along the way).

One other interesting record which has come to light is an 1831 article from "The New Sportsman" magazine, in which the author who is visiting the area for the grouse shooting, tells of a chance meeting on the road to Blanchland...

"By degrees, we learned that his name was Lough, and to the inquiry if he was any relation to the Sculptor of that name, he replied, scratching his head - "Why yes, I believe I'm his father, at least so they tell me." At this point, John Graham Lough had been working in Rome for three years; he'd probably not seen his parents for some time!

The Ramshaw Flood by Thomas Lough

The poem in full: click on the image to read.

If it had happened today it would have been remembered as "08/08/08": on August 8th, 1808, the North East of England was lashed by a violent storm. John Sykes in his Historical Register of Remarkable Events wrote a lengthy report on the devastation: chimneys destroyed and bell wires inside Newcastle houses melted by lightning; pavements forced up by rushing floodwater; people, sheep and cattle killed by the electric fluid - and this: "A new smelting mill at Derwent-heads, near Blanchland, was nearly swept away by the flood, together with a large quantity of lead ore."

Thomas Lough would have been just seven years old at the time, old enough perhaps to have a terrifying memory of being woken in the night by the shrieking power of the storm raging outside. But it would be in his work as a blacksmith at Ramshaw Lead Mines more than 30 years later that he would have heard the old men in Ramshaw relate the dramatic detail of the night, which would provide him with the material for The Ramshaw Flood.

Today, "The Bard of Derwent's" overblown rhyming couplets and hyperbolic classical references lead the reader to expect terrible human calamity, death and destruction on a leviathan scale. The reality is more mundane; 'Dent' loses two of his most precious possessions - his pipe tobacco and his pet canaries!

The strength of the storm certainly seems to have warranted Thomas' melodramatic descriptions; the floodwaters forced away rocks and boulders to reveal a valuable bounty of lead ore, silver and sparkling fluorspar.

According to the sportsman's account, John Graham Lough was rocketed to national and international attention as a sculptor because the owner of Minsteracres Estate, George Silvertop, had seen the lad's potential and helped him make his way. "I remember his debut in the Metropolis," says the author, "and the apparent determination exhibited by part of the press to publish as many mis-statements respecting him as possible. He was lauded to the skies, in a manner enough to ruin any young artist..."

So John Graham Lough had a meteoric rise to celebrity status, and back home in Blanchland, brother Thomas, at nearly 30 years old, still seems unable to find a clear direction...

The grouse shooter continues his account with their arrival in Blanchland: "A very excellent Inn is kept here by Mr Blenk, where the sportsman finds every accommodation and attention. Lough occupies a small neat cottage about 50 yards out of the square, to which having accompanied him, he showed us several of the earlier productions of the son, and related several instances of his talent; but we were unable to learn from him, that any former member of the family had exhibited a similar genius.

"There is another son who, I understand, has since turned his attention to the arts, but who had not then discovered in what department of science his genius reposed."

Here, Thomas is mentioned only in passing, and despite his skills as a musician, poet and artist, at the age of 30 he is already in the shadow of his renowned sculptor brother.

In his 1884 book Historical and Descriptive Poems, Joshua Lax confirms that Thomas did indeed feel that his brother was stealing his thunder: "Poor Tom often told me how jealous he was when the Squire (George Silvertop) entered the cottage lest John should claim some of his drawings..."

It must have galled him to have to namedrop his brother, the famous sculptor, in the subtitle of his poem The Ramshaw Flood, published in 1848, presumably to sell more copies of his own work. But by then, perhaps he was grasping at any celebrity he could.

In contrast to Fred Wade's conclusion of alcoholism, though, Mr Lax's account suggests that Thomas' chaotic vagrancy may have been due to mental illness, which in the mid-1800s would have gone undiagnosed and untreated...

"Among his peculiarities was an utter hatred to the colour red, an aversion to looking-glasses, and a dislike to any room where there was a flood of light and strong reflection. He also disliked to see a hole in the wall, and would, if allowed, stuff it with paper, turn the looking-glass around, and cover up any shining ornament which offended his eye.

Byron's 'Mazeppa'
Byron's Mazeppa: Thomas Lough would draw scenes from the poem and sell the illustrations in local pubs.

"A friend,who knew the Lough family well, told me that Tom commenced his wandering life as early as the year 1826 or 1827. When the engines for the Messrs. Annandale's paper mills were being laid down, the engineers engaged in the work used to frequent the Bridge End Inn, Shotley Bridge, in the evenings, where Lough often turned up to entertain them with the Jew's harp, and fiddle, and by reciting his own and the poems of other authors, and by airing his drawing talents... His favourite subjects in drawing were The Ninevite Bull - a mythical animal with a human head and five legs - The Flying Ass, Group of 'Bacchanalians', Byron's Mazeppa and a group containing two human figures and several savage-looking horses; the latter of which I have in my possession; it is not only vigorously drawn, but is a wonderful conception, and, with other productions of his, shows how his mind, stored with the literature of Greece and Rome, teemed with imagery.

"His favourite authors were Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Byron, and Burns; the first of whom he had read earliest and most earnestly, and in consequence his mind received the strongest of its colours from the great Greek.

"His performances on the violin were of the most comical character... Placing the fiddle between his knees when in a sitting posture, he used the bow vigorously, and thence flowed strains which, as fame informs us, caused, in a certain inn, in Weardale, I think, panes to fly out of the windows, the pot lid to fly up the chimney, and a child to leap from the cradle of its slumbers, and dance in a most unaccountable manner. It was here, too, I believe, that he drew a fox with a piece of charcoal on the hearthstone, which the terrier dogs with the company attempted to seize, mistaking it for a living reality. Poor Lough used to tell me those absurd stories with a solemnity that could not be exceeded by the gravest Musselman."

The death of the Lough brothers' mother Barbara in 1852 may have sealed Thomas' itinerant fate. The year before, he is still holding down his job as a blacksmith and still living in Blanchland with Barbara. When she dies, there is nothing to keep him in Blanchland, no-one to keep him on the straight and narrow.

In the 1861 Census, Thomas is found living in a hayloft in Iveston, Lanchester. Seemingly at a loss as to how to categorise him, the census enumerator creates a special section - "List of persons not in houses" - and Thomas Lough is the only one on the list. He's clearly gone down in the world, his occupation recorded as "Blacksmith's Labourer" and afterwards - perhaps at Lough's insistence - "artist" has been added.

Although in very different circumstances, the two brothers died within a year of one-another, John Graham a wealthy family man in London having carved a place for himself in history, Thomas a pauper in Lanchester Workhouse in 1877.