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Saturday, January 12, 2019

R E McEune

Robert J. Kirkpatrick

R.E. McEune is something of an enigma. A prolific, if undistinguished, painter, he also illustrated several children’s books for the Halifax publisher Milner & Co., in the early 1900s. Yet he appears to have always been an amateur artist, and he spent his working life as a clerk in a colliery in the north-east of England.

Born on 12 September 1876 and christened Robert Ernest McEune, he was one of seven children of Robert McEune, born in 1827 and a grocer in Gateshead, and his wife Mary Anne, née Reay, born in 1838, whom he had married in Gateshead in 1866. At the time of the 1881 census, the family was living at 13 St. Cuthbert’s Terrace, Gateshead, with Robert senior’s grocery business, which was a partnership with his younger brother Michael Wight McEune, at 36 and 38 Bottle-bank, Gateshead. In November 1881, he filed for bankruptcy, having liabilities of £5,380 and assets of £4,300. (There was a certain irony in this, in that in 1870 he had been elected as a Guardian of the Gateshead Poor Law Union.) He was, however, able to carry on the business under his own name.

Ten years later, the family had moved to 40 Exeter Street, Gateshead, and Robert Ernest McEune had begun working as a clerk in a local colliery. He was still doing the same job ten years later, when the family was living at 36 St. Albans Terrace, Gateshead. One online source says that he studied at the Gateshead School of Art and at Kings College, Newcastle, although if he did this was presumably in his spare time.

His career as an illustrator began shortly after 1900, when he began illustrating a series of children’s books for Milner & Co., a publishing company established in Halifax by William Milner in the early 1800s, and notable for being one of the first publishers to focus on cheap books. Milner married Mary Sowerby, a widow, and after his death in 1850 the business was carried on by his two stepsons, who had been in partnership with him, and traded as Milner & Sowerby, and later as Milner & Co. It went into liquidation in 1910.

Unfortunately, none of the books McEune illustrated for Milner are dated. Furthermore, only one, an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (which had colour plates), is listed in the major online library catalogues. (And, at the time of writing, only one other title is listed in online booksellers’ listings.)

The authors whose books he illustrated – which all had a colour frontispiece and several full-page black and white illustrations – were Mary Arkless, Jessie Phillips, May Clifford, Phyllis Ford and Amy Gordon. Presumably these were, for the most part, local authors – Mary Arkless, for example, was born in Whickham, Durham, in 1882, and for a while at least was an Elementary School Teacher. McEune also provided a black and white frontispiece for an edition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He was not, it must be said, a particularly talented illustrator, although his halftone plates were much better than his hasty black and white line drawings.

As a painter, in oils, watercolours and pastels, he was extremely prolific, with his widow bequeathing 200 of them to Newcastle’s Shipley Art Gallery on her death in 1970. He appears to have exhibited his first painting at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle in 1910, and presumably exhibited several times after this, although the only records so far unearthed are for the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in 1913, and for the North East Coast Art Club in Whitley Bay, Northumberland, in 1938. He painted in a variety of genres – landscapes, portraits, nudes and still lifes.  He is also recorded as giving a lecture on “Humour in Art” at the South Shields YMCA in 1921. Many of his paintings have appeared in auctions over recent years, although none appear to have fetched anything other than low prices.

His mother died in 1909, and in the 1911 census he was recorded still living at 36 St. Albans Terrace, with his father, and working as a colliery clerk. It is not known what, if anything, McEune did during the First World war, although at some point after 1914 (his father having died that year) he moved to Newcastle, firstly to 83 Osborne Avenue and then to 5 Shortridge Terrace. He then returned to Gateshead, where, in 1922, he married Daisy Lillie Mary Jane Smith, born on 31 October 1893 and a former shorthand typist. They remained in Gateshead, being recorded in the 1939 Register at 20 Alverstone Avenue, with Robert working as a colliery sales clerk. They later moved to Low Fell, Co. Durham.

Either during the Second World Wear or shortly afterwards the couple moved to Penrith, Cumberland. McEune was noted as painting scenery for the local Wordsworth Street Methodist Drama Group in 1950.

He died at 40 Croft Avenue, Penrith, on 16 December 1952, leaving an estate valued at £4,642 (around £120,000 in today’s terms). His wife returned to Gateshead, where she died in June 1970, leaving an estate worth just over £13,000 (£170,000 in today’s terms).


Books illustrated by R.E. McEune
All published by Milner & Co., Halifax, between 1900 and 1910
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (re-issue)
Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes (re-issue)
The Old Boy King by Mary Arkless
The Village Tom-Boy by Mary Arkless
The Merry Twins by Mary Arkless
The Magic Ship by Mary Arkless
Jackie and the Swallows by Jessie Phillips
An Ill Wind by Jessie Phillips
Davie’s Voyage by May Clifford
Red-Caps and gre-Caps by May Clifford
The Parsonage Children by May Clifford
The Pickleburys by Phyllis Ford
Pranks of Two Schoolboys by Phyllis Ford
The Boys of Hazeldene by Phyllis Ford
Which is Which? By Amy Gordon
Piddling Jackey by Amy Gordon

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