Skip to Content

Nathaniel Irvine Spens

Showing 1 of 1

Print this page

Nathaniel Irvine Spens does not have an image.

Nathaniel Irvine Spens

(Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, 1838 - 1916, Mountainville, Utah)

Nathaniel Spens was born June 21, 1838, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of copperplate printer master, James Spens, and his wife Isabella. Nathaniel was the eleventh child of thirteen and just before his fourteenth birthday, he was apprenticed to a painter and glazier. The apprenticeship lasted seven years. When first apprenticed, young Nathaniel earned two shillings and six pence a week, which was gradually raised as his skills increased until he was earning six shillings a week for his last two years, out of which and with his family's help, (he is known to have lived at least some of the time with his sister Sarah) he had to provide for his food, lodging, and clothing. Although not a lot of information is available about Spens' life during these years, in November of 1860 he was present at the birth of his sister Bessie's daughter in Glasgow and registered her birth with the authorities. According to the 1861 census, he was still living with his sister, and his occupation is listed as "painter." Later in 1861, Nathaniel returned to Newcastle Upon Tyne and married Jane Ann Burnhope on September 4, 1961. Jane and her parents had joined the LDS church and Nathaniel also soon became a "Mormon." They had two children, Isobell and William, before they left on "The General McClellan," one of three ships chartered by the Church to take British converts to America. The ship left Liverpool, England, in May of 1864, and arrived in New York a month later. From there, the company traveled by train to St. Joseph, Missouri, and then up the Missouri river to Wyoming, Nebraska Territory. The last stage of the journey, about 1,000 miles, was accomplished by wagon train; but just 14 days before the wagons reached the Salt Lake Valley, Nathaniel and Jane's young son Willie died. A year later, while the family was living in American Fork, Jane also died. Needing a mother for his daughter, and presumably, the comfort of a wife for himself, Nathaniel soon married Margaret Philpot, an English spinster known as "Maggie." About 18 months later, a daughter, Elizabeth Spens, was born. However, within two short years, Maggie died, leaving Nathaniel alone again and with two young daughters. A year later Nathaniel married Mary Campbell, who like him, was a Scots convert and immigrant. Mary not only took his daughters into her heart, but she also bore him 12 children. Sometime in 1872, the Spens family moved to Salt Lake City, and over the next 19 years Spens' name can be found in the Salt Lake Directory with his occupation listed as "painter." The early pioneers had few luxuries and one way they decorated was by techniques such as "graining," making pine furniture look like hardwood. Nathaniel had brought a set of graining combs with him from England and was skilled in their use. He worked on the Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle, graining the pine benches and making the pine pillars look like marble. Some records indicate Nathaniel also did the wood graining in the baptistry of the Manti Temple. In Salt Lake, Charles R. Savage, a successful photographer, had an art gallery that Nathaniel was able to frequent, being out of work at various times. He painted and perhaps traded the paintings for supplies; no records exist of any sales. But when Nathaniel became a citizen of the United States in 1982, he became eligible to obtain land by homesteading. The Spens moved to Mt. Pleasant, Sanpete Valley, in 1889, having bought part of a farm with the proceeds from the sale of their house and property in Salt Lake and applying for an additional 80 acres of land under the terms of the Homestead Act. There Nathaniel trained his boys in the art of furniture building and decorating, and they all learned how to farm. The two older sons soon married and took over most of the work on the farm, leaving Nathaniel time to return to his wood graining and painting. According to Mary's sister Jen, who lived with the Spens for a year, "Nathaniel was a large man in stature and a fine looking man. He was a painter by trade and an artist. He painted two pictures for my mother and Dad and they are real art. He decorated homes most beautifully. He was very sweet and considerate of everybody." In 1893, Charles R. Savage, the photographer and art gallery owner, took Nathaniel's best painting, The Battle of Trafalga, and some of his wood graining samples to Illinois where they were displayed as part of Utah's exhibit in the Chicago World's Fair.Nathaniel continued to live on the farm and paint and grain woods until he died in 1916, having been in poor health for some time due to a sore leg that had never healed. Five years later his wife Mary died as the result of gangrene. They were both buried in the Mt. Pleasant cemetery. Nathaniel Spens was a self-taught painter and many of his paintings are copies from popular magazines, chromos, and the like. His painting, Deacon Jones' Experience, was painted in 1876 and is based on a painting by American artist Archibald Willard (1836-1918) also entitled "Deacon Jones' Experience." John Lyon, an LDS hymn writer and poet, inspired perhaps by the same chromo [colored lithograph] of Willard's painting, which was displayed in the photographer Charles Savage's window, wrote a humorous poem entitled "Family Prayer." The poem tells the story of a family kneeling for prayer, who get interrupted by a cat and dog fight. The moment depicted in Spens' painting is when the cat jumps to safety on Deacon Jones' back and the two sons begin to lose their sense of devotion and holy feelings. Family Prayer by John Lyon 'Tis sometimes hard to be devout at prayer, For devils then will lead our minds astray By some injected thought, or outward snare, And turn the currents of our thoughts away From holy things, in spite of all our care, So artful are they, watching night and day, To work our ruin, by some hidden guise, Which, when found out, we heartily despise. This story's of a countryman's devotion, While praying with his wife and two small sons, Who of a dog and cat had little notion, Were winking by the fireside without hoise, When all at once, by some infernal motion, Snap growled at Puss, and gave her such a noise, When she hissed, spitting, jumped from the attack And fastened claw-deep on the farmer's back. The boys laughed loud to see at pray'r such fun' While father groaned, and swore an oath or two; The cat kept scratching where she'd safety won Above the reach of Snap, who growled, and grew More furious barking as at Puss he run, Till all the family were in a stew, Nor could continue longer in their devotion With such unholy feelings and commotion. "O Lord!" he cried, in accents quite emphatic, Rather more serious than his praying mood, But which he'd often done, stung with rheumatic; His wife, as every loving woman should, Roared out, "Confound that dog!" in tones erratic, "And that singed cat that's always in a feud"; And rising from the knees in holy ire Caught Snap and threw him plump into the fire. The husband, sorry for his poor burnt dog, Threw Puss in fury at his angry wife; And she, to be revenged, commenced to flog Her little boys, for laughing at the strife, "Who were," she said, "like father, the old rogue, Who never did a square thing in his life." So on they went, a town's talk and their sport, Until they parted at the probate court. Such is a picture I have seen of late, Suggesting quarrels of a family kind, That led to greater, and a sadder fate, To say and do things in our passion blind Which, when with other, meaner acts combined, Led on to folly, in an angry state, To sober thought, and helpless do fail To calmly act, as we would read this tale. The poem has been anthologized in Richard A. Craecroft and Neal E. Lambert's A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1974) 167. Used by permission of the authors The poem also is printed in T. Edgar Lyon, Jr.'s John Lyon: The Life of a Pioneer Poet (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989) 299-300.

Artist Objects

Your current search criteria is: Artist is "Nathaniel Irvine Spens".