The son of a shipwright and artist, Cleveley was widely travelled, joining the expedition of Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland via the Hebrides and the Orkney islands. He profited from tuition from Paul Sandby, when he was the drawing master at Woolwich, and this influence clearly shows in his work. He may also have travelled to Spitzbergen, as well as Portugal, though drawings of such scenes, in the case of the former showing ships caught in ice floes, may well have been worked up from the work of amateurs. His work is both suave and agreeable and avoids the more formulaic approach of artists like Dominic Serres. There are hints that he could deal equally well with stormy scenes, for a large watercolour of Two Deckers making for Gibraltar in a squall (see Iolo Williams no.308) displays not only a virtuoso technique, but a full understanding of the behaviour of shipping caught in storms. A series of drawings, showing more domestic vessels, against a background of bridges on the Thames, reveal an artist working in the tradition of Samuel Scott.
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