Nathaniel Spens Family Heritage


Nathaniel Spens the Artist

by Louise Brown

In process, updated February 9, 2003

Nathaniel Spens, born 21 June 1838 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of James Spens, coperplate printer, was apprenticed in 1852 for a full seven years in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, to become an interior decorator, painter and glazier. Nathaniel was "bound out" or apprenticed to William Jackson, Printer and Glazier. Papers were signed on March 29, 1852 and on June 18, 1852, just prior his 14th birthday and only a year after his mother's death, Nathaniel was apprenticed to Mr. William Jackson. For seven years Nathaniel served as he learned the painting trade at 4 Newgate Street, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Mr. Williams lived at 2 St. Mary's Place.  The Indenture papers read as follows:

"This Indenture witnesseth that Nathaniel Spens, son of James Spens of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, copper plate printer, hath of his own free will and with the consent of the said James Spens, his father, testified by his executing these presents and with consent (that) put himself Apprentice to William Jackson of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, aforesaid Printer and Glazier--to learn the Art with him after the manner of an apprentice to serve from the day of the date hereof unto the full end and term of seven years from thence next following to be fully complete and ended, during which term the said apprentice, his master faithfully shall serve, his which keep, his lawful commands every which gladly do. He shall do no damage to his said master, nor see to be done of others, but to his power shall tell in faith with give warning to his said Master. Of the same he shall not waste the goods of his said Master nor lend them unlawfully to any, he shall not commit fornication nor contract matrimony within the said term; shall not play at cards or dice tables or any other unlawful games whereby his said Master may have any loss with his own goods or others during the said term without license of his said Master; he shall neither buy or sell, he shall not haunt taverns or playhouses nor absent himself from his said Master's service day or night unlawfully. But in all things as a faithful apprentice he shall behave himself towards his said Master and all this during the said term.

"And the said William Jackson for himself, his executors, administrators and assigns doth covenant, promise and agree by these presents to and with the said Nathaniel Spens, the said apprentice, that he, the said William Jackson, his executors, administrators, or assigns shall and will teach, learn and instruct him, the said apprentice, or cause him to be taught, learned and instructed in the trade of Painter and Glazier which he useth by the best means that he can with all circumstances thereunto belonging and will well and truly pay or cause to be paid unto the said Nathaniel Spens the wages, following, that is to say, the sum of two shillings and six pence per week for the first and second years of the said term, the sum of three shillings and six pence per week for the third and fourth years of the said term, the sum of five shillings per week for the fifth year of the said term, and the sum of six shillings per week for the sixth and seventh years of the said term, such wages payable only during the time the said Nathaniel Spens shall be working for and employed by the said William Jackson. The said James Spens finding unto the said apprentice sufficient meat, drink, washing, lodging and all other necessaries during the said term.

"And for the true performance of all and every said covenants and agreements either of the said parties bindeth himself unto the other by these presents. In witness whereof the parties above named to these indentures interchangeably have put their hands and seals the nineteenth day of June and in the fifteenth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lady Queen Victoria, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, defender of the Faith and in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty-two.

"Note: The indenture Covenant article or contract must bear date the day it is executed and what money or other thing is given or contracted for the clerk or apprentice must be inserted in words at length, otherwise the Indenture will be void and the Master or Minstrel's forfeit fifty pounds and another penalty and the apprentice be disabled to follow the trade or be made free."

"Signed, sealed and delivered in the presence of Richard Hanson."

Signature of Nathaniel, James and William

From the apprenticeship agreement, Nathaniel's wages can be seen to increase with his skill. Beginning with "the sum of two shillings and six pence per week for the first and second years," then progressing to three shillings and six pence per week for the third and fourth years, five shillings per week for the fifth year, and finally, six shillings per week for the sixth and seventh years. The money was not for shelter or meals as the apprenticeship paper clearly shows James Spens responsible for food and lodging.

Nathaniel learned the carpenter trade, hung wall-paper, painted, did wood-graining and wood-carving and he learned well. He knew how to mix colors and paints to a smooth lasting finish and was even able to make his own paint. Using woodgraining combs he had transported from England, Nathaniel did some of the woodgraining in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and in the Salt Lake Temple. Tradition reports that Nathaniel painted some of the Garden Room in the Logan Temple and also did some work in the Manti Temple. Nathaniel spent the last twenty-six years of his life near Mount Pleasant, Utah where he taught his sons the trade which his son and namesake, Nathaniel, later inherited. The Spens woodgraining work can still be seen in the old homes in and around Mount Pleasant. His work can be seen on the doors, for example, in a home on Main Street (owned by the Dykes in 1996). He taught his sons the trade, and graining by Tom and Than (Nathaniel) can be found in homes of descendants in Utah and in Burlington, Wyoming.

Painting was not only Nathaniel's career but also his pastime and hobby judging from numerous paintings found and told of, none of which was he known to have sold. Many of the paintings have been circulated by family members, each generation awaiting their opportunity to care for the paintings. A few of these paintings can be seen in the Springville Art Museum and in the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. The Spens Family Heritage Organization is preparing to donate paintings to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum in Salt Lake City, the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City and the Fairview Museum in Sanpete County.

Seemingly few exhibitions have included Nathaniel Spens's artwork. In the 1873 Territorial Fair, Nathaniel Spens exhibited nineteen specimens of graining and marbeling, "all done well" according to the Salt Lake Daily Herald, Oct. 6, 1873.

Again, in the Salt Lake Daily Herald, on July 18, 1877, Nathaniel Spens is mentioned as a painter:

"The fourth and final competition of the Pioneer Riffle Club for the elegant oil painting presented by John Tullidge and Russell, took place yesterday. George A. Mears won for the third time and the picture is now his personal property.... N. Spens, Esq., has presented an attractive oil painting to the Pioneer Riffle club...." ("Five Hundred Yards Off Hand." SL Daily Herald, 18 Jul 1877)

The 1880 Census showed both Nathaniel Spens and his neighbor, John T. Matthews, also a painter, unemployed for six months of the Census year. Nathaniel may have had more time to paint, being unemployed, but certainly there is documentation that Nathaniel was already an established painter.

The Salt Lake Evening Chronicle ran an article on September 25, 1883 entitled the Salt Lake Easel:

Mr. N. Spens of this city is now showing an oil painting which speaks well for his ability as a painter. The launching of a life-boat is the subject, and the large number of figures so exquisitely posed show that his conception of the subject was good. The work is much above the average, and attracts a great deal of attention.

On the following day, the Salt Lake Herald further noted:

At the easel is an oil painting, the handiwork of Mr. N. Spens of this city, which is a gem in its way. It gives us a glimpse of the launching of a life boat, and the whole surroundings are treated in such spirited manner as to lend a charm to the picture, such as is seldom felt in the work of an amateur. Mr. Spens does not paint many pictures but he should paint more of them, especially in the line of marines..... (SL Daily Herald, Sep 26, 1883, page 8).

This painting, "The Launching of the Life Boat" or "The Rescue," was damaged, perhaps in the move to Mount Pleasant and later patched, most likely by one of his sons. Some years later it found its way to Wyoming with one of his children. In 1997 it was restored by family members at a cost of $500 and mounted on an aluminum panel.  It is 13.5" x 26.5" and is an oil on canvas, signed "N Spens" and dated June 1879. 

In an article entitled, "The Harry Brown Art Distribution," in the Salt Lake Daily Herald on February 17, 1888, Nathaniel Spens is mentioned as one of the artists displaying work at Calder's Music palace:

The works of art--oil paintings and statuary--to be distributed for the benefit of the late Harry Brown, are now on exhibition at Calder's Music Palace. Among the many attractive pictures are the following: "Clear Creek Canyon," Harry Culer; "Off the Coast of England," G.M. Ottinger; "Near Ogden River," Harry Squires; "The Rabbit Pedler," John Hafen; "On the Great Salt Lake," showing the Susie Riter in a storm, Fred Lambourne; Landscape, C. Anderson; Flowers, Chas. Reading; "Apollo and the Muses," Dan Weggeland; "Strawberries," J.T. Harwood; "Italian Landscape," John Tullidge; "Plums," J.T. Harwood; Landscape, John Hafen; "Scene in American Fork Canyon," Walter Porcher; "A Nook in the Forest," Reeves Bros.; "Ogden Canyon," Dan Weggeland; "Utah Lake," D. Weggeland; a pretty pair of water color landscapes, Wesley Browning; "Flower Bouquet," M. Lenzi; "A Lake Scene," W. C. Morris; "Frigate Under Full Sail," N. Spence (sic); "Decorated Card Table," C. Reading. In addition to these, there are several others, and all so well-executed busts of Grover Cleveland, Brigham young, Joseph and Hyrum Smith. A few tickets yet remain unsold (page 8).

Some of his works were exhibited at the Salt Lake Art Exhibit of Early Pioneer Art in October, 1948. This event was announced with the following printed invitations:

The Officers and Board of the Salt Lake Art Center

cordially invite you to attend

A Gala Preview of the exhibition

"100 Years of Utah Painting"

sponsored by the Salt Lake Tribune

from seven until ten o'clock

Salt Lake Art Center

54 Finch Lane Salt Lake City, Utah


Like other early self-taught artists, many of Nathaniel's paintings were copies of calendar and magazine pictures. He painted several works of ships and landscapes, a painting of a church in England and one of a complex of buildings thought to be in Germany; however, most often he painted people in daily life events and life struggles. Examples of simple family events depicted in his works are the family gathered around "The Sick Cow," parting with loved ones in "A Highlander Bids His Mother Farewell," the sea rescue depicted in "The Battle of Trafalga," a time for love in "Jacque and Jenny Making Hay" (two young people in the hayfield), a time for work in an unnamed painting of a young couple drawing water for a cow, and a time to play in "The Card Player" and "Playing Marbles." His cartoonish paintings and copies show him to be a man of subtle humor and understanding as can be seen in "The Deacon's Experience" in family prayer and in "The Proposal." In addition to the above, Nathaniel painted some portraits. He completed three self-portraits with the aid of a mirror, one as a younger man and two much later. His last self-portrait, painted between 1911 and 1916, hangs in the Springville Art Museum.

Nathaniel painted other portraits. One, a portrait of his wife, Mary Campbell was donated by Vesta Rasmussen to the Springville Art Museum in 1995. The museum funded the restoration of this painting with the help of the Spens Family Heritage Organization. More recently this portrait was traded to the Spens Family Heritage Organization for a painting, "The Stone Bridge" and will be donated to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.  Another portrait was of his father-in-law, Thomas Campbell (present location of this painting is not known). A third portrait was of Christiana Spens, Nathaniel's daughter-in-law (present location not known).

According to Nathaniel's grandson, Percy Brown, "Grandpa's paintings were smooth, not lumpy like John Heber Stanfield's who asked Grandpa to teach him how to paint." John was born in Mount Pleasant (May 11, 1878) and painted more than 1500 pieces before his death (Dec 25, 1953). "Grandpa let him see his work. It seems that when John saw one of Grandpa's paintings, he said he could paint that well! So Grandpa put his work away saying he couldn't teach him anything."

The majority of Nathaniel Spens's paintings are in the homes of his descendants, just as he wished. Family members have recounted that when offered a thousand dollars for the paintings in his home, Nathaniel refused, stating the paintings were for his family. "They are not for sale!"

The value of Nathaniel's paintings to his descendants was so great that some went to great lengths to get the paintings. Mrs. James (Christiana) Spens and family returned home from her husband's burial in Mount Pleasant to find that all the paintings had been removed--about 30 of them! After much pleading with those relatives that attended only the funeral in Mammouth, a single painting was returned. Other families tell similar stories of how, unbeknownst to them, the pictures disappeared. Several descendants tell of having been promised a painting only to have it disappear.

There are a few exceptions to the high value of Nathaniel's paintings. Aunt Eva (Nat's second wife) appears to not have appreciated her father-in-law's paintings very much--she insisted they be relegated to the coal shed! It is said that she liked her husband's paintings better, and that he painted several portraits. Other in-laws have had similar feelings--the big old, yellowing paintings did not fit the changing decor of family homes.

While many of the hard feelings have softened over the years, there is still some despair and animosity over Great Grandfather's paintings. The fact that many of the paintings, even when aging and in disrepair, were taken to the attic or a stored in a shed seems to indicate strongly that these paintings held powerful ties to the past--Nathaniel's direct descendants would not (or could not) bring themselves to throw away, give away or sell a painting.

Post Spens Era

After Nathaniel's death it is said that many of his paintings were unappreciated and left to the elements. The linseed oil used to clean them darkened them and many were stored in unprotected places. A great-grandson, Wesley Burnside made a great effort to resurrect Nathaniel's work and began a renaissance of Nathaniel’s early Utah pioneer art contributions. Wesley held an exhibition of Nathaniel's works at the Springville Art Museum in the 1970s, according to Zola Rasmussen, and several of the paintings that had been loaned to Wesley for the exhibit were lost to the families.

July 1, 1995 at the first Nathaniel Spens Heritage Reunion, Dr. Vern G. Swanson, the curator of the Springville Art Museum, spoke to the more than 150 descendants gathered of the value of Nathaniel's work, not just to his posterity but also to the people of Utah.  Some of the families' paintings were exhibited along with the museum's Nathaniel Spens paintings. Two prints of paintings were available for purchase.

In July 11, 1997 the second Nathaniel Spens Heritage Reunion was held. More than 20 of the paintings had been reproduced for purchase by descendants at that time and by January 1998, prints of 30 of his paintings were available to descendants, museums and other interested parties.  Mamy more painting were displayed at the Museum for the Reunion, includding "The Prisoner" on loan for the exhibit from Brigham Young University.

On March 6, 1998 an open house was held for a new exhibit at the Church History and Art Museum in Salt Lake City and Nathaniel Spens’s "Scottish Highlander Bids Farewell to His Mother" was displayed. Under the painting, the caption stated, "Nothing but my religion would ever have educed me to leave my native land. I go to Zion to serve God, and I pray that when I get there I may do so." These words fit our Nathaniel who left Liverpoole in 1864. 

The caption further stated, "Thousands of L.D.S. converts gathered to Zion from Great Britain. Many were skilled craftsmen. A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, Spens brought his graining tools to Utah. In Salt Lake City his graining included the benches and pillars of the Salt Lake Tabernacle and woodwork in the Salt Lake Temple. He grained woodwork in the Manti Temple and in many home in Sanpete County in central Utah. Spens was also a furniture maker.


Campbell, Lennie (1976) Landseer: the Victorian Paragon. Hamilton, London.

Devereux, Henry Kelsey (1926). "The Spirit of ‘76" Some Recollections of the Artist and Painter (Archibald Willard). Privately Printed for the author , Cleveland.

One Hundred Years of Utah Art

Ormand, Richard (1981). Sir Edwin Landseer. Rizzoli, New York.Villiers, Alan (1965).

The Battle of Trafalgar: Lord Nelson Sweeps the Sea. The Macmillan Company, New York, New York.

Dr. Vern G. Swanson, Director of the Springville Art Museum has assisted the Spens Family Heritage Organization in recognition of Nathaniel Spens, early Utah artist.

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