by Roderick Conway Morris

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Norfolk Museums Service
Norwich River, Afternoon by John Crome, c.1812-19

One of our three greatest landscape masters


By Roderick Conway Morris
NORWICH 7 August 2021

 

During his lifetime, this Norwich painter of humble origins had won an increasing circle of admirers, which continued to expand after his death at the age of 53 in 1821. The steadily growing appreciation of his works was acknowledged when, in 1863, the National Gallery acquired the first of his oils, 'Mousehold Heath'.

In 1870, when in London, the French Impressionists Camille Pissarro and Monet looked for inspiration to the works of the English landscape painters, the latter recording in 1902 that 'the watercolours and paintings of Turner and Constable and the canvases of old Crome, have certainly had an influence on us'. And, in 1878, the writer Henry James declared Crome 'a man of genius'. In 1923, the artist, scholar and critic C.H. Collins Baker, named Crome, Constable and Turner as 'our three greatest masters' of landscape painting. Yet, nearly a century later, Crome is the only one of this trio who is no longer familiar to a wide public.

This unmerited neglect should now be remedied by a splendid exhibition, 'A Passion for Landscape: Rediscovering John Crome', at Norwich Castle, marking the bicentenary of the artist's death. It is curated by Giorgia Bottinelli, who is also the editor of the superb, beautifully illustrated book with the same title, of absorbing essays on Crome's art and life.

While throwing a great deal of new light on Crome, Giorgia Bottinelli and her colleagues explain why he is not now as well known as he deserves to be. He never signed or dated his paintings, nor kept a list of them; we have no sketch books and only six surviving letters in his hand. We have only around 120 of his painting generally recognized as authentic and fewer than 100 drawings - although these make up for their small number by their extraordinary variety - as opposed to over 2,500 paintings and drawings by Constable and 550 paintings and 32,000 drawings and watercolours by Turner.

Turner began to exhibit at 15, Constable at around 26 but Crome not until he was 36. When Crome died in 1821, as a local vicar observed: 'People are now crazy for his pictures which are bought with avidity and sell high.' This gave rise to a lucrative market in misattributions and fakes, which posthumously damaged his reputation.

Born in 1768, Crome was the son of a journeyman weaver and publican, in the teeming working class and industrial district of Norwich Over the Water. The riverside location of his upbringing made a life-long impression on him, and he constantly returned to such watery environments in his pictures. He worked first as an errand boy for a physician then, between the ages of 14 and 21, served an apprenticeship with a local decorative painter specializing in coach-, sign- and house painting.

His early attempts to branch out into other genres were impeded by his lack of funds. According to his biographer Dawson Turner, Crome used 'cast-off aprons for canvases' and was 'reduced to clipping the hair from the tail of his landlord's cat' to make brushes. However, he found a regular income as a drawing master, which he supplemented by restoring and dealing in pictures.

Norwich was far from a provincial backwater. It had been the country's second largest city until the beginning of the 18th century and still regarded itself a 'England's second city'. The products of its thriving textile businesses were transported by barge down the Wensun to Great Yarmouth, whence they were exported to Dutch ports, Scandinavia, the Baltic, the Levant and the Americas.

The wealth of the town nurtured a vibrant cultural scene. As the miniaturist Andrew Robertson visiting Norwich in 1812 wrote to his friend John Constable, he found it 'a place where the arts are very much cultivated' and there was intense interest in every aspect of the sciences and literature 'which is astonishing when we consider that it does not contain a university, and is merely a manufacturing town'.

Helped no doubt by 'a cheerful and social temper' and 'winning naivetÉ of manners', Crome made friends among the local gentry. Some of them, like the textile merchant Thomas Harvey, had fine collections of Dutch old masters and contemporary paintings and through such contacts he was introduced to established artists, such as William Beechey and John Opie, and their collections.

His activities as an itinerant drawing master to prosperous Norfolk families allowed him also to study the paintings, by the likes of the Welsh landscape painter Richard Wilson and Gainsborough, which adorned the homes of the prosperous Norfolk families who engaged him.

Sharing his passion for landscape, he 'would wander with his scholars into woods and over heaths'. Although local demand was greater for portraits - and despite his friendships with Beechey and Opie, both successful portrait painters - Crome's commitment to landscape painting remained onwavering. However, Crome sometimes employed the portrait format for his landscapes - to great effect in some of his finest works, such as 'Tintern Abbey', 'Boys Bathing in a River', 'The Poringland Oak', 'Marlingford Grove' and 'Postwick' - a practice sufficiently unusual for a visitor to the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1806 to identify one of Crome's pictures on display there as 'an Upright Landscape'.

In around 1800, Crome was appointed Drawing Master at Norwich Grammar School, and he modestly continued to describe this as his profession rather than 'artist' until late in his life. He even accepted commissions for painting signs into his mid thirties.

There was a plethora of clubs of all kinds in Norwich at that time and Crome was a member of several of them, including the 'Dirty Shirt' club, which members could attend in their working clothes, and the Philosophical Society. In 1803 he was one of the prime movers in the foundation of the Norwich Society of Artists. With the staging of their first group exhibition, featuring 24 works by Crome, two years later, this was the first fine art society outside London to hold what was to become an annual event on the lines of the Royal Academy shows.

As Crome's biographer Dawson Turner recalled: 'the exhibition was at once a stimulus to the artists and stimulus to the public: taste was diffused; art was appreciated; patrons were created, and pictures were sold.' Buyers included artists, bankers, wine merchants, doctors, a coachmaker and a shawl manufacturer.

Timed to coincide with the week of the Summer Assizes, the height of the local 'season', when people of all degrees from around the county flocked to Norwich to enjoy various entertainments, concerts, promenades and a firework display, the show became a regular fixture every August thereafter. The members of the Society, who included John Sell Cotman, later became known as the Norwich School of painters.

When it came to technical mastery, Cromer was easily the equal of Turner and Constable, but it is difficult to date his works according to their style, since he could paint with minute precision or more freely (in a manner that inspired the Impressionists Pissarro and Monet) according to what he felt best served the subject of the picture. He made sparing but always telling use of figures.

He painted relatively few coastal subjects but in some of these - such as 'Yarmouth Jetty' and 'The Fish Market, Boulogne' - are much more generously peopled and show off his talents for expressive figure painting, whereas this element is barely visible in his intensely atmospheric 'Yarmouth Water Frolic - Evening; Boats Assembling Previous to the Rowing Match' of 1821 - with its luminous sky, shining water and motionless sails.

This work is a wonderful tribute to the 17th-century Dutch masters Crome so loved and may well be his last painting. But it was probably unfinished at the time of his death and the artist's son and well-schooled pupil John Berney Crome may have put some final touches to it.

Crome not only displays an extraordinary affinity with nature, but his knowledge of it was clearly prodigious. The artist had close associations with botanists, horticulturalists and agriculturalists, including his first employer the physician Dr Edward Rigby and Dawson Turner, both fellows of the Linnean Society. Crome's son-in-law was another fellow and became the Director of Kew's Royal Botanic Gardens in 1831.

The artist's images of trees often take on the quality of portraits, a classic example being his 'The Poringland Oak'. As Allan Cunningham observed in 1836, Crome 'studied and understood the woody scenery of his native land with the skill of a botanist, and the eye of a poet; to him a grove was not a mere mass of picturesque stems and foliage; each tree claimed a separate sort of handling; he touched them according to their kind'.

A Passion for Landscape: Rediscovering Thomas Crome; Norwich Castle, Norwich; 17 May - 5 September 2021


First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022