In the east of England there’s a well-known pecking order. If you come from Essex, in the south, you’re smart and quick-witted, even though you might talk a bit rural. You look down on those from the next county north, Suffolk, who are bumpkins and will probably struggle to write their name. Those from Suffolk look down on those from the northernmost county in East Anglia, Norfolk, where the turkeys now come from, as they’re still learning how to read. It’s a model of provincialism which explains why so few have heard of John Crome (1768–1821), who died almost exactly two hundred years ago.
Had Crome spent more time in London, as John Constable did, and lived a bit longer than his fifty-two years, he would surely have earned himself a place at the top table of British landscape painters alongside JMW Turner.
Crome was born and spent almost his entire life in and around the city of Norwich, de facto regional capital, but a world far away from London. He was of humble origins, and it was only when he became an apprentice sign painter that he struck up a friendship with an apprentice printer, and the two started sketching together in the countryside around Norwich.
In the late eighteenth century, opportunities to train in fine art in Norwich were almost non-existent, and Crome’s progress was slow. The two friends started selling some of their work to a local printseller, and eventually that led to an introduction to a collector of paintings. Crome became a teacher of drawing, and copied paintings by Gainsborough (a major influence on Constable) and Hobbema. By the last decade of the century, he finally visited a Royal Academician in London.
Throughout this period, Crome painted in watercolour, but then made the break to oils and produced some of the most radical landscape paintings of the day.
Slate Quarries (c 1802-05) is among Crome’s earliest surviving oil landscapes, and remains something of a mystery. It appears to have been painted in one of the mountainous areas of Britain, such as Wales or the Lake District, and certainly a very long way from the endless plains around Norwich. Among Crome’s private pupils were members of the Gurney family, with whom he stayed on a visit to the Lake District in 1802, which is plausibly the occasion and location of this painting.
For its time, it’s incredibly sketchy, and has the air of a plein air oil sketch which could have been made a couple of decades later by the young Corot in the Roman Campagna. JMW Turner is reputed to have owned this or a similarly painterly work by Crome, and didn’t appreciate it much, perhaps until his own style changed later.
The great majority of Crome’s oil paintings were made in the countryside around Norwich, although he did visit Paris in 1814, and painted that city, Boulogne and Ostende during his trip.
In 1803, he was co-founder of the Norwich Society of Artists, the basis of the Norwich School of painters, which is claimed to have been the first provincial art movement in Britain.
Sheds and Old Houses on the Yare is another painterly work which appears to have been made in front of the motif in about 1803. This river skirts the modern city of Norwich, then merges with the River Wensum, and enters the sea close to Great Yarmouth. The large building in the middle of this view appears to be the workshop and boatshed of a boatyard.
Between 1806-18, Crome exhibited a few paintings at the Royal Academy in London, a total of thirteen from his total output of about three hundred. But he had little or no communication with leading artists of the day, even Constable who came from neighbouring Suffolk.
Hautbois Common, Norfolk (c 1810) shows what is now a small common by the village of Hautbois, to the north of Norwich. This demonstrates Crome’s influence by Gainsborough, which he shared with John Constable. As common land, this was under threat of being enclosed and removed from shared access, under one of the many Inclosure Acts (using that archaic spelling) which were passed by parliament between 1750-1850. Crome is thought to have been an opponent of this seemingly inexorable process which changed the face of rural England.
In 1810-11, Crome travelled down the route of the River Yare, to where it reaches the sea, near Yarmouth Jetty. This view combines fine detail of the figures and vessels with marvellously painterly waves in a way that wouldn’t be repeated until around fifty years later, when it was considered avant garde.
Crome and Constable are normally credited as being the first British landscape artists to make clear distinctions between different species of tree. Crome’s etching of Tree Trunks and Lane from 1811-13 also shows his thorough understanding of the anatomy of trees.
Although known mostly for his landscapes, Crome also painted some fine natural history works, including this Thistle from about 1812. Once again it shows his skill at combining precise detail with more sketchy background.
An Egyptian Poppy and a Water Mole from about 1812 is another superb example.
Crome was even more experimental in some of his views: he painted this nocturne between about 1811-16, and it has been tentatively titled Moonrise on the Yare.
Next week I’ll look at some of his later paintings, to mark the bicentenary of his death.