Two centuries ago today, on 22 April 1821, the pioneering British landscape painter John Crome (1768–1821) died at his home in Norwich, at the age of only 52. In the first of these two articles looking at his paintings and career, I reached an unusual nocturne of his which was painted before about 1816. Crome enjoyed success in East Anglia, in his home city of Norwich, where he had co-founded what’s claimed to be the first British art movement outside London, the Norwich Society of Artists. This was the group within which the Norwich School of painters formed.
Although deeply provincial, Norwich was a prosperous market town, the de facto capital of East Anglia, with a good population of rich landowners whose patronage artists like Crome could rely on. Neither did he stay entirely in Norwich: until 1818, he made his annual trip to London to exhibit at the Royal Academy. In 1814, he even visited Paris, once it had become easier to go overseas following the defeat of Napoleon. But Crome seems to have been content to innovate quietly, without trying to set the world on fire.
The River Wensum, Norwich, from about 1814, is one of Crome’s many views of the river which runs through the city. This was a light industrial area, several of the buildings backing onto the river having the characteristic chimneys of workshops or factories.
Boys Bathing on the River Wensum, Norwich from 1817 is a scene along the same stretch of river. Crome makes very clear distinction between species of trees; with John Constable, he was probably one of the first British landscape painters to do so.
The dusk light in Crome’s view of Yarmouth Harbour – Evening from about 1817 is superb, and the whole view on a par with those that JMW Turner painted of ports in northern France, for example. Yarmouth is where the River Yare, to which the Wensum is a (larger) tributary, reaches the sea, and was the port servicing the city and its rich agricultural hinterland. At the time, it was also a very busy fishing port.
Mousehold Heath, Norwich (c 1818-20) shows the low rolling land to the north-east of the city which had been open heath and common land until the late eighteenth century. By 1810, much of it had been enclosed, and ploughed up for agriculture. Crome opposed the enclosure of common land, and here shows the rich flora, free grazing, and – for the plains of East Anglia – rolling countryside. In the right distance some of the newly created farmland is visible as a contrast. Fortunately, almost two hundred acres (74 hectares) of this heath have been preserved, but it had been considerably more extensive until 1790.
Of all Crome’s paintings of trees, The Poringland Oak, from about 1818-20, must be his most magnificent portrait. This shows another area, this time to the south of Norwich, affected by enclosure: Poringland had a large common area of open heathland which was being destroyed as it was being enclosed and ploughed, as seen in the left distance.
There are three undated paintings which I add.
Yarmouth Beach shows the working beach to the north of the breakwater which Crome had painted earlier. Local fishermen are busy, and the background is industrial. Over the following century, Yarmouth slowly changed into the beach resort of Great Yarmouth, which became popular with those living in the industrial cities of the Midlands.
A Barge with a Wounded Soldier shows another historical view of Yarmouth, and was almost certainly painted between 1811-14, after Yarmouth Royal Naval Hospital was opened and before the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Crome’s landscapes feature skies which were inspired by Dutch painters. His Landscape with Windmills is one of his most remarkable, as a signed painting which appears to have been sketched in front of the motif. This sky wouldn’t look out of place in an Impressionist work from fifty years later.
John Crome was nothing if not ahead of his time. Perhaps it’s as well that he remained in the provinces, as the Royal Academy would surely have found him far too revolutionary for their tastes.