In the first of these two articles visiting the flatlands of England in East Anglia, we made our way from the coast of north-east Essex to the wooded countryside of Suffolk, and ended on the North Sea coast. Today we visit the main city of this region, Norwich, and the rivers of Norfolk before ending our journey in Lincoln, to the north-west.
In Suffolk, Gainsborough and Constable hardly qualified as a school of landscape painting, unlike today’s principal artist John Crome, who founded the Norwich School.
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 Napoleon’s defeat. But Crome seems to have been content to innovate quietly, without trying to set the world on fire.
Hautbois Common, Norfolk (c 1810) shows what is now a small common by the village of Hautbois, to the north of Norwich, and demonstrates Crome’s influence by Gainsborough. 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) 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.
The River Wensum, Norwich, from about 1814, is one of Crome’s many views of the river running 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.
This river is a larger tributary of the River Yare, which reaches the sea at (Great) Yarmouth, the port servicing the city and its rich agricultural hinterland. At the time, it was also a very busy fishing port.
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.
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 that was being destroyed as it was being enclosed and ploughed, as seen in the left distance.
Mousehold Heath, Norwich (c 1818-20) shows the low rolling land to the north-east of the city that 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 flatlands 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.
Many of Crome’s landscapes feature skies inspired by Dutch painters. His Landscape with Windmills is one of his most remarkable, as a signed painting that 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.
Later in the nineteenth century, other artists painted Norfolk’s flatlands.
Whitlingham, Norfolk (1860) is probably Frederick Sandys’ finest painting, and was completed while he was still close to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites. This shows a small hamlet on the River Yare to the east of the city of Norwich, whose densely packed houses are visible in the distance.
When Henry Herbert La Thangue returned to Britain in 1886, he settled for a few years in South Walsham, where he painted The Return of the Reapers. This shows well what is known as square brush technique, in which a brush with a broad square tip is used to fill large areas of colour quickly, as seen most obviously in the golden field at the left.
South Walsham is to the north-east of Norwich, in an area known as the Norfolk Broads, whose flatlands are divided by many lakes and waterways.
In The Trysting Place, from 1901, Edmund Blair Leighton tells a ‘Regency’ story of a tryst of lovers at a weir. This was probably set on the River Waveney, inland and to the south of Great Yarmouth, where the artist leased a small summer cottage.
We end at the north-western extremity of these flatlands, in the city of Lincoln.
Thomas Girtin made his first major painting tour in 1794, encompassing Warwick, Stratford, Lichfield, Peterborough, and Lincoln. That year and the next, he painted the cathedrals of Lichfield, Ely and Lincoln, the last seen here in his watercolour of about 1795. These mark his transition from topographic illustration to pure watercolour, with the last vestiges of ink almost gone.
The land may be flat, but the paintings have been far from dull or monotonous.