Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Crome, John (1768-1821)

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CROME, JOHN (1768–1821), landscape-painter, called ‘Old Crome’ to distinguish him from his son, John Berney (or more properly Barney) Crome [q. v.], son of a poor journeyman weaver, was born at Norwich 22 Dec. 1768, in a low public-house in the parish of St. George's, Tombland. He could hardly be said to have enjoyed the common instruction of the most ordinary schools. At the age of twelve he began life as errand-boy to Dr. Rigby, a physician in Norwich, the father of the present Lady Eastlake. The pranks he played and the punishment he received for them while with the good-natured doctor were often laughingly recounted by him in after life; but the employment was uncongenial, and in 1783 he apprenticed himself for seven years to Francis Whisler, a house, coach, and sign painter, and after his term was up worked as journeyman for Whisler, and is said to have been the first to introduce into Norwich the art of ‘graining’ or painting surfaces in imitation of polished wood. Among the signs he is known to have painted were ‘The Two Brewers,’ ‘The Guardian Angel,’ and ‘The Sawyers.’ The first and last of these (if not all three) are still in existence. His taste for landscape art showed itself during this period, and he formed an intimate friendship with another lad of similar tastes. This was Robert Ladbrooke, who also afterwards became celebrated as a landscape-painter, but who at this time was apprenticed to a printer. Crome and Ladbrooke took a garret together, employed their leisure in sketching in the fields and lanes about Norwich, and occasionally bought a print for the purpose of copying it. Their first art patrons were Smith & Jaggers, printsellers, of Norwich. Ladbrooke painted portraits at five shillings a head, and Crome painted landscapes for which he sometimes got as much as thirty shillings. This partnership lasted about two years, and then and after Crome is said to have had a very hard struggle, and to have been put to strange shifts to gain a livelihood. His efforts, however, attracted the attention of Mr. Thomas Harvey of Catton, Norfolk, who introduced him to good society as a teacher of drawing. Mr. Harvey, besides being something of an artist himself, possessed a small collection of Flemish and Dutch pictures, to which he allowed Crome access, thus, as has been well said, ‘affording him an opportunity of studying the works of a group of masters who had arrived at the highest excellence under almost exactly the same conditions of climate and scenery as those in which he himself was placed.’ Mr. Harvey had also some Gainsboroughs, including the famous ‘Cottage Door,’ which Crome copied. He found other friends in Mr. John Gurney of Earlham, Mr. Dawson Turner [q. v.], and Sir William Beechey, R.A. [q. v.] The last named, who had himself begun life as a house-painter in Norwich, gave him instruction in painting, and wrote: ‘Crome, when I knew him, must have been about twenty years old, and was a very awkward, uninformed country lad, but extremely shrewd in all his remarks upon art, though he wanted words and terms to express his meaning.’ According to Mrs. Opie, her husband the artist also assisted Crome in his painting, but not before 1798.

Crome and Ladbrooke married sisters of the name of Barney, and though the exact date of Crome's marriage is not known, it is certain that it was an early one, and that he supported his increasing family mainly by giving lessons in drawing. This family consisted of at least two daughters and six sons, the eldest of whom, baptised John Barney, after his father and mother, was born in 1794. One of these children died in infancy, more than one of his sons besides John followed the profession of an artist, as did his daughter Emily, but none of them attained much reputation except John. His drawing lessons brought him for a long period better remuneration than landscape-painting, and were useful in introducing him to good families in the neighbourhood. ‘As a teacher,’ says Dawson Turner in the memoir prefixed to the edition of Crome's etchings in 1838, ‘he was eminently successful. He seldom failed to inspire into his pupils a portion of his own enthusiasm.’ He used to teach in the open air, although he generally painted his pictures in his studio. Once a brother-painter met him out in the fields surrounded by a number of young people, and remarked, ‘Why, I thought I had left you in the city engaged in your school.’ ‘I am in my school,’ replied Crome, ‘and teaching my scholars from the only true examples. Do you think,’ pointing to a lovely distant view, ‘that either you and I can do better than that?’

Thus he lived from year to year, teaching, painting, and studying always, content in the main with his local scenery and his local reputation, which increased year by year till his death. He paid an occasional visit to London, where he was always welcome in the studio and at the dinner-table of Sir William Beechey; assisted by his friends the Gurneys and others, he made excursions in the lake counties and Wales and to the south coast, and in 1814 paid a visit to Paris viâ Belgium; but, as a rule, Norwich and its neighbourhood were sufficient for his art and himself. He soon gathered around him a knot of artists, amateurs, and pupils, and helped to lay the foundation of what is known as the Norwich school, a small pleiad of artists of whom the greatest were ‘Old’ Crome and John Sell Cotman [q. v.], but it included other admirable painters, like Vincent and Stark, Crome's pupils, Stannard, Thirtle, and the Ladbrookes. The rise and fall of this school forms a unique, brilliant, but short-lived phenomenon in the history of English art. It was unique because provincial, and its nearest parallel was, perhaps, the greater school of water-colour landscape which had its beginnings much about the same time in that band of earnest students, Turner, Girtin, Hunt, Edridge, Prout, Varley, and others, who met together under the roof of Dr. Monro, in the Adelphi, London, or at Bushey. It was in February 1803 that the first meeting of the Norwich Society took place, in a dingy building in a dingy locality called the Hole in the Wall in St. Andrew's, Norwich. Its full title was ‘The Norwich Society for the purpose of an enquiry into the rise, progress, and present state of Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture, with a view to point out the best methods of study, and to attain to greater perfection in these arts.’ It has been called ‘a small joint-stock association, both of accomplishments and worldly goods.’ Each member had to afford proofs of eligibility, was elected by ballot, and had to subscribe his proportion of the value of the general stock, his right in which was forfeited by disregard of the laws and regulations. The society met once a fortnight at 7 P.M., and studied books on art, drawings, engravings, &c. for an hour and a half, after which there was a discussion on a previously arranged subject. Each member in rotation provided bread and cheese for supper and read a paper on art. The first president of the society was W. C. Leeds, and their first exhibition was held in 1805 at the large room in Sir Benjamin Wrench's court. This court, which was on the site of the present Corn Hall, occupied a quadrangle in the parish of St. Andrew, which was wholly demolished about 1828. The exhibition comprised 223 works in oil and water colour, sculpture and engraving, over twenty of which were by Crome. The exhibitions were annual till Crome's death in 1821, and continued with some interruption till 1833. In 1816 a secession, headed by Crome's old friend Ladbrooke, took place, and a rival exhibition was held for three years (1816–18) at Theatre (or Assembly Rooms) Plain. The old society seems to have been in full vigour in 1829, when they had rooms in New Exchange Street. They held a dinner that year, in imitation of the Royal Academy; made grave speeches in which reference was made to the assistance to the funds given by the corporation of Norwich. From the account of the proceedings it would appear that they looked forward to the establishment of a regular academy at Norwich, and had no thought of that extinction so soon to follow.

In 1806 Crome first exhibited at the Royal Academy, and he continued to send pictures there occasionally till 1818. Thirteen works at the Royal Academy, all of which were landscapes with one exception, ‘A Blacksmith's Shop,’ and five at the British Institution constituted his entire contribution to the picture exhibitions in London, but his ‘Poringland’ was exhibited at the British Institution in 1824, three years after his death. To the Norwich exhibitions he contributed annually from 1805 to 1820, sending never less than ten and once as many as thirty-one pictures, and exhibiting 288 in all. Four of his pictures were included in the exhibition of 1821, which opened after his death. In 1808 he became president of the Norwich Society, R. Ladbrooke being then vice-president, but after this, except the secession of Ladbrooke and others from the society in 1816, there is no other important event to chronicle in his life, which appears to have been attended by a gradual increase of prosperity, though his income is not supposed to have risen at any time beyond about 800l. a year. Although his reputation was so high in his locality, it did not extend far, and though he painted and sold a great number of pictures, he seldom or never obtained more than 50l. even for a highly finished work. His income, however, sufficed to bring up his family in a comfortable if not luxurious fashion. From 1801 to his death he lived in a good-sized house in Gildengate Street, St. George's, Colegate. He kept two horses, which were indeed necessary for his journeys to his pupils, some of whom lived far from Norwich. He would drive from Norwich to Yarmouth in one day. He collected a large number of pictures and a valuable library of books. He was a favourite of all, and welcome not only in small, but great houses; his manners were winning, his conversation interesting and lively with jest and reminiscence. Good-tempered and jovial, he loved his joke and his glass, and of an evening would frequent the parlour of a favourite inn in the Market Place, where he was something of an oracle, and it is said that, especially at the last, he was sometimes more convivial than was prudent.

He was in his fifty-third year and in the fulness of his power as an artist when he was seized with an attack of inflammation, which carried him off after an illness of seven days. On the morning of the day he was taken ill he stretched a canvas six feet long for what he intended to be his masterpiece, a picture of a water frolic on Wroxham Broad, for which he had already made the sketch. His last recorded speeches were worthy of himself and his art. On the day of his death he charged his eldest son, who was sitting by his bed, never to forget the dignity of art. ‘John, my boy,’ said he, ‘paint, but paint for fame; and if your subject is only a pigsty, dignify it!’ and his last words were, ‘Hobbema, my dear Hobbema, how I have loved you!’ He died at his house in Gildengate Street, Norwich, 22 April 1821, and was buried in St. George's Church. In the report of his funeral in the ‘Norwich Mercury’ it is recorded that ‘the last respect was paid to his memory by a numerous attendance of artists and other gentlemen. Mr. Sharp and Mr. Vincent came from town on purpose, and Mr. Stark was also present. An immense concourse of people bore grateful testimony to the estimation in which his character was generally held.’

An exhibition of his paintings was held in Norwich in the autumnal session of 1821, when 111 of his works were gathered together, including those remaining unsold in his studio.

The art of Old Crome, though based in method upon that of the Dutch masters, and approaching in feeling sometimes to them and sometimes to Wilson, was inspired mainly by Nature and affection for the locality in which he passed his days. It was thus purely personal and national, like that of Gainsborough and that of Constable, not daring to express highly poetical emotion or to produce splendid visions of ideal beauty, like that of Turner, but thoroughly manly and unaffected, and penetrated with feeling for the beauty of what may be called the landscape of daily life. This he felt deeply and expressed with unusual success. The singleness of his aim and his constant study of nature gave freshness and vitality to all he did, and prevented ordinary and often-repeated subjects from becoming commonplace or monotonous. The life of the painter passed into his works. The low banks of the Wensum and the Yare, with their ricketty boat-houses, the leafy lanes about Norwich, the familiar Mousehold Heath, the tan-sailed barges sailing through the flats, the jetty and shore at Yarmouth sparkling in the sun, were painted by him as all men saw them, but as no one but himself could paint them. He found rather than composed his pictures, but the artistic instinct was so strong within him that his selection of subjects was always happy, and, even when most simple, attended by a success which no effort of creative imagination could excel. An instance of such fortunate finding, accompanied by wonderful sympathy of treatment, is the ‘Mousehold Heath’ in the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square), where a simple slope rising bare against a sky warm with illuminated clouds suffices, with a few weeds for foreground, to make a noble and poetical picture, full of the solemnity of solitude and the calm of the dying day. He painted it, he said, for ‘air and space.’ As a specimen of his sometimes rich and gem-like colouring the ‘View of Chapel Fields, Norwich,’ with its avenue of trees shot through with the slanting rays of the sun, could scarcely be surpassed. Always original, because always painting what he saw as he saw it, he was yet, perhaps, most so in his trees, which he studied with a particularity exceeding that of any artist before him, giving to each kind not only its general form and air, but its bark, its leafage, and its habit of growth. His oaks are especially fine, drawn with a comprehensive knowledge of their structure, and as if with an intimate acquaintance with every branch. It has been said that ‘an oak as represented by Crome is a poem vibrating with life,’ and that ‘Mr. Steward's “Oak at Poringland” and Mr. Holmes's “Willow” are two among the noblest pictures of trees that the world possesses, for, with all the knowledge and all the definition, there is no precedence given to detail over large pictorial effect.’ Another picture by Crome, although an early one, deserves notice from its size and beauty. This is the ‘Carrow Abbey,’ exhibited in 1805, and now in the possession of Mr. J. J. Colman, M.P.

An exhaustive examination of Crome's art is impossible here. Enough has been said to show that he was one of the most genuine and original, as he was undoubtedly one of the most enthusiastic of English artists, and that his name deserves to be remembered with those of Gainsborough and Constable as one of the men of genius who founded the English school of landscape. It was not till 1878 that the London public had an opportunity of doing justice to the merit of Crome and the rest of the Norwich school. Of fifty-six examples of the school shown that year, twenty-seven were by ‘Old Crome,’ and among them were two fine pictures from sketches taken during his one visit to the continent. The ‘Fishmarket on the Beach, Boulogne, 1814’ (painted 1820), and ‘Boulevard des Italiens, Paris, 1814’ (both now in the possession of the trustees of the late Hudson Gurney), showed that, English as Crome was to the core, his palette took a livelier tone, in sympathy with the climate and character of the French. Both these pictures were etched with great skill and feeling by the late Edwin Edwards. Fine examples of ‘Old Crome’ now fetch large prices. A ‘View of Cromer’ was sold at Christie's in 1867 for 1,020 guineas, and in 1875, at the sale of Mr. Mendel's pictures, an upright landscape, a road scene, brought nearly 1,600l.

Although all Crome's artistic triumphs are in oil colours, he drew skilfully but rarely in water colour. There are three or four poor examples of his water colours in the South Kensington Museum, and one or two sketches in monochrome. Of his oil paintings the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum contain several good specimens besides those already mentioned, and the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge contains a fine ‘Clump of Trees, Hautbois Common.’ Many of his finest pictures are still owned by families in Norwich and its neighbourhood.

Crome must be regarded as one of the earliest painter-etchers of the English school. The art had, indeed, been practised for topographical views and as an adjunct to engraving and aquatint, but very few if any English artists before Crome used the needle for their own pleasure and to make studies from nature of a purely picturesque kind. His hard-ground etchings are large in arrangement of masses of light, and very minute in execution. No etcher has so faithfully recorded the detail of branch and leaf, but in doing this he sacrificed gradation of tone and with it atmospheric effect. His soft-ground etchings are slighter but more effective. They were essentially private plates these of Crome, and though he issued a prospectus in 1812 for their publication and got a respectable body of subscribers, he could not be persuaded to publish them. It was not till 1834, or thirteen years after his death, that thirty-one of them were published at Norwich in a volume called ‘Norfolk Picturesque Scenery,’ by his widow, his son J. B. Crome, Mr. B. Steel, and Mr. Freeman. A few copies, now very rare, were worked off on large folio before letters. Four years later (1838) there was a new issue of seventeen of these plates, called ‘Etchings in Norfolk,’ with a memoir of the artist by Dawson Turner, and a portrait engraved by Sevier after a picture by D. B. Murphy, which, with another by W. Sharpe, and a bust by F. Mazzotti, were exhibited at the Norwich Society in 1821. About 1850 the thirty-one plates were again published, by Mr. Charles Musket, and about twenty years afterwards another issue appeared with an additional soft-ground plate which had not been published before. This was called ‘Thirty-two original Etchings, Views of Norfolk, by Old Crome, with portrait.’ Some of the plates for the later issues were rebitten by Ninham, and others touched with the graver by W. C. Edwards. The later states of the plates are of little artistic value. There is a fine collection of Crome's etchings in the British Museum.

[Norfolk Picturesque Scenery, 1834; ibid. 1838, with Memoir by Dawson Turner; Wodderspoon's John Crome and his Works; 2nd ed. printed for private circulation by R. N. Bacon, at the Norwich Mercury Office, 1876; Life by Mrs. Charles Heaton, added to Cunningham's Lives of British Painters, 1880; Cunningham's Cabinet Library of Pictures; Chesneau's La Peinture Anglaise; Redgraves' Century of Painters; Wedmore's Studies in English Art; English Illustrated Magazine, December 1883; Magazine of Art, April 1882; Graphic, 13 Aug. 1881; Seguier's Dict. of the Works of Painters; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists (1878); Bryan's Dict. of Painters (Graves); Graves's Dict. of Artists; manuscript notes by the late Mr. Edwin Edwards, and information supplied by Mr. J. Reeve of Norwich.]

C. M.