Wakefield Express/Thomas Hartley Cromek
Thomas Hartley Cromek was born 8th August 1809.
His father Robert Hartley Cromek was an engraver by profession, a man of considerable literary taste and judgement. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, on intimate terms with Stothard, Bewick, Allan Cunningham, Roscoe Campbell the poet, and other leading men of that day. He was the collector and editor of the‘remains of Nithsdale and ‘Galoway Song’ a publication bearing the same relation to Scottish poetry as Bishop Percy’s famous ‘Reliques’ did to English; and of the better known ‘Reliques of Burns’. At his insistence, also, Schiavonetti etched, from the imperishable designs of Blake, a series of masterly illustrations to a sumptuous edition of ‘Blair’s Grave’ and began an engraving from Stothard’s picture of the Canterbury Pilgrimage. By reason of the untimely death of Schiavonetti however, the plate was worked at more or less by Bromley and Cromek, then by Engleheart, and lastly finished by James heath. But Cromek as he was the first ever to conceive the project of representing Chaucer’s grand idea in an engraving, so was he also the life and soul of it from first to last and the guide of it to a successful issue though not himself spared to see it’s actual publication. If, then, his son were to inherit his father’s tastes, we might expect to find in him unfolding by degrees the characters of an artist, an antiquary and a scholar. We shall see, from what follows to what extent this was realised.
His first schooling was at Mr. Enoch Harrisons of Wakefield, who was at that time considered an able teacher, but afterwards he was sent to the Moravian School at Fulneck, and to the Grammar School at Wakefield, though he eventually returned to Mr. Harrisons, where his first taste for drawing showed itself. Mr Hunter, at that time a portrait painter in Wakefield, noticed little Cromek’s self taught attempts, and had him to his house – a fine one, now pulled down, built by John milnes Esq. In Westgate, near the Railway Station. There were there some fine some fine old paintings and carvings, which made a great impression on the boy, to whom Mr. Hunter also lent Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Painting and other works.. These inflamed little Cromek’s mind with the idea that he would like to be an artist, and soon afterwards his mother took him up to London, and introduced him to old Mr Hopwood the Engraver, a tall swarthy, old giant with a stentorian voice, who used to sit whilst at work in a blanket, fastened about the throat with a wooden skewer. This was too much for the boy, who persuaded his mother to let him come back to Wakefield again, where, without any instruction at all, he soon painted portraits in oil sufficiently well to enable him to go to Leeds, and live in lodgings; his rule being then, as ever after to take the greatest pains an do the very best in his power, with an unwearyingly diligence. The late Mr. Teale at this time employed him a good deal in making coloured drawings of pathological specimens ; and to the minute attention which these required might, doubtless, to a great extent, be attributed that careful and accurate drawing which ever after characterised him as an artist.
At Leeds, also, young Cromek won the heart of the talented landscape painter John Rhodes, as he had done that of Mr Hunter at Wakefield and under him made rapid progress. Here, too, he availed himself of the means of studying anatomy, so indispensable to an artist; and a series of drawings of the bones, made by him at this time, were pronounced by Sir Astley Cooper the best he had ever seen. In the summer of 1828 he visited Richmond, in Yorkshire and now awoke completely, as out of a trance, amidst the loveliness and grandeur which everyone surrounded him. His days were spent in intoxicating admiration and study of all he saw; and he wondered on to Rievaulx, Roheby, Barnard Castle, Durham and the Lakes, still further fascinated and enchanted. Nature must henceforth be the study of his life, he felt, and art his vocation.
Working on, in 1830 he formed the resolution to leave England and go to Rome, but before doing so called in on Constable with a letter of introduction. The latter tried to laugh Cromek out of his determination, saying he supposed England was not big enough for an artist nowadays, and that in his time young men did not go all the way to Italy to study, and so on. But it was in vain. He went first to Belgium and the Rhine country, then to Switzerland and Florence and then to Rome, where he set to work at once at the Vatican Gallery and Museum, the Forum and Coliseum, the ruins of Caesar’s palace and Farnese gardens; and by his industry and progress attracted the attention of some of the most distinguished nobility then in Rome. When the visitors had left, he left also to ramble about Frascarti, Naples and Pompeii, observing everything and sketching. On the island of Capri he stayed longer, fascinated by it’s romantic scenery, it’s magnificent olive, fig and walnut trees; it’s acres of cactus, aloe and myrtle growing wild and in the greatest luminescence; it’s balmy air charged with the most exquisite perfumes. Then he went to Pacstum, where the rose trees still flower twice in the year.
Baiae and Cume, Palestrina, Siena and Florence, absorbed in wonder and admiration in the fairy land in which he found himself; sketching and painting indoors and in the open air; wandering through picture galleries and museums; or stretched upon the ground reading Dante under the shade of overhanging plane trees. Returning afterwards to Rome for the season he at once fell into full work, and though only 22 years of age, besides pursuing his own studies, gave lessons to Lady Adelaide Paget – one of the daughters of the marquis of Anglessey; Miss Flower – afterwards Duchess of Marlborough Lady Ashley – one of the loveliest of women; Lady Sydney, Lady Clinton, and others of the most distinguished English nobility. When these engagements were finished, he spent an entire month amidst the ruins in the Forum and Coliseum; and the other antiquities of Rome were studied by him in an equally careful manner.
In order still further to perfect himself by the study of ancient examples in 1834 he went to Greece. Here he made a study of the celebrated Castalian Fountain, drinking the water as he painted, and using it for his colours. At one or other of the Greek convents he was always welcome, and from it he used to make excursions. On one occasion, going to the Corycian cave on Mount Parnassus, night came on as he and his companions were making their way through a forest and they came upon a party of goatherds, who gave them goat’s milk and curds for supper, and with whom afterwards they lay down to sleep in the open air. And whether on Mounts Cithaeron, Helicon and Parnassus at Phyle or at Athens, he was almost beside himself amidst the various beauties of nature and art by which he was surrounded. At the Parthenon, he worked hard both on the whole and on particular portions; and elsewhere, on the heights overlooking the sea his pencil was ever ready. The remains of ancient palaces and temples lay scattered on the grounds. Amidst the myrtle and juniper bushes which covered the green sward lay embedded these fragments of columns and capitals, of mouldings and friezes, which none knew so well as he how to picture to the life. The number of drawings and sketches he made during the fortnight he stayed at Athens, in the midst of all that was lovely in art, grand in poetry and sublime in history seems almost inconceivable. At Corinth, the weather was so lovely that he made his bed at night in the open air, close to the sea, that he might be lulled to sleep by the rippling water on the shingly beach.
The next year he visited the picture galleries and studios of Venice; after which travelling through to Tyrol to Innsbruck and Munich, where he had a nice treat in the Royal gallery – with its magnificent pictures by Rubens – he came to England. Here his time was spent travelling to the most delightful places, moving in the most agreeable society, disposing of his drawings and receiving the flattery, attention of the best qualified to judge of their merit. One of the houses in the north to which he was invited was Roheby; and here he was, of course fascinated by the exquisite natural scenery, by the magnificent library and by Mr. Merritt himself, the intimate friend of Scott.
Two important events also occurred during the English visit. Mr Cromek in consequence partly of what he had seen abroad, and partly of what he had thought and read at home, became a Roman Catholic; Bossuets masterly and scholarly work – the Variations of the Protestant Churches, being the last straw which turned the balance of his mind. He also married a Miss Priestman of Richmond. One can hardly have a prettier picture than the return of the young artist to the continent, in the autumn of 1836, with his little wife through France, down the Rhone, with vine‐covered mountains on either side to Avignon – one of the most picturesque old cities in the world – and then to Florence; walking about the cathedral and picture galleries, or studying in the Riccardi Palace, renowned for it’s splendid frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli; or making his celebrated study of the Campanili Giotto – a drawing almost never surpassed for fidelity and beauty. These must have been happy days, free from family cares, studying or reading or walking about at ease. Or making excursions to Siena and the neighbouring churches and monasteries; his wife gathering fossil shells and pressing wild flowers whist he sketched or painted! His reputation was fully established. During his stay at Florence he was sent for to the Pitti Palace by Her Royal Highness the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, with whom he had a most pleasing interview, being placed at ease at once by her charming manners and true lady hood; and out of all the artists practising in that great city, was selected to give lessons in water colours to the Princess Charlotte Napoleon of France.
In the autumn of 1838 he returned to Rome; and one of his first commissions was a drawing of the tribune at Florence, for the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia. His Royal Highness the Duke of Bordeaux (Henry V of France), Viscount Canning, Lord Crewe, Lord Francis Egerton, the Marquis of Northampton, the Countess of Lismore and many others of the highest English and foreign nobility visited him, and gave him as much work as he could execute; and paid him liberally for it also. These were prosperous days. Nor was his social life less pleasant than his public. He moved in the most intellectual society in Rome. On one occasion (but earlier than the time of which we are now speaking) it was his rare privilege to meet Sir Walter Scott. With Cromek’s drawings Scott was delighted. He won his heart at once. But of Scott, Cromek made shrewd remark that he was not much interested in Italy for her own sake. Sir Walter seemed most pleased of anything, with a journey he had made to Frascarti to see the house in which Cardinal York the last of the Stuarts lived and told Cromek “he would een a’liked to find a bit o’the pretenders breeks.’ He (Scott) was at that time very infirm and used Cromek’s arm for support on rising from his seat. On another occasion, Mr Cromek met venerable old Thorwaldson, the celebrated sculptor. About this time also Mr Cromek visited Naples and made his well known studies at Sorrento and Ravello. At his leisure, he began to read Greek with Greek professor at the Propaganda College, whom afterwards he went through all the most important both of the Greek and Latin classics. Gibbons Decline and fall was also a favourite book with Mr. Cromek.
In the summer of 1843, Mr Cromek visited London and had the honour of being summoned to Buckingham Palace to show his drawings to the Queen and of executing for Her Majesty a view of Naples and an interior of the Church of St Mark at Venice. In the autumn, he returned to Rome and next year visited Tosanella famous for two remarkably fine old churches, rich in ornament, of the tenth and eleventh centuries. The stone of these buildings never having been ‘restored’, has a peculiarly rich colour, brighter than burnt Siena; and was a great puzzle it was to Cromek how to get this colour in his drawings, no such colour at that time being manufactured. He hit however, on an ingenious expedient. In his walks he selected some specimens of ochreous earth, resembling the colour he was desirous to obtain. These he got purified in Rome, and sent them thence to Newman’s in Soho Square, who made them for him in to cakes. And this was that colour he used ever after for those marvellous rich orange tints of decaying stone ne gave so felicitously.
In 1845 Mr Cromek again visited Greece, spending two months at Athens, and forming a very fine collection of drawings of all the principal ruins. The very first commission he received on his return to Rome was for some of these drawings, and the price of them exceeded the whole of the expenses of his journey. The next few years were spent in Rome or in the neighbourhood. His magnificent drawing of the interior of St Peter’s occupied two whole months of the summer of 1847. Pugin happened to be in Rome at the time, and astonished the people there by his unmitigated abuse of St Peters; and by the ill‐disguised surprise and disgust with which he heard that any one should think it worthwhile to make a drawing of such a place. In the same year Mr Cromek began the study of Hebrew with a Jewish scholar, and subsequently read the whole Hebrew Scriptures with him, and compiled a Hebrew Grammar, which was published by Bell of Fleet street. He also learned Syriac, and could read the scriptures in that language fluently. Nor was his domestic life less happy or delightful. Here three children were born. At every turn fortune seemed to smile on and to favour him. This, however, was now to end, and the long train of troubles begin, which embittered the remaining years of his life. The civil war of 1849 compelled all the English residents to leave Rome in hourly expectation of the sack of the city by the lawless mob of Garibaldi; and though Mr Cromek afterwards, in London and elsewhere had many friends, yet never could give or gain or retain the kind of connection which of its own accord, had come to him in Rome.
In 1849, he breakfasted in London with Rogers, the poet, perhaps sat on the very seat on which Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Campbell , Moore or Crabbe may have sat before him. The Marchioness of Westminster invited him to some of her parties. Prince Albert again desired to see his drawings, and brought two of them – a view of Athens and the Cloisters of St John Lateran at Rome. He was invited to Northumberland House and the Duke & Duchess received him in the very kindest manner. Sir Charles and Lady Eastlake, and a host of other foremost artists called on him in London and praised his drawings. He was elected unanimously an associate of the New Society of Water Colour Painters. Meanwhile so long as he could hold a pencil, he perfected himself in his art, and visited some of the most interesting places in the country – Lincoln 1853, Guy’s Cliff and Warwick, and Kirkstall in 1857; Richmond and Tanfield, and Bakewell and Campsal and Warwick castle in 1858; and Coningsborough in 1859. But it was to no avail. The fatal step of his life was his fearing to venture in London and coming to live at Wakefield in 1851, instead of returning to Rome or Florence. As the Duke of Northumberland asked him in 1855:’Where have you been hiding yourself and all these beautiful drawings, Mr. Cromek?’Whilst he was hidden here the stream of favour glided past, and left him standing helpless and alone. It would ill become an amateur to pretend to criticise Mr Cromek as an artist. A man should himself be at least something of an artist before he judges one. But the writer of this poor memorial may be excused if he mentions with pride the unanimous feeling at the exhibition of Mr Cromek’s Bakewell drawings. Before the society of Antiquaries in 1871,. It was felt that no one had ever more felicitously combined the discriminating love and veneration of the true antiquary with the thorough insight and mastery of a great artist, than Mr. Cromek. Or as Mr Clarkson Stansfield used to say; ‘Finer transcripts of nature were made’. Lord Francis Egerton, on one occasion, went even further than this: ’Mr Cromek’s drawings were, he said, in his judgement, unsurpassable for truth and beauty.
The last sketch ever made by Mr Cromek was one of Scotney Castle in Sussex; a bright sunny picture of which his youngest daughter afterwards made a copy, reflecting in a very extraordinary degree the spirit of the original, with a by no means scant measure of its genius. For the last ten years of his life Mr Cromek’s health slowly but steadily declined. He had for several years suffered severely from gout, and to this was now added, whilst in the very prime of his life and full of energy, gradually increasing paralysis, not only of the limbs but of the throat and tongue, hindering swallowing and articulation, and rendering it extremely difficult for even his most intimate friends to understand him. These sad afflictions he bore with the most exemplary patience, until it pleased God to remove him on the 10th inst (April 1873); and on the 14th he was buried in the Wakefield Cemetery by the side of his late wife.
Mr Cromek was naturally of a retiring and thoughtful temper, and for this reason during his illness rather shrank from then courted society, finding in those studies which had been the amusements of his leisure whilst in health the most certain source of pleasure and refreshment. Visit him when one might, his occupations were at all times those of a refined scholar and true gentlemen. Plato, homer, Dante, Milton, and the Holy Scriptures in Greek, Hebrew and Syriac he read with eagerness andinterest even to the last. An extremely sensitive disposition, at times amounting to downright irritability of temper, was a great misfortune to him. In so far as the latter was mental, it arose from his extreme truthfulness, a moral element in his nature of which truthfulness of his drawings was but one expression, and which prevented him even to his dying day being able to make himself agreeable to such as for instance praised his drawings, and yet never bought any, or realized neither the talent nor the labour his works required, but behaved towards him as to a mere picture making machine or species of upholsterer. In so far as his temper was bodily, it arose as those who knew him knew full well from the enfeebled earthly house of the tabernacle of his body, to use the fine expression of St Paul, the sufferings of which at times might have drawn tears even from a heart of stone. But now all this is over. From the burden he is released. After a hard and more than usually prolonged period of trial his own true calm intellectual self is free, free from and incapable of perturbation. To use the language of Schiller, which breaks on the ear almost like an inspiration.
“Ever pure and mirror‐bright and even, light as, Zephyr‐breath of heaven, his life midst the immortals glides away. Moons are warning, generations wasting – their celestial youth blooms everlasting, changelers midst a ruined world’s deacay”