“That Gainsborough, Constable and Crome were men of genius no one can dispute,” said journalist John Wodderspoon in 1858. Forty years later John Crome has been praised even more enthusiastically by the writer and art historian Laurence Binyon, who said that “it’s Crome we should focus on rather than Constable” when looking for “a classic.” Yet today Gainsborough and Constable are household names while Crome has been forgotten.
Now the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery has taken action. Meticulously curated by Giorgia Bottinelli, the museum’s summer exhibition, A passion for the landscape: rediscovering John Crome, proves that its erasure was an oversight. Not all works are masterpieces but, at his best, the Norwich-born painter stands by comparison with his famous peers.
The exhibition opens with several portraits of Crome. Painted in 1798 when its subject turned 30, John Opie’s oil captures a handsome young man whose thick eyebrows, full lips, thick black hair and a brooding, perceptive face suggest deep waters. Twenty-three years later, in what turned out to be Crome’s last year of life, the fierce-eyed resemblance of JW Higham suggests that the painter had lost none of his dynamism, albeit a great part of her hair.
This gloomy vitality vibrates through the “slate quarries” (1802-05). Crome’s first work on display, this large canvas – now owned by Tate – was painted during or just after the artist made a trip to the Lake District and possibly Wales as well. It shows the landscape on an overcast day. Swirls of clouds roll up the dark mountains on the horizon; bright lights on the rooftops huddle behind a rocky outcrop while in the foreground, the newly exposed stone shines like torn flesh.
It is a beautiful image but not encouraging. Almost voluntary in its harshness, it is a testament to the terrible beauty of the onset of the Industrial Revolution’s assault on rural Britain. But he also whispers the poverty of the man who painted him.
Crome was the son of a weaver, and little is known about his childhood except a letter apologizing for his low literacy skills. Apprentice to a painter of signs and coaches, he had no formal artistic training. Although he did not exhibit his own paintings until the age of 36, he had by then built a reputation as a master of drawing with important Norfolk families such as the Gurneys of Earlham Hall. Through alluring contrasts between sweeping ruins and trailing foliage, intensified by jade blue washes and evanescent white, a charming sequence of watercolors of Tintern Abbey by Crome and one of Gurney’s pupils reveals that not all of these trips to the Lake District were pessimistic. . Indeed, a note from Richenda Gurney admitting that she “gave way to passion” when Crome paid more attention to her sister Betsy (later prison reformer Elizabeth Fry) tells us that her relationship to her patrons were far from distant.
These illustrious connections are a stark counterpoint to a life so strapped for cash that his biographer Dawson Turner recalled that Crome used “folded aprons” for webs and once cut “the hairs on the owner’s cat tail to make brushes ”.
This lack of resources affected his painting. The obscurity of the “Slate Quarries” and several other paintings on display here is in part due to its use of an open-weave canvas. Cheaper than, say, twill, the weave absorbs the adhesive when the canvas is then lined with a second surface to strengthen it, and the paint darkens as a result. Likewise, her limited choice of colors – mainly green, earthy hues and Prussian blue, with rare adventures in more expensive pinks, purples, yellows and reds – contributes to the sobriety that defines her style.
Crome made a virtue of necessity. A man who once said, “If your subject is just a pigsty, respect him,” he was drawn to the neglected pockets of rural and city life. This at least obvious eye makes him, no doubt, a more modern painter than, say, Constable, with his penchant for the pastoral Arcadies which now borders on the picturesque. As for Turner, although his thriving natural theaters resonate with an abstraction that when painted was truly maverick, it’s hard to believe they were produced in the same country, and to around the same time as Crome’s quiet lyricism.
Oaks, as with many painters of his day, were one of Crome’s favorite subjects. In general, however, their portrayal fueled the theory of the picturesque, first proposed by William Gilpin, which only exalted nature when it was sufficiently pretty or dramatic to serve as a model for art in the Romantic tradition.
Crome broke this rule. Even when, as in “The Poringland Oak” (1818-20), he chooses a healthy tree, its frothy branches shading a sunny pool in which young boys bathe, he remains true to his understated palette with just flashes of lightning. gold and white on the water, bark and bare skin to tell us it was an enchanting summer day. With scrupulously demarcated leaves and branches, it’s clear that Crome is as interested in conveying botanical authenticity as he is the high emotion demanded by romantic keepers.
His loyalty to the truth as well as his passion are illustrated in “Road with Pollards” (c1815). Showing a rustic road, with cows and cowbirds winding through a dark expanse of Norfolk countryside, the protagonists of the painting are the row of oak trees overlooking the scene. But they are not majestic giants, rather they are sad and stunted specimens, their upper branches cut off (topped) to provide food for animals or wood for carpentry. That Gilpin described the pollarding as “disgusting” shows you just how firmly Crome attached to his muse.
In truth, the love of everyday life in all its unglamorous humility had long inspired Dutch landscape painters, especially Jacob van Ruisdael and his pupil Meindert Hobbema, who were among Crome’s strongest influences.
Perhaps Hobbema’s plethora of watermill paintings encouraged Crome as he created a body of work for which he single-handedly should have gained lasting fame. The paintings in question focus on the River Wensum, which runs through Norwich. Featured here, “Norwich: River Afternoon” (c1812-19), “Back of the New Mills” (undated) and “New Mills: Men Wading” (1812) all bear witness to an artist whose professional competence is enhanced by his empathy. for its subject.
This world – of local residents, weavers, carpenters, small traders, dyers and tanners, but also passers-by, swimmers and recreational rowers – must have caught Crome’s eye since childhood. Years of observation prepared him to capture the pearly, undulating reflections of a river whose serene currents naturally invited the leisure activities – swimming, boating, boating – which were beginning to characterize industrial society. Yet its long experience of this bustling and working waterway has also given Crome a testament to its more sandy profile of overcrowded and dilapidated housing, seedy mills and smelly factories and workshops.
Allowing themselves more expensive canvases and paintings to be able to evoke the contrast between the shiny and radiant outfits of a boat party and their hazy reflections of water light, the crisp golden facades of buildings by the river and Their little black windows, these paintings are snapshots of a city straddling the best and the worst of times, when some people have more time to play and others are worked to the bone.
In this sense, Crome foreshadows Impressionists, such as Monet and Pissarro, who allowed trains, bridges, roads and factories to infiltrate their seemingly idyllic country scenes.
Crome died in Norwich in 1821. According to an article in a local newspaper, “the huge crowd of people” at his funeral attests to the popularity he had gained in his home turf. Gifted, original and in his avant-garde way, why has he been so forgotten? First, he has never cracked the London art scene. Although he’s shown a handful of times in the capital – one reviewer has likened his style to ‘scribbling’ – an effort to establish himself in London has failed.
In addition, his legacy was problematic. Unlike Constable and Turner, Crome’s studio was never bequeathed to the nation. Although he made engravings – a cover is on display – there is no organized corpus. Worse yet, Crome not only never signed his oil paintings, but encouraged his students to copy them. The result, assiduously discussed in the catalog for this exhibition, is that Crome’s work is tainted with attribution errors. Let us hope that this exhibition marks the beginning of the resurrection of this splendid painter.
As of September 5, museums.norfolk.gov.uk