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Churchyard, Rowe and the Nurseys, and their links to the Norwich Society of Artists.

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By Anthony Adolph


In the early 19th century, there was in Norfolk the Norwich Society of Artists, founded in 1803 by ‘Old’ John Crome (1768-1821), and there also existed across the border in Suffolk what might be termed, retrospectively, a ‘Woodbridge circle’ of artists, including Thomas Churchyard (1798-1865), George James Rowe (1804-1883), Perry Nursey (1771-1840) and his sons Rev. Perry Nursey (1799-1867) and Claude Nursey (1816-1873), each with their links, direct or otherwise, to John Constable (1776-1837). Both groups concerned themselves mainly with continuing Gainsborough’s tradition of painting East Anglian landscapes after the manner of the 17th century Dutch artists.


The Norfolk artists, who were later termed ‘the Norwich School’, included a significant number of professional painters; the Suffolk ones, who were never so coherent a group as to be termed a ‘school’, tended more (and with the exception of Rowe and Claude) to have painted mainly for recreation. At John Day’s suggestion, I have set out here to examine the connections, and lack of them, between these two like-minded groups of painters.

Although all these painters’ lives have been studied carefully, innumerable gaps exist in our knowledge of them and it is possible that there were many cross-currents and cross-influences of which we still unaware. But in terms of what is known, from the Suffolk side, at any rate, the evidence is of surprisingly very little connection between Norwich and Woodbridge. Although the Norfolk city and Suffolk market town were only 36 miles apart, and their artist-residents hearts beat very much to the same tune, transport between the two was difficult; both looked chiefly to London with its art institutions like the Royal Academy, and dealers, print makers and sellers, auction rooms and wealthy art collectors – and not very much, it seems, until 1828, to each other.


On p. 23 of his biography of Thomas Churchyard, Painting the Day (The Boydell Press, 1986), Wallace Morfey wrote ‘Perhaps it was already in his [years as an articled clerk, training to be a solicitor] that he [Churchyard] came to believe he could only fulfil himself by excelling in that genre of art practised by the Norwich School of painters. To have become captivated by the landscapes of John Crome its founder he would have to have journeyed to the Norfolk capital, since at that time the paintings were hardly to be found outside the homes of local collectors who had bought them at annual exhibitions of the Norwich Society of Artists. At Halesworth [where Morfey thought Churchyard served as an articled clerk] he was well placed to take a day’s leave, rise early and at six o’clock on a Saturday morning travel up three hours into Norfolk by the Eclipse Coach and view the master’s showings of 1817 and of the next three years’.

It is true that, by the 1830s, Churchyard was a passionate collector and copier of Old Cromes, and drew much inspiration from him for his own, prolific painting. But that does not mean Crome had always been Churchyard’s great idol. Morfey claimed (p. 41) that ‘in the early years after qualifying [as a solicitor in 1821] he had worked at improving his skill, by copying the Cromes that he owned’ but without (as he admitted) any clear evidence of dating. The first certain reference to Churchyard owning any Cromes that I can find in Morfey’s book is in 1832, when a sale of Churchyard’s picture collection included Gainsboroughs and Cromes. A portrait of Churchyard sitting in his office in Well Street (later renamed Seckford Street) shows a moonlit scene that could be a Crome, but the portrait is undated. He may have had this moonlit scene, then, in the early-mid 1820s, but it could just as easily have been a shiny new acquisition from later on.


Similarly, in his article ‘The influence of John Crome on Thomas Churchyard of Woodbridge’ (Friends of the Norwich Museums Newsletter, Spring 2013), John Day wrote ‘In 1828 a visit to Woodbridge by John Berney Crome, the eldest of Crome’s sons, may indicate a previous contact…. Perhaps Churchyard had struck up a friendship with J.B. Crome.... due to the lack of dated works by Churchyard it is difficult to be exact when assessing the time at which Churchyard became aware of Crome’s work. By the mid 1820s he was developing his fluent style with some regard for Crome’s tonal values and especially the Norwich master’s later brushwork…’. The article is an excellent piece of scholarship and emphasizes the uncertainties caused by the lack of dates on so many of Churchyard’s works. I believe that the idea I am proposing now requires only a slight tweaking of the dates; for it is possible that the influence of the Cromes on Churchyard’s work might, despite Morfey’s earlier assumptions, date only from 1828 onwards.


Seeking the origins of Churchyard’s career as an artist, Morfey acknowledged (p. 39) that ‘The originator’ of artistic activity in Woodbridge ‘was a practicing connoisseur, [Perry] Nursey, who through his easy friendships with nationally recognised painters, had become regarded as the oracle on matters artistic in this corner of Suffolk’, and he thought Nursey may have encouraged the young  Churchyard to paint. Having examined my embryonic collection of images of Perry Nursey pictures in 1998, Stephen Reiss, O.B.E., author of Thomas Churchyard 1798-1865 (David Messum Fine Art, 1998) wrote to me, ‘up to now Thomas Churchyard arrived out of the blue, as it were, self-taught, no immediate artistic influence whatsoever’, but that, in terms of who may have taught him, ‘Nursey seems the obvious front-runner… Some people have thought that stylistic similarities between early Thomas Churchyard and some of the Norwich artists, e.g. James Stark (1794-1859), might imply closer links than the records currently reveal, but this has never been convincing. What you reveal, which again I did not know, is Nursey’s studentship under [the Scottish landscape painter] Alexander Nasmyth [1758-1840]. This to my mind is the decisive clue, for I can see quite compelling links between the Nasmyths and the early Churchyard’. One can add to this that, according to his bankruptcy catalogue of 1834, Nursey owned an extensive collection of pictures including ‘100 prints of English scenery, from drawings & sketches by Gainsborough’, but nothing (at that time) by the Norwich artists at all. So whilst Churchyard was later very heavily influenced by the naturalistic style of Crome, his early influences may have been much more Suffolk-based, without the early input from the Norwich artists that Morfey so fondly imagined.


It is possible, incidentally, that Old Crome himself had been in Woodbridge at some time before his death in 1821: ‘A view near Woodbridge, with two horses by a pond, a windmill beyond’, apparently by Crome,  was auctioned in 2013 (, but even if the attributions and identifications are correct, that does not prove that he met Churchyard on that (presumed) visit, and indeed the visit could have been before Churchyard was even born.

The Norwich Society of Artists 1805-1833 (Norwich, 1976) shows that 1828 – that same year of J.B. Crome’s visit to Woodbridge – was an important year indeed, for it was then that Woodbridge artists suddenly started exhibiting in Norwich, at the newly formed Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts, an 1828 revival of the earlier Norwich Society of Artists. The new name suggests a desire for a broader reach: this was mainly, as Chloe Bennett writes to me, ‘an act of desperation to widen its appeal to potential patrons living further afield’, but perhaps it was also an effort to engage the interest of artists from Suffolk, including perhaps, specifically, the ‘Woodbridge circle’. In her excellent examination of the artistic roots of George James Rowe (1804-1883), A Twilight Landscape (Chloe Bennett, 2014), Chloe Bennett drew our attention to this fact, and suggested that this ‘may simply have been an experiment by the younger artists encouraged by Nursey senior’ (who had, by implication, been their teacher too). But based on my studies of the Nurseys, with which she has so kindly helped me, we may now be able to venture further.

Perry Nursey senior was incredibly enthusiastic about painting. Living as a gentleman farmer and landscape architect at The Grove in Little Bealings, a farm house he had remodeled, using his heiress-wife’s money, as a Picturesque mansion, he had exhibited four paintings at the Royal Academy between in 1799 and 1801, and continued to paint all his life. In a letter to Nursey of 18 October 1816 (British Library, Add. MS 29991, ff. 12-13), Sir David Wilkie wrote ‘I am happy to hear the young gentlemen [Nursey’s sons] Robert & Perry are with your self so indefatigable in your studies [of painting] out of doors’. Nursey may well have encouraged Churchyard and Rowe (and, incidentally, Canon Edward Moor (1800-1866), a talented amateur watercolourist who was the son of a close friend and neighbour) in the same way. Nursey’s son Perry became Rev. Perry Nursey, curate of Dallinghoo, Suffolk in 1822. He had exhibited earlier on at the Royal Academy, and once in Holy Orders he exhibited two more paintings there, in 1823 and 1824. On 5 October 1823, he was appointed curate of St Nicholas’s, East Dereham, Norfolk, and on 17 July 1826, he became stipendiary curate at Tittleshall, 6½ miles north-east of East Dereham. A year later, at Scarning (very close to East Dereham), he married Charlotte, daughter of the late Rev. William Press Smith (1760-1808), rector of Waxham and Palling on the Norfolk coast, and he remained in Norfolk ever after; he never lived in Norwich, but this was the diocesan centre and the hub of the county’s intellectual and artistic life, so his visits there must have been frequent.

It was the Rev. Perry Nursey who exhibited first at the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts, in Norwich, in 1828, showing four paintings including two that had formerly appeared at the Royal Academy. The catalogue describes him as ‘of Woodbridge’, but by now he was in fact firmly ‘of Norfolk’. Here, for the first time, is solid evidence of a ‘Woodbridge circle’ painter in Crome country. It is possible that his strong connections with both Woodbridge and Norwich were the catalyst for J.B. Crome’s visit to Woodbridge in the same year, thus initiating the subsequent influence of the Crome family on Churchyard’s work, as identified by Morfey and analysed in detail in John Day’s article.


In 1829, following these contacts of 1828, Rev. Perry Nursey’s father Perry Nursey senior and Churchyard exhibited at the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts, and in 1830 Perry Nursey senior and George James Rowe of Woodbridge sent up their own pictures. The published catalogue of the Norwich exhibitions, incidentally, makes a hash of distinguishing between Perry Nursey senior and his son Rev. Perry Nursey, but I have identified the paintings concerned in my catalogue of the Nursey family’s work and the identifications made here are beyond reasonable doubt. On the strength of Churchyard’s 1829 exhibit, says Morfey (p. 42), Churchyard was elected an Honourary Member of the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts, but he is not recorded as attending its meetings. The clearest conclusion to draw from all this is that the ‘Woodbridge circle’ exhibiting in Norwich started with Rev. Perry Nursey, and was due to his having become a clergyman in Norfolk.


Rev. Nursey doubtless derived much inspiration from the Norwich artists. In 1836, for example, he painted a lively scene of Yarmouth jetty [RPN3], a scene beloved of Crome and his followers. His enthusiasm was clearly shared by Churchyard, and if the latter’s first brush with the Norwich Society of Artists was due to the 1828 exhibition and J.B. Crome’s probably connected visit to Woodbridge that year, that leaves plenty of time for him to have become the great disciple of Crome that he was for the rest of his life – without having to catch the coach up to Norwich from Halesworth, as Morfey imagined, way back in the 1810s when he was an articled clerk.


After 1830, the ‘Woodbridge circle’ stopped exhibiting in Norwich, but Rev. Perry Nursey remained in Norfolk at various benefices all his life, painting the whole time. In 1854, his younger brother Claude Lorraine Richard Wilson Nursey, named by his father after two artists, a pupil of Sir David Wilkie’s, and a successful artist and art teacher, was appointed Head Master of the Norwich School of Art and Design. That may have been a coincidence, imposed on Nursey and Norwich alike by the autocratic Central School of Design in London. But Norwich’s art school was tied closely to the Norfolk & Norwich Fine Arts Association, and when we learn from advertisements in the Norwich Mercury that the Association’s committee included Rev. Perry Nursey, we may hear across the years the sound of strings being pulled. As Head Master in Norwich, Claude Nursey became Hon. Secretary of the Norfolk & Norwich Fine Arts Association, and his later paintings drew clear inspiration from Crome and his circle; his painting ‘Wroxham Regatta’ (1869) [CLN28] was in respectful imitation of Old Crome, whose ultimately fatal collapse in 1821 took place whilst starting to depict that very event. By the mid-1850s, therefore, ‘Woodbridge circle’ artists were ensconced at the very heart of the city of Crome. 

With thanks to the very kind input of Chloe Bennett and John Day.

Anthony Adolph, professional author, genealogist, broadcaster and amateur painter, is the biographer of the Nursey family of artists. He has produced a catalogue of the work of Perry Nursey senior, and with catalogues of Rev. Perry Nursey and Claude Nursey in preparation. He is also working on a book about them, and would be delighted to hear from anyone with any knowledge of their life and work, and indeed any additions, amendments or contradictions to the ideas sketched out here,  

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Sir David Wilkie ‘Mr. [Perry] Nursey with his son [Rev.] Perry and son in law [Charles John] Wilkinson’ (courtesy of Colchester + Ipswich Museums, Ipswich Borough Collection, ref. IPSMG: R. 1914 - 36.6).

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Perry Nursey (1771-1840), ‘Seckford Hall Lodge, on the road between Little Bealings and Woodbridge, Suffolk, with workers returning from the fields’, oil on canvas [PN6], 13½”  x 17” (courtesy of the Mole Cottage Collection). Here are oaks as fine as any Crome.

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Perry Nursey (1771-1840), ‘Scarning, Norfolk’ [PN66], pen and ink,  (courtesy of Colchester + Ipswich Museums, Ipswich Borough Collection, ref. IPSMG: R. 1914 - 36.6). Nursey probably drew this whilst visiting his son Rev. Perry Nursey, who lived nearby at East Dereham between 1823 and 1826.

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Rev. Perry Nursey (1799-1867), ‘Yarmouth jetty, 1836’  [RPN3], oil on board, 11” x 15” (courtesy of the Mole Cottage Collection).

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Claude Nursey (1816-1873), ‘Wroxham Regatta, 1868, view from Broad House’ [CLN28], oil, 1869, (courtesy of Stanley Chamberlain/Wikicommons).

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