Although John Crome created at least thirty-five pure etchings and another nine soft-ground etchings, print-making occupied only a small part of his career. He did not take up the etching needle until 1809 and stopped working in the medium some five years later. Inspired by the prints of the great seventeenth-century Dutch etchers, Crome initially threw himself into this new venture with almost boyish enthusiasm, probably for his own satisfaction and to interest and impress his friends. He briefly toyed with the possibility of bringing out a published edition of these works, and a prospectus to this effect was issued in 1812. However, perhaps discouraged by the reservations expressed by his patron, Dawson Turner, Crome let the project drop.
Then in 1835, thirteen years after his death, Crome’s widow published a limited edition of the etchings, comprising thirty-one plates (seven of them in soft ground), following this up with another edition in 1838. Unfortunately several of the original plates were quite substantially re-worked, seemingly at Dawson Turner’s instigation, in the hope that this would give them a more “polished” appearance. As a result the magnificent image of Mousehold Heath was ruined, its original glowering cloudscape replaced by mechanically ruled lines, and although the soft ground etchings were mercifully left unaltered, it was in this changed state that Crome’s printed works featured in the various published editions that appeared later in the nineteenth century. (The earliest impressions can now only be seen and appreciated in the Print Rooms of public collections). Nevertheless enough of Crome’s personal vision has survived in these later imprints for us still to take much pleasure in them.
Many of the etchings carry the names of the villages near to Norwich so beloved of Norwich School artists: Cringleford, Heathersett, Trowse and so on. But Crome was not a conventional topographer and, with the exception of the Mousehold plate, he makes no attempt to create a recognisable image of a specific location - the titles of the prints could be re-distributed without anyone being any the wiser. Nor did Crome pander to contemporary notions of the “picturesque”. What fired his imagination were “unassuming corners and snippets of nature, nature in its weekday garments, unselfconscious and unadorned, as Miklos Rajnai puts it. Some of the plates are slight, sketchy affairs, clearly the end product of private experimentation, but, at their best, these etchings project a poetic but totally unsentimental exploration of the natural world. A later generation of Norwich School artists, who revered Crome, attempted to follow in his footsteps, but none of them, except perhaps John Middleton (born after Crome’s death) came close to matching his achievement. As for wider recognition, this had to wait until the very end of the nineteenth century, when a later generation of creative print-makers hailed Crome as a pioneering “artist-etcher” worthy of a high ranking in the country’s artistic life.
A fuller account of Crome’s etchings can be found in Geoffrey Searle, Etchings of the Norwich School (Lasse Press, 2015).