Crome - Identification notes by H.A.E.Day
Much has been written about Crome to make an enigma of the man. If one is aware of the examples which mark his various styles there should not be undue difficulty. Apart from the work of John Berney Crome (his son and pupil) his work is stronger and different to his contemporaries. His son John Berney painted circa 1815 - 1840, a relatively short working life and one should be able to tell the difference between the young artist feeling his way and the master at his peak. One would never confuse an early or middle period Crome with John Berney.
Often one comes across Cromes in a very damaged state; this especially applies to his early work. If the over-paint is excessive it is not possible to judge.
Crome’s early works such as the ‘Cow Tavern’ and ‘Dawn’, in the Castle Museum, Norwich are primitive. It was not until his later years that some sophistication appeared in his work. In other words the later work reflects the influence of the painters he admired especially Hobbema, though Crome at his best far excelled Hobbema. The primitiveness in the early work really is the hallmark of an original eye. Crome saw things his own way - directly and simple. He put great feeling into his painting choosing simple subjects and treating them in a simple manner. This simplicity should be expected especially in the early period. He painted his trees in masses. Sometimes the masses are relieved by a system of stippling. Often one finds the branch protruding beyond the foliage. It has been said that Crome signed his pictures at one stage by the introduction of the protruding branch. The name Crome evidently meaning stick.
Shortly after 1800 Crome was influenced by Rembrandt. His canvasses become rather dark and he often silhouettes his objects. His emphasis is on light. These works are strong and powerful. The Lime Kiln near Norwich comes at the end of this period c. 1806. He is known round about this period to have exhibited several Lake District subjects. Possibly these are yet to be identified. They will however be strongly painted and possibly be influenced by Wilson rather than Rembrandt.
After 1806 Crome occupied himself with local subjects. He painted numerous river scenes many of which are in the Castle Museum. One notices his touch becoming more skilful and more colour is entering his palette. On some works his golden skies are developing and in others he is introducing his pinky touches and giving his delightful pearly effects. Whilst his pictures became more pleasant and decorative he lost his former flashes of giant genius. At this stage, his pictures were sought after by local collectors. It is therefore to be expected that Crome would be asked for a picture like Mr So and So’s and thus we find him doing repetitions. So one must not jump to the conclusion that a repetition is a copy by someone else or a forgery. David Hodgson has been accused of doing copies of Crome, but one is not likely to confuse Hodgson with Crome. Hodgson has not Crome’s subtleties and is by and large totally different in his paint application.
River and Woodland scenes occupied Crome through his middle period. One expects his trees to be graduating from the heavy mass; by c.1815 his trees were open and numerous branches present. About this period he became rather preoccupied with the spreading branch and would often paint one actually approaching the viewer - no mean feat. His leaf work becomes stronger and the paint is applied in considerable impasto. His greens are often rather light veering towards white in the full light. His light as always is excellent. Indeed one may say at this point, Crome of all English landscape painters excelled in the painting of light.1
The figures found in the middle period painting are improving. His early pictures are often devoid of figures; probably he recognised his deficiency in this respect, or possibly he was intent on gaining an overall effect and didn’t want to hamper his style. Indeed, figures in a picture do tend to detract from the general effect, though in the main a picture buyer looks for them. By 1810 he could place an agreeable figure in a picture. Crome’s figures always blend into the picture. One is seldom aware of the figure protruding in any way. He placed figures in pictures more skillfully than most of his contemporaries. (elsewhere my father noted the Crome figure often features a short or no neck)
One of the few times that the figure takes priority over the picture is ‘The Shepherd Boy - Mousehold Heath’ in the V & A. Undoubtedly this picture is more of a portrait than anything else. Probably Crome was taken with the little fellow and gave way to his feelings. The picture is indeed, by its simple treatment, a charming work.
At this point I would like to mention the ‘earthy-ness’ of Crome. He creates this strong gripping effect by compounding his colours - the earth ones and placing them on the canvas with a spiral- like touch of the brush. It is often observed on the bank of a road or actually on a path or lane. Sometimes he gets earthy-ness by laying one colour on another with slight impasto.
By 1815 after he had visited the continent Crome was Master of his craft. The ‘Bruges River’, moonlight, is a powerful example of this period. Crome was drawn to moonlight as it gave such an unparalleled opportunity for painting light. John Berney, his son, did however, at times equal his father on moonlights and one has to be very cautious when sorting out a‘Crome’ moonlight. John Berney very obligingly signed quite a number of his pictures.
The last years of Crome’s life - 1815 - 1821 - saw the completion of many fine pictures. By this time he was painting fluently and had discovered all the necessary ingredients for a fine picture. Whilst his later pictures are considered finer to look at we should not discount his earlier visions, in fact the great Crome connoisseur may possibly prefer them.
This late period can be difficult, for Crome must have left many unfinished canvasses in his studio. These were possibly completed by John Berney or in several cases painted over. One or two John Berney Crome moonlights on cleaning have revealed a painting by the father, usually an unfinished one. Generally John Berney Crome has lain within his father’s shadow. However, we must accept that whilst he can never enjoy the status of John Crome he could paint almost as well as in his father’s manner and he did for many years perpetuate the fine work set in motion by his illustrious father.
1. I believe my father was considering the contrast of light and shade when noting this. Early Gainsborough works and many by Constable could be considered to feature plain light in an exemplary manner. Crome’s moonlights and moody landscapes excel in breadth of contrast. J.D.