John Crome - biography
This is an article that was published by Oxford University Press as part of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Reproduced by kind permission of the author and publisher;
Andrew W. Moore
Published in print: 23 September 2004
Published online: 23 September 2004
Crome, John (1768–1821), painter and etcher, was born on 22 December 1768 in Norwich, the son of John Crome, a publican and journeyman weaver, and his wife, Elizabeth. He was baptized on Christmas day in the church of St George, Tombland.
Education and marriage
The history of Crome's early years has often been embellished with anecdote, but a few facts do emerge. In 1783 Crome was apprenticed to the house, coach, and sign painter Francis Whisler, his indentures taking effect from 1 August (though dated 15 October). In common with his Norwich contemporaries Charles Catton, John Ninham, and James Sillett, whose beginnings lay in the field of heraldic painting, Crome's early artistic training was as a journeyman painter.
Crome continued his trade for some time after finishing his apprenticeship in 1790, and is known to have painted numerous public-house signboards. As late as May 1803, the year of the foundation of the Norwich Society of Artists, he submitted a bill of £2 4s. to one J. Thompson for 'Painting Lame Dog writing and gilding Board for ye Lamb and gilding name of ye Maids Head' (Reeve collection, BM). Crome harnessed his considerable artistic talents to a keen business acumen. He was the first among his peers to undertake picture restoration, and was paid £40 for cleaning the civic portraits in St Andrew's Hall, Norwich. In 1820, when he was both prosperous and successful, he earned another 12 guineas for repeating the work.
On 2 October 1792 Crome married Phoebe Berney (d. 1845) in the church of St Mary, Coslany. The witnesses included Robert Ladbrooke, with whom Crome sketched, and the bride's sister, Mary Berney, who were married exactly a year later. Crome's first year of marriage was one of ill health, and he was twice admitted to Norwich hospital with hydrocele. His and Phoebe Crome's first child, a daughter, also Phoebe, was born within a month of the wedding, but died in infancy; of their eleven children four died young. Of those who survived, John Berney Crome (1794–1842), Frederick James (1796–1832), William Henry (1806–1867), and Emily (1801–1840) all became painters. John Crome was sometimes called Old Crome to distinguish him from his eldest son.
Crome's early influences
Although Crome did not enrol as a pupil to any specific master, it would be wrong to infer that he was purely self-taught, or received at most only rudimentary tips from the other painters he met. He made his first oil sketch in 1790 and furthered his artistic training as the decade proceeded. The Revd William Gunn, of Smallburgh near Norwich, in a letter to the sculptor John Flaxman of 4 May 1821, provides an insight into the early influences on Crome's career. Prominent among them was William Beechey, who had lived and worked in Norwich for several years in the early 1780s. Crome's oils suggest a definite study of Beechey's work and the artists of Beechey's milieu. Another Royal Academician to have a discernible influence was John Opie, who painted a portrait of Crome, probably about the time of his visit to Norwich in 1797 (Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery).
But perhaps the foremost influence on Crome at this critical stage was Thomas Harvey of Catton, Norwich, a wealthy master weaver and member of one of the principal mercantile families in Norwich. As well as being an art patron and a collector, Harvey was an amateur artist in his own right, and Crome later owned several of his paintings. His style owed much to Gainsborough, whose work was represented in his substantial collection. Harvey also owned numerous paintings from the continent, including Dutch seventeenth-century masters, purchases facilitated by his marriage to the daughter of a Rotterdam merchant. Crome, who was given access to Harvey's studio and collection, was drawn to these Dutch works and especially Meindert Hobbema's Landscape (Foundation E. G. Bührle collection, Zürich). According to the Yarmouth banker and art collector Dawson Turner, he later copied the painting, and also Harvey's Gainsborough, The Cottage Door (Hunt. L.).
Another significant influence on Crome were the paintings of Richard Wilson—which were to be found in the collections of both Harvey and Turner, as well as that of the Norwich landscapist Daniel Coppin, a house painter and glazier by trade. This influence may be seen, for example, in Crome's Norwich from Mousehold Gravel Pits (priv. coll.). Wilson continued to be an important influence on Crome to the end of his career, as a number of his later works reveal.
Crome the collector
Crome's contact with Thomas Harvey encouraged him to take up collecting himself, and he built up a valuable portfolio. In September 1812, in straitened circumstances, he held a three-day sale of his collection at Yarmouth. The pictures were noticed in the local press as 'the genuine and entire property of Mr crome, of Norwich, a great part of whose life has been spent in collecting them' (Norwich Mercury, 12 Sept 1812). The catalogue doubtless included a proportion of hopeful attributions, but the auctioneer could nevertheless claim with some justice that it was: 'a collection as is well worth the attention of connoisseurs, amateurs, artists, and the public of every description, and such as, it is presumed, was never before exposed to sale in the County of Norfolk'. It included a few old masters, and drawings and prints, including impressions by Rembrandt and Anthonie Waterloo. The sale is said to have raised some £200 or £300 and evidently helped Crome to recover his finances. In 1812 he had debts with the Gurney family (bankers) of Earlham Hall of over £220, but by the end of 1815 his bank account showed a very healthy credit.
As well as collecting, Crome dealt in pictures. Dawson Turner records purchasing Rocky Landscape, by Isaac Moucheron, from him for £12, as well as Vase of Flowers, attributed to John Baptist Monnoyer. It is not clear when in his career Crome began, or indeed ceased, dealing. He bought £195 worth of pictures at the sale of John Patteson of Surrey Street, Norwich, on 28 and 29 May 1819. Not all these were in the sale of his own collection after his death, suggesting that he continued dealing until the very end of his life. This business also appears to have been a secondary motive for Crome's visit to Paris in 1814, his only trip abroad. He wrote to his wife from the French capital: 'I shall make this journey pay … I shall be very cautious [how I lay] out my money' (art department archive, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery). The principal purpose for the visit, in which he was accompanied by Daniel Coppin and the Norwich artist and framer William Freeman, was to see the magnificent artwork collected in Paris by Napoleon's conquering armies.
Crome the drawing-master
After a short-lived attempt to establish himself in London, Crome set up as a drawing-master in Norwich. The seven daughters of the banker John Gurney were among his earliest pupils. Richenda Gurney wrote in her journal of a lesson on 17 January 1798: 'I had a good drawing morning, but in the course of it gave way to passion with both Crome and Betsy—Crome because he would attend to Betsy and not to me, and Betsy because she was so provoking' (A. J. C. Hare, The Gurneys of Earlham, 1895, 1.74).
Crome favoured instruction from nature rather than through copybooks, and when opportunity allowed would take his pupils in to the countryside with the cry 'This is our Academy' (Mallalieu, Watercolour artists, 11). Crome accompanied the Gurney family on summer tours through England and Wales, and in 1802 went with them to the Lake District. In 1804 he visited Wales with Robert Ladbrooke. Views painted on these trips were shown by Crome at the inaugural exhibition of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1805. His profession was given in the exhibition catalogue as drawing-master, and thus it continued to be recorded until 1819. His address in 1805 was given simply as St George's, but this was later amplified to St George's, Colegate. Crome returned to the Lake District with the Gurneys in 1806. He also spent time at Great Yarmouth, where he was employed by Dawson Turner to teach his daughters drawing. He was succeeded in this post by John Sell Cotman, but continued his work as drawing-master at Norwich grammar school.
That Crome was an enthusiastic and serious teacher may be judged from one of his few extant letters to his pupil James Stark, dated January 1816. In it he exhorted Stark to attend to the qualities for which he believed an artist should strive:
Brea[d]th must be attended to; if you paint a muscle give it brea[d]th. Your doing the same by the sky, making parts broad and of a good shape, that they may come in with your composition, forming one grand plan of light and shade, this must always please a good eye and keep the attention of the spectator and give delight to everyone. Trifles in Nature must be overlooked that we may have our feelings raised by seeing the whole picture at a glance, not knowing how or why we are so charmed. BM, Add. MS 43830, fol. 73
The qualities of breadth and dignity that Crome recommended to Stark, and which were displayed with such virtuosity in his own work, did not, however, find universal acceptance. Like John Sell Cotman and J. M. W. Turner, Crome had his detractors. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806, when Joseph Farington recorded in his diary for 5 May the response of two art critics, Taylor of The Sun and James Boaden of The Oracle, to the opening of the exhibition:
The latter after looking round the room sd. He had never seen so many bad pictures. On looking at Turner's Waterfall at Schaffhausen He sd. ‘That is Madness’—‘He is a Madman’ in which Taylor joined.—In the anti-room, looking at an Upright landscape by Croom, Boaden said, ‘There is another in the new manner’, ‘it is the scribbling of painting.—So much of the trowel—so mortary—surely a little more finishing might be born?’ Moore, 21
This was a common enough criticism among those seeking a greater degree of ‘Dutch finish’ in their pictures. The public was not yet receptive to the monochromatic range deployed to such magnificent effect in paintings such as Crome's View of Carrow Abbey, Near Norwich (Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery), which was exhibited in Norwich in 1805. Although he later lightened his palette, the ‘unfinished’ appearance of Crome's works continued to attract adverse comment to the end of his career. It was said of The Fishmarket at Boulogne, exhibited with the Norwich Society of Artists in 1820, that: 'the artist loses “half the praise he would have got” had he but discreetly bestowed a little more pains upon the finishing of it' (Norfolk Chronicle, 29 June 1820). Crome's thin-glazed shadows and broadly applied lights drew on a painterly tradition before which even his best students faltered. In his watercolours and soft-ground etchings one can see a sureness of touch, of design and draughtsmanship, that bears witness to the influence of artists such as Gainsborough, Rembrandt, and Waterloo.
When precisely Crome began etching is uncertain. It was his practice to take test impressions which were quite lightly bitten, and few of the originals have survived. The earliest dated example is a soft-ground etching from 1809, entitled Colney. The total extant œuvre is nine soft-grounds and twenty-five pure etchings, a few of which bear the dates 1812 or 1813. The soft-ground etchings are almost all landscapes and are more successful than the ordinary, hard-ground etchings, which are mostly intricate studies of trees and their foliage. Crome was reputedly dissatisfied with his etchings and did not publish them, although in 1812 he issued a publishing prospectus that attracted a number of subscribers. It was not until 1834 that a volume of thirty-one plates, entitled Norfolk Picturesque Scenery, was published on behalf of Mrs Crome. Four years later seventeen of these were included in a volume with a memoir by Dawson Turner. These and subsequent impressions were all later states, bearing additional work by Henry Ninham and also W. C. Edwards. All Crome's original plates are now in Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery and show signs of re-biting and engraving.
Crome's best etchings display a delicate command of line. Small though their number is, they place him at the forefront of the English revival in etching. His influence went far beyond Norwich and can be seen in the nineteenth-century tradition of painter–etchers. Attempts to isolate the single influences at work upon him ultimately pale before the fresh vision, clear colour, and strong design that lie at the heart of his technique in all his chosen media. It is also difficult to discern a straightforward development within Crome's œuvre. His reference to other artists and his choice of subject matter throughout his career defy an easy categorization or sense of specific development.
Crome and the Norwich school
Crome was undoubtedly the leading spirit behind the formation of the Norwich Society of Artists on 19 February 1803. He was credited in the contemporary press with being the founder of both the society and the ‘Norwich school’. The Norwich Mercury announced the arrival of the new society, in which Robert Ladbrooke was also closely involved, on 26 March 1803: 'An Academy has lately been established in this city by a society of gentlemen for the purpose of investigating the rise, progress, decline and revival of the fine arts'. The Norwich society was among the first in the provinces to follow the example of the Royal Academy in London. But although other societies were founded along similar lines in Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bath, and Leeds, none gave rise to an autonomous school of painting as in Norwich.
Crome showed pictures annually at the society exhibitions until his death. He exhibited 288 works in all, seldom sending fewer than ten pictures, and once sending more than thirty. By contrast thirteen works at the Royal Academy, and five at the British Institution, were the sum total of his London exhibits. Crome was vice-president of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1807 and again in 1820, and president in 1808. The Norwich school is mainly represented by landscape paintings that portray tranquil rural scenes, usually of the landscape of Norfolk, and John Crome, along with John Sell Cotman, must be credited as its leading practitioners. The society survived the secession of several important members in 1816, and the death of Crome himself in 1821, but it could not outlive the move of Cotman to London in 1833.
Death and reputation
Crome's last years were spent in relative comfort and prosperity. A jovial and sociable man, he enjoyed an evening drink at a favourite inn on the Market Place in Norwich, and in his later years was said to be 'sometimes more convivial than was prudent' (DNB). He worked to the last, and at the time of his death was preparing a large canvas, Yarmouth Water Frolic, an ambitious picture of Wroxham regatta which he had sketched a week earlier. He died on 22 April 1821 at his home at 17 Gildengate Street, Norwich, and was buried in St George's Church, Colegate, on 27 April. Despite occasional criticism of his work his brilliance was recognized in his day: he achieved a considerable reputation locally, and increasingly in London as well. Shortly after his death, on 4 May 1821, the Revd William Gunn wrote to John Flaxman:
The fine arts are not forgotten at Norwich; we too have an annual exhibition. We are now deploring the loss of one of its first ornaments Crome who died a fortnight ago. He was a poor lad who laid the foundation of his celebrity in cleaning brushes for Beechey … People are now crazy for his pictures which are bought with avidity and sell high. Moore, 19
According to Henry Ladbrooke, at the close of the Norwich Society exhibitions 'there was not a picture of his that had not the world “sold” upon it'.
Yet Crome's subsequent reputation has suffered from that very success. He did not sign his paintings, and the identification of his works remains bedevilled by problems of misattribution. The existence of numerous contemporary copies both by his pupils and, more problematically, by copyists whose own stylistic personalities remain obscure, increases the uncertainty. Yet those oils that may be securely identified on either stylistic or documentary grounds reveal a body of work entirely original and confident in execution. Crome's œuvre represents a landmark contribution to the history of British landscape painting. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery holds the largest extant collection of securely attributed works, thanks largely to the researches of James Reeve, curator of the Norwich Castle Museum from 1851 to 1910. Reeve advised the Colman family on its purchases, and the Russell James Colman bequest now forms the substantial core of the Norwich Castle collections.
British Museum, London BM, James Reeve MSS, 167–c.8
J. Opie, oils, 1800, Norwich Castle Museum
J. S. Cotman, sketch, 1809, British Museum, London BM
P. Mazotti, plaster bust, 1820, National Portrait Gallery, London NPG
D. B. Murphy, watercolour and pencil, exh. Norwich Society of Artists 1821, National Portrait Gallery, London NPG [see illus.]
M. W. Sharp, oils, 1821, Norwich Castle Museum
H. Gurney, pencil and wash with bodycolour, Norwich Castle Museum
D. B. Murphy, related drawing, Norwich Castle Museum
J. T. Woodhouse, oils, Norwich Castle Museum