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John Moore 1820 - 1902, Suffolk's versatile painter

Moore Fishing.jpg

From his lively paintings of fishing boats off the Suffolk coast to studies of cottages in leafy lanes, John Moore was the master of a variety of subjects. It is perhaps for his maritime scenes that he is most highly acclaimed, both in recent times and in the 1880’s when he was at the height of his powers.

Born in Woodbridge, he was baptised in February 1820. In his early days he would have been aware of the local artistic movement, with poets and painters regularly to be seen about the town. Woodbridge was home to Thomas Churchyard, known as the lawyer painter, and from John Moore’s early works we can surmise he admired the work of this local character who often sacrificed his business commitments in favour of a painting expedition. Churchyard’s haunts were the streets of Woodbridge, the local woods and along the banks of the River Deben. Moore may also have been encouraged by Perry Nursey and George Rowe, fellow artists who at times lived in or near the picturesque town.

John Moore became a professional artist after pursuing an early career as a decorator and producer of specialist decorative effects, and these trades left him with a thorough understanding of painting techniques. The experience enabled him to paint quickly and confidently, his smooth touch of the brush displaying skills only matched by a handful of far more famous artists. Many Royal Academicians struggled to match his dexterity and confidence; remarkably he is not known to have made preparatory sketches or watercolours before producing even his largest works. Some local newspaper critics compared him to Turner and Clarkson Stanfield, the premier marine painters of his day.

The success of his painting career and demand for his pictures is indicated by his move to Ipswich, where he is recorded in the census of 1871 as an artist. By the time the Ipswich Fine Art Club’s exhibitions commenced in 1875 his works were very sought after, appearing as a prolific exhibitor almost every year at these exhibitions until he died. Many of his exhibits were highly praised and some of the reviews are reproduced in this review of his life and work. Sales of his pictures at these Exhibitions were considerable, for many years adding up to over £100. He moved to Diss at the end of the 19th century to spend the final few years of his life, having outlived his two wives.

The last quarter of the 19th Century was the golden age for painters based in the fast-expanding port of Ipswich. There were many merchants and manufacturers developing the town’s businesses and maritime trade, and the resulting wealth was used to build fine Victorian houses and villas. The wealthy also patronised the local artists, filling their homes with fine works by the Smythe brothers, Robert Burrows, Henry Todd, and of course John Moore. Many of the scenes depicted referenced the quieter, pre-industrial days of Suffolk, more in keeping with the period of Gainsborough than the busy late 19th century. John Moore had established himself as the premier local maritime artist, specialising in the coastline and rivers of Suffolk. He painted for a broad market with small landscapes sold for £5, and up to 30 guineas or more for larger, important works. His steady and numerous contributions to the Fine Art Club exhibitions in the 25 years from 1875 added greatly to the Exhibition’s quality and variety, and at his best his work equals any of his national contemporaries.

Artistic development and identification

The accurate dating of paintings by an artist is often a matter of analysing their early influences and combining this conjecture with recorded dated works.

John Moore is not straightforward as there are few early works with firm dating, and he was not known to have had a formal art education.  The main clue is surmised from his upbringing in Woodbridge, where there was a small community interested in art. We can be confident he was an accomplished painter by 1854, the date of two small works referred to by Harold Day*, having been painted for Fisk, who may well be the contemporary painter in Woodbridge of that name. They were in the collection of Edgar Dowsing, who had bought modest pictures in Woodbridge since before the war. Denis Thomas also met him in the 1960’s. Harold Day also cites a landscape dated 1843, but this has not been traced. Other early John Moore paintings suggest a certain heaviness in paint handling, not unlike early works by Robert Burrows, and do not display the freedom of handling of later works. 


By the 1870’s we have enough dated works to track his style more accurately. All through this decade and into the next, he was a very conscientious painter recording subject details accurately, whether it be a cottage or sailing ship. Most signatures of this period carry a looped top letter J, sometimes within the full name John, other times the J followed by smaller raised letters to make Jno. By the 1880’s he was adopting a slightly less refined style of painting, producing many small pairs of pictures as well as exhibition pieces. These works, when painted in the form of oil sketches, have a delightful spontaneity and one feels he is not struggling to achieve any effect he desires.  He was aged over 70 in the 1890’s but maintained a degree of consistent quality but fewer works were inspired major works. Generally this period saw a dryer paint texture, with paint placed on the work rather than the fluid brushstrokes of earlier years. After a transition period the fluent italic style signature was replaced in later years by a static ‘J.Moore’, which usually carried a bar across the top of the J.  It is worth mentioning that Christopher Mark Maskell was reputedly a pupil or perhaps studio assistant of Moore, after whose death Maskell produced facsimiles of Moore’s pictures which he signed with this later style signature.

The late 20th century marked John Moore’s recognition as one of the leading members of the Suffolk School of artists based in Ipswich from 1850 up to the 1920’s. Today we can mark the 200th Anniversary of his birth confident that this skilful, modest man and his fellow Ipswich artists have established a lasting reputation for recording, in fine pictures, Suffolk’s development from a predominately rural economy.

John Day October 2020

* East Anglian Painters Vol 1. 1967 (later called Suffolk School Painters, 1971)       

Further commentary from the above book, and Walpole, Brook-Hart, catalogues etc.

We welcome enquiries to assist with research into this worthy artist who was an accomplished craftsman.

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