The influence of John Crome on Thomas Churchyard of Woodbridge
It is well know that Thomas Churchyard of Woodbridge, lawyer and compulsive artist, was an admirer and collector of works by Crome. It is evident that when he was in funds he would make a purchase, often to be followed at a later date by a disposal or exchange with another Collector. Many works were retained, as shown by the catalogue of his estate sale in 1866. An inventory taken in 1854 of the contents of his household lists works by Crome, Constable and Gainsborough, including two of his full length portraits.
Churchyard exhibited with the Norwich Society of Artists in 1829, and his friend George Rowe, a fellow artist from Woodbridge also exhibited there in 1830, confirming Churchyard had exposure to the Norwich scene. In 1828 a visit to Woodbridge by John Berney Crome, the eldest of the sons, may indicate a previous contact during Churchyard's visits to Norwich. Perhaps Churchyard had struck up a friendship with J.B.Crome, who certainly handled and sold his father’s pictures providing a possible source of works for Churchyard.
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 1820’s he was developing his fluent style with some regard for Crome’s tonal values and especially to the Norwich master's later brushwork technique. Crome's sketchy 'Postwick Grove' at Norwich, if combined with a Constable oil study, would result in something resembling a typical Churchyard of his later years It is likely Churchyard admired many artists, from the Dutch 17th century to his contemporary British exhibitors.
John Constable's influence on his work was not, in my opinion, as strong as that of John Crome in the 1820’s. It is plausible the Constable Estate sale in 1837 released a number of oil sketches on to the market, some of which ended up passing though Churchyard’s hands resulting in his later pictures reflecting this fresher style.
By the 1840's Crome had few admirers outside Norwich as fashion had veered towards highly-finished paintings. Churchyard had opportunities to buy important works by Crome, and he acquired the major painting ‘Mousehold Heath: Mill and Donkeys' in July 1844 (fig 1. now in Tate Britain), having just bought the important 'Norwich River' and 'Yarmouth Beach' oil paintings a short time before. Churchyard, according to FitzGerald, was a competent judge of works by Constable, Gainsborough and Crome. Clifford states in his volume on Crome that works on the market 'before 1862' were likely to be genuine. There is no doubt Churchyard's Sale in 1866 helped to set new levels of interest in Crome, for his large 'Moonlight with a View of Bruges' (displayed in the Castle Collection) sold for £162, more than three times the purchase price at Christies' 3 years before.
Churchyard's habit of making a copy of important works he handled as a Collector and part-time Dealer has left us with a valuable reference source. In pre-photography days art researchers rely on Exhibition reviews and other written descriptions if there is no sketch or print to refer to. Churchyard's records can help tie down works with certainty, as with the three paintings illustrated here, which were in Churchyard's Collection and copied by him. Briefly described as follows;
1/ 'Mousehold Heath: Mill and Donkeys'. Oil on panel 44”x36” Tate Britain.
1A/ Copy of 1/ by Thomas Churchyard Oil 40” x 30” Ex. Coll. H.Day (J.Day photo)
1B/ Copy of 1/ By Thomas Churchyard Watercolour 4 ¾” x 3 ¾” Ex. Col. D.Thomas
2/ 'Lakenham Old Mills' Oil on Panel 9”x11” Churchyard sale 1866, lot 61.
3/ Copy of 2/ by Thomas Churchyard. Churchyard sale 1927. Ex Gray Collection
I handled this watercolour in 1996 when the Gray Collection was sold. The oil was seen in a Private Collection at a later date and immediately identified as the corresponding work. This was confirmed by the legible remains of the sale number '61' on a perforated sticker on the reverse of the oil painting.
3/ 'On the Wensum above New Mills' Oil on panel 15”x20” Norwich Castle Museum
3A/ Copy of 3/ by Thomas Churchyard Watercolour 8 ½”x11½” Ex. Coll.W.Morfey
At present this work is one of two of the subject at present catalogued as 'After Crome'. This work at Norwich corresponds to the one Churchyard copied, the vents on the gable and windows on the hut differ on the other version. It remains a possibility there is an original Crome of the subject yet to be discovered, the Castle Museum's painting could be proved to be authentic, or Churchyard's attribution is not sound on that work.
Reference to Walace Morfey's volume 'Painting the Day' reveals another likely Churchyard copy of a Crome (22”x9”), titled 'Kyson Point' but known as 'River Scene, Evening' in Canterbury Museum (29½” x 24½”). It was sold in 1885 from the de Zoete Collection, which also featured other Churchyard-owned Cromes.
In conclusion it can be assumed Churchyard owned in excess of thirty works by John Crome. I have index cards for the 23 sold at his 1866 sale and others for works handled during his lifetime, including important examples amongst them. The 1849 Bernard Barton sale in Woodbridge included at least four Cromes, one of which was the fine 'Blundestone', and Churchyard is sure to have supplied these paintings. Although not a commercial dealer, Churchyard must have gained financially on his swaps and sales, which went some way towards meeting the costs involved when he was not able to combine picture-hunting trips with legal work.
It is plausible that a Crome could be identified in the future through a link with a Churchyard work. Looking back at the period of Churchyard's life when he collected major works it can only make us envious of the days when Cromes were abundant, and affordable.
John Day 2013