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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.

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

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