In Focus: John Croome, the ‘mouse that roared’ of the art world

Huon Mallalieu celebrates the bicentenary of John Croome, the enigmatic and oft-overlooked founder of the Norwich School of painting.

In 1863, 42 years after his death, Mousehold Heath, now in Tate Britain, was the first of John Crome’s works to be bought by a national collection. It caused something of a sensation, because although his reputation had been growing, it was still as a regional master rather than as one of the pre-eminent British landscape painters. Thereafter, Crome was bracketed with Gainsborough and Constable, both of whom, as it happened, were also East Anglians.

In 1974, when my first, distinctly lightweight, book was published, it was possible for me to ignore the claims of Bristol, Liverpool and elsewhere, writing that of the English regions ‘only Norwich is generally allowed to have produced a School’. That misapprehension did not long survive; soon, almost every corner of the country had its dictionary of artists. However, it can still be said that Norwich was the first to have an exhibiting society, and that its members produced one of the strongest and most coherent bodies of work.

Norwich and Norfolk were rich from sheep and cloth. The county was at the forefront of the Agricultural Revolution, which brought wealth, if at the expense of the peasantry excluded from common lands by enclosure. The city mercantile class blended into the surrounding country gentry, providing cultured patronage for local artists as they emerged.

Yarmouth Water Frolic—Evening, Boats Assembling Previous to the Rowing Match,1821, by John Crome and John Berney Crome, oil on canvas, © Historic England Archive

Dr Edward Rigby, for instance, owned an apothecary’s shop where the 12-year-old Crome worked as errand boy, but he also experimented with agricultural innovations on his estate at Framingham, six miles from the city. Rigby had friends among the weaver-turned-banker Harvey and Gurney families, most importantly Thomas Harvey of Catton Hall, whose collection included works by Wilson, Gainsborough and Dutch masters, notably Meindert Hobbema.

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Crome’s love of practical jokes is said to have included switching labels on medicine bottles, so Rigby will have been relieved when he moved on to an apprenticeship with a coach and sign painter. This was invaluable training, as he had to learn not only to paint, but to mix pigments that would be durable.

The Blacksmith’s Shop, Hingham, by John Crome, watercolour on paper. © Heritage Doncaster, Doncaster Council

The son of a weaver, Crome was determined to become an artist and, when he was about 20, Harvey introduced him to Sir William Beechey, RA, who wrote later that he ‘was a very awkward, uninformed country lad, but extremely shrewd in all his remarks about Art’.

During the apprenticeship, he and his future brother-in-law Robert Ladbrooke, later a landscape painter of note himself, rented a garret studio. Once out of articles, Crome tried his luck in London, without much success.

Portrait of John Crome 1821, by J.W. Higham (fl.1821-1835), after Dennis Brownell Murphy (1763-1842). ©Norfolk Museums Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery), purchased with assistance from the Southwell Bequest Fund 1935.

On his return, he founded the Norwich Society of Artists with Ladbrooke and turned to teaching, both private pupils, such as the daughters of the Gurney family, who took him on summer tours in England and Wales, and at Norwich School, where he remained for much of his life. He went abroad only once, to Paris in 1815 — Crome died, as he was born, in Norwich, a true son of Norfolk: one of the Broads is named after him, as is an area of Norwich City.

He was evidently an excellent teacher, which was his luck and his reputation’s misfortune. He encouraged pupils, including two of his sons (leading to his designation ‘Old Crome’), to copy his paintings; as he rarely signed, this has led to many misattributions. As Crome’s fame spread, he was also enthusiastically faked. His figures can be awkward, but his landscapes are masterly. Although they were deeply influenced by the Dutch masters Crome so admired, as W. F. Dickes wrote in 1905: ‘No one yet mistook a Crome for a Hobbema.’

‘A Passion for Landscape: Rediscovering John Crome’ is at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Norfolk, from May 17–September 5 —

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