By Haydn Brown.
My other hobby is oil painting – landscape painting. Having ‘cut my teeth’ with those of John Constable many years ago. I later discovered John ‘Old’ Crome and, apart from his paintings, I soon became interested in the man’s background; for, apart from some 200 years between us, we share certain aspects: such as same county, city, locations of work, home, painting, church – and public houses! So why shouldn’t I follow his trail, and maybe dream; and, hopefully, with you in tow:
Riding on the backs of sheep and cloth, Norfolk was once rich; it was also at the forefront of the Agricultural Revolution which brought further wealth. Norwich’s mercantile class also blossomed and comfortably melded in with the surrounding country gentry. Between them, privileged society provided a cultured patronage on which aspiring local artists could emerge.
John Crome, (1768 – 1821) was one such artist. He, as many art enthusiasts would know, was a principal English landscape painter of the Romantic era, and one of the founding members of the ‘Norwich School of Painters’. It was he who, in later life, was better known as ‘Old’ Crome; this to distinguish him from his son, John Berney Crome, who painted in his father’s manner but who, in the opinion of some at least, had an inferior talent – but no matter!
John Crome was born on 22 December 1768 in an alehouse named the ‘Griffen’ (Griffin)’ which, according to Hocksetters Map of 1789 used to be in the Castle Meadow/ Tombland area of the city, near the corner of Tombland and Upper King Street, on what was then called Conisford Street in the quarter known as the Castle Ditches. Records show that the building itself dated back to at least 1603, but it completely disappeared when the Prince of Wales Road was constructed in 1860. Here, John Crome’s father, despite being an active weaver by trade, ran the Griffin; it would appear that being in more than one occupation was not an uncommon practice at the time!
On Christmas Day 1768, in St George’s church in Tombland, Crome was baptised. By then, this church had already accumulated a long history, which dated back to at least the 14th century (some say as far back as the late Anglo-Saxon period) – its tower dating from 1445 and then having major repairs in 1645. The font from which John received his baptism was, and remains, of Purbeck marble, not uncommon in many rural East Anglian churches; in 1768 it had yet to be ‘urbanised by enthusiastic Victorians who would place it on grand marble pillars.
The young boy Crome was later to be described as ‘very likeable’ with a ‘charming character’; even, a ‘loveable rascal’ – with these attributes it may be no surprise to learn that he grew up and lived in Norwich for the whole of his life! However, it was a life which only slowly emerged in any sort of recorded detail when the boy had reached 12 years of age. At that point, in 1781, young Crome had become an errand boy for the eminent city doctor Edward Rigby. Dr Edward Rigby owned an apothecary’s shop, at 54 Giles Street, and it was there where the 12-year-old lived and worked for about three years.
Dr. Rigby was to have an initial influential effect on Crome’s life for he appears to have been the first person to recognise Crome’s potential as an artist. As time went on, he introduced him to some of the influential people of that period whom Rigby knew and who were interested in art. In particular, the weaver-turned-banker Gurney family – although of equal importance was to be Thomas Harvey (1748-1819), of Catton House in the village of Old Catton, who would also make an early appearance in Crome’s development.
Of course, Crome’s personal responsibilities and interests were not expected to be solely directed towards art; there was also the matter of work that he was employed to do for the doctor who, in his own field of skill, was already someone of eminence. But the doctor, it seems, had to handle a sometimes ‘mischievous’ lad in Crome – for the lad had a propensity for pranks, with several stories surviving through time. An example was the occasion when young Crome changed the labels on the medicines that he was delivering on behalf of the doctor! Another, which may have been one which had rebounded on to him, was when he threw the doctor’s medical skeleton out of his bedroom window; it was said that medical students had placed it in his bed for a joke – Boys, it seems, will always be Boys!
Nevertheless, young Crome survived a full three years of employment with Dr Rigby before his employer, having given him lodgings, paid him and nurtured his desire to paint, decided that it was time for Crome to move on – and here, we may have to thank the doctor for what followed. Just around the corner from the apothecary’s shop, stood Francis Whisler’s, Coach and Sign painting business – in Bethel Street. It was there, in August 1783, where Crome began his seven-year apprenticeship, learning first-hand how to mix colours and to appreciate what these substances could produce in the right hands. Clearly a precocious lad, with an ability to apply paint to canvas, board and paper with effect, he had taken the first steps in establishing his preferred career path.
Fast forward now to today; and surviving in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is believed to be the earliest known example of Crome’s work, produced during the time of his apprenticeship, which was between 1783 and no later than 1790. The painting is known as ‘The Wherryman’; it was a sign which must have formerly hung outside a public house – and it would be interesting to know where? In 1906, an auction in Norwich first brought this signboard back into the light and, at that time, it was sold for the price of twelve guineas. The V & A Museum’s description of the work is as follows:
It was also during the early years of his apprenticeship when Crome became firm friends with an apprenticed printer named Robert Ladbrooke, who was employed by Whites of Norwich. The two boys had serious compatible interests in art and went out together to sketch the streets and lanes around Norwich, and particularly to Mousehold Heath on the outskirts of the city. For a time, they shared a garret studio and between them, sold some of their art-work to a local print seller, Smith and Jaggers of Norwich. At that time Ladbrooke concentrated of portraits whilst Crome on landscapes, which both sold for very small sums. Subsequently, Ladbrooke turned to Landscape painting, in which he was said to have ‘become highly successful’.
It has also been said that it was through the print seller, Smith and Jaggers of Norwich, that Crome met Thomas Harvey of Catton; but here it should be remembered that Harvey and Dr Rigby, mentioned earlier, were already friends; and young Crome had been in the employ of the doctor and through ‘introductions’ probably already knew Harvey. That apart, the little extra money that Crome and Ladbroke earned during their excursions went on buying prints of Dutch masters to copy – and Ladbroke was much inspired by Crome’s undoubted superior skills; skills which included the ability to make his own paintbrushes from cat’s hairs, whilst using oyster shells as palettes!
When Crome’s apprenticeship ended, in 1790, he began to take up commissions and to give drawing lessons to children of the wealthy. This was also the moment when Crome’s earlier introduction to Thomas Harvey, the wealthy weaver from Old Catton – who also, by the way, had a house in Colgate (see above), really began to pay off.
Thomas Harvey was a rich master weaver who had come from a line of wealthy merchants, ten of whom had been mayors of Norwich. Harvey had married a Ann Twiss, the daughter of an English merchant living in Rotterdam who had an important collections of paintings, which included Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘Cottage Door’ (see below), plus several of the Dutch School. These eventually passed into the Harvey family and to Thomas who was something of an artist himself, but very much of the amateur kind. His wealth also allowed him to build up his collection of Dutch masters, some of which had come from Antwerp dealers; these were supplemented by paintings from other artists, including those of Richard Wilson and Miendert Hobbema.
When Harvey became Crome’s patron, both his own studio at Catton House and his art collection became available to the young artist and he, it seems, became particularly influenced by the Wilson and Hobbema paintings – and their ‘ability to give landscape paintings a sense of space and breadth’. Given this patronage, Crome certainly visited Catton House frequently; and it is probably quite true that, for a time at least, Crome may have lived there. This would have been of real benefit when it came to Crome actually copying these paintings as part of his further development, thus ensuring that the qualities and colour aspects of these two masters would feature in Crome’s future works and teachings.
Catton House was also the place where young Crome met other artists, such as Sir William Beechey R.A. and later, John Opie. Then there was Sara Siddons the famous actress who was related by marriage to Harvey’s wife, Anne; as a consequence, Siddons was reputed to have given ‘a Reading’ before an invited audience at Catton House in October 1793. But it was Sir William Beechey who saw Crome’s promise as an artist and gave him some lessons – all be it in London. Beechey was also the one who described Crome as:
‘…. an awkward country lad when I first met him, but shrewd in all his remarks on art, although he wanted words to express them’.
This post-apprenticeship period was certainly a busy one for Crome one way or another; included in which was an activity that had little to do with painting – romance! He had met Phoebe Berney and in the October of 1792, they married at St Mary’s Church, Coslany; just in time, for by the 30th of that same month, their first child, Amelia, arrived! Quite a relationship one would suppose since the couple were to go on to produce eleven children in total during their marriage. However, four were to die in infancy and Amelia died shortly before her second birthday. Two of their surviving sons, John Berney Crome and William Henry Crome (1806–67). were to follow in their father’s footsteps to become well-known artists in their own right.
Robert Ladbrooke who, unsurprisingly, had been present at Crome’s wedding in 1792 followed his close friend one year later when he married Phoebe Berney’s sister, Mary.
Either side of his domestic life, Crome continued to paint and, increasingly, to build up his contacts and clients. By 1796 he was teaching sketching to Master Sparshall, the son of the Quaker wine merchant who lived in St Clements Alley which, incidentally, was quite near to Thomas Harvey’s town house in Colgate. The Sparshall house itself had previously been the residence of Alexander Thurston, the 17th century Mayor and MP for Norwich.
Then in 1798, Crome accepted a post as drawing master to the three daughters of Quaker and business-man, Joseph Gurney of Earlham Hall. It was also the year when John Opie painted Crome’s portrait. This may have been during the time leading up to May of 1798 when Opie married Amelia Alderson, a gifted poet and authoress, whom he had met at a party in Norwich. Also, in that same year, John Opie was not only in Norfolk visiting Thomas Harvey in his home at Catton House but, principally, carrying out some commissions for Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall.
By this time, Crome had become a Freemason, joined the Philosophical Society and the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’, which met in the Rifleman’s Arms in Calvert Street, across from Cross Lane which in turn led to St George’s Street. There, a group of like-minded characters, smoked ‘churchwarden’ pipes and enjoyed a drink or two with other members of the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’ – the origins of which were said to be as follows:
“The Rifleman was located in an industrial area of shoe and weaving industry workers. And through this, came an unusual if not ingenious idea to attract more customers to the pub. The normal working week in such trades was then six days during which their workers clothing unavoidably became dirty. So, one Master Weaver arranged with the Rifleman for him to ‘set up shop’ in the bar on Saturday afternoons so that he could pay his out-workers when they came in to have a drink to end the week.
Not only were they paid, but naturally arriving dirty, the distribution of wages was accompanied by a change of shirt with a clean one provided for the following week. The number of people “enjoying” this opportunity, led to the formation of the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’. While enjoying a drink or two and a gossip, members also smoked their own churchwarden clay pipes, given to them on entry. Each member’s initials were inscribed on the bowl and pipes were kept aside for them by the publican, between visits. Any new members had honour of smoking from a silver pipe. From the early 1800s, ‘Old’ Crome was a regular visitor, and had his own special chair – witnessing everything.”
By 1801, Crome had established a school of art in his house at 17 Gildencroft, possibly Green Lane (now demolished) and later took up a post as drawing master at the King Edward Grammar School which lay within the shadows of the Cathedral in Norwich. At the Grammar School he helped the sons and daughters of the Norfolk gentry and middle-class, as well as private pupils to learn to paint and draw. Amongst these pupils were notable artists of the future, such as James Stark and Edward Thomas Daniel. There was also George Borrow’s brother, John – who was to paint George Borrow’s portrait in 1821, whilst the latter was working as a solicitor’s clerk in London
In 1802, and by way of an extension to the business of tutoring the Gurney’s three daughters in art, Crome was invited to join the whole Gurney family on a tour of the Lake District. Sometime after their return to Norwich, on 19 February 1803 to be precise, Crome, together with his long-standing friend, artist and printer Robert Ladbrooke, became the principal movers in the foundation of the ‘The Norwich Society of Artists’; this was later to become famously known as the ‘Norwich School of Painters’ — the first art movement in England to be formed outside London. The term ‘Norwich School’ was coined because its style reflected landscape painting which had moved away from European influences, which favoured warm, burnt-brown palettes. The Norwich School replaced these with the verdant greens actually seen in the Norfolk landscape. It was Old Crome himself, through the Society, who had advocated that paintings should look ‘only to nature’, a statement that regularly appeared in the Society’s exhibitions catalogues at the time.
It is not known whether it was Crome or Ladbrooke who first raised the idea of forming this debating/exhibiting society in Norwich, but the two’s growing involvement with local art patrons and fellow artists probably made it inevitable that such a body would emerge – to be added to the many other clubs and societies that were flourishing in Norwich at the time? The purpose of the Crome/Ladbroke version was, from the outset to be:
“An Enquiry into the Rise, Progress and Present State of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of Study to attain to Great Perfection in these Arts”
Also, the Norwich Society of Artists promoted, from the outset, an ‘open-door’ policy whereby no one was turned away who had a genuine interest in art. The only criteria to joining was for each to submit a piece of their own and to secure a place via a ballot of existing members. These members consisted of active painters in oils and watercolours, and included such people as John Sell Cotman, Joseph Stannard and ‘Old’ Crome’s artist son John Berney Crome, Robert Dixon, Charles Hodgson, Daniel Coppin, James Stark, George Vincent and of course others. Some would have seemingly worked under Crome’s influence, with a bias in favour of Norfolk scenery – the slow-flowing rivers and gnarled trees, the people and places of their home city and the Norfolk coast.
Throughout, the Society’s meetings were held fortnightly at the ‘Hole in the Wall’ tavern, which was destined to be demolished by 1838. Its actual location of this tavern is not clear today; time and changes to street layout etc. have seen to that. However, it has been said by the likes of George Plunkett that it was once near the St Andrews Street end of the Hole in the Wall Lane, and built into a part of the east wall of the chancel of the Church of St. Crowche, most of which had itself been demolished as far back as the 16th century. The tavern must have also stood very near to what is now the lower section of Exchange St. It was said that at the time pedestrians had to walk round the old churchyard to get into St Andrew’s. Today, all that remains of both the tavern, and St Crowche, is a mediaeval stone corbel set in a flint wall off the north side of St Andrew’s Street.
As for the Norwich Society of Artists, its evenings at the tavern were taken up with ‘taking supper listening to the presentations of papers’; for this, there was a yearly subscription of 4 Guineas to maintain membership.
By 1805, the Society had enough paintings to present their first exhibition, hosted at Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court, which was off Little Cockey Lane and not far from Little London Street; Crome contributed twenty-two works. This venue was later to became the home of the Society. From that point onwards, and until 1825, these exhibitions were held annually and coinciding with the city’s Summer Assizes Week when many people from the surrounding area visited the city and where amusements took place. Norwich became the first English city to establish regular art exhibitions outside London.
John ‘Old’ Crome was to become the president of the Society on several occasions up until his death in 1821, but when he was again elected in 1808, his long-standing friend, Robert Ladbrooke was elected as Vice-President. However, in 1816 Ladbrooke, Stannard, Thirtle and a few other members – Ladbroke having also fallen out with Crome – broke away from the Society to set up and run rival exhibitions; but these proved a failure and were ended after three years. Ladbroke and Crome were reconciled at just about the same time; maybe simply because theirs had been a long-standing friendship; it was a friendship between entirely different characters though:
“Crome was found of company, a ‘dashing fellow’ and with great ideas; whereas, Ladbroke was ‘plodding, prudent and took great care of what cash came his way; he taught his family likewise”.
Finally, on 14 April 1821 and after a few days’ illness, John ‘Old’ Crome died at his house in Green Lane, Gildengate, and his death certificate recorded that he had died of ‘an inflammatory malady induced by early labours as a house painter’! On the 27th of that same month, his remains were interred in St George’s church Colegate – a mere stones-throw away from his home and his local, ‘The Rifleman’. The local paper reported that ‘an immense concourse of people’ attended his funeral at St Georges, which had been his church and where, in later life, he became its churchwarden. It was an appropriate place in which to mount a memorial tablet to him.
When ‘Old’ Crome died in 1821, John Sell Cotman became President of ‘The Norwich Society of Artists’; its activities continuing until his own departure for London in 1834. It was at that point when Cotman actually closed the Society and many former members and their pupils went off elsewhere to continue painting and exhibiting.
Surprisingly perhaps, Crome and what was known as the ‘Norwich School’ had been little known outside Norfolk; that is, until the late twentieth century. This was due mainly to the fact that many of Crome’s paintings, together with paintings of other ‘Norwich School’ members, were bought privately by the J.J. Colman family. It was in 1946 when Russell James Colman donated these to the city’s Castle Museum. He also gave money in order for the museum to build a gallery to house them in a permanent display.
Following the death of ‘Old’ Crome, during the November of 1821, the Norwich Society of Artists held a memorial exhibition of more than 100 of Crome’s works in the city. During his life, however, he had exhibited an estimated number of 307 pictures, 16 of which had been exhibited in London – and none of which had been signed. It appears somewhat strange that Crome, above all, never signed any of his paintings. Bearing in mind that his pupils and sons had been trained by Crome on the basis of copying his works, meant that it has always been difficult, or impossible indeed, to verify which are ‘Old’ Crome’s paintings and which are replicas!
It is also a sad fact that when Old Crome died, he was in debt – to the sum of £145 owed to the Gurney’s Bank. Nevertheless, John ‘Old’ Crome was and remains, in my eyes at least, as an artist of considerable repute.
- An incident in Crome’s life was the subject of the one-act opera ‘Twice in a Blue Moon’ by Phyllis Tate, to a libretto by Christopher Hassall: it was first performed in 1969. In the story Crome and his wife split one of his paintings, depicting Mousehold Heath, in two to sell each half at the Norwich Fair.
- Part of the front of Stranger’s Hall was once the home of sculptor Pellegrino Mazzotti; it was he who produced a bust of John Crome; today, a ‘blue plaque’ on Its wall refers to this.
Heading Image: John Crome by Denis Brownell Murphy, watercolour and pencil, exhibited 1821. National Portrait Gallery.
Sources Generally Referred to Include (and in no particular order):
(Chillers, Ian (ed), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, Oxford University Press, 1990).
The Norwich School of Painters | COLONEL UNTHANK’S NORWICH (colonelunthanksnorwich.com)
In Focus: John Croome, the ‘mouse that roared’ of the art world – Country Life
Walking Crome’s Norwich self guided trail (1).pdf
‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K.
If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction.
If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.