Norfolk man who changed the landscape of art

PUBLISHED: 14:18 21 February 2018

The Yare at Thorpe, Norwich c. 1806, one of the works of the influential John Crome.

The Yare at Thorpe, Norwich c. 1806, one of the works of the influential John Crome.


This year marks 250 years since the birth of a true Norfolk art great - John Crome. Derek James reports.

John Crome, co-founder of the Norwich School of Artists, who was heavily influenced by Dutch landscape painters. John Crome, co-founder of the Norwich School of Artists, who was heavily influenced by Dutch landscape painters.

Norfolk is a magnificent part of the land for an artist to live. It has so much to offer and we have produced, and still are producing, wonderfully talented painters.

Today we can all be proud of the award-winning Norwich University of the Arts which attracts such talented students and is playing a leading role in city life - and I think “Old Crome” would be proud of them all making their way in this ever-changing hi-tech world.

It was in 1768 – December 22 to be precise – that John Crome, regarded as the founder of the Norwich School of Painters, was born. He was the son of a journeyman weaver who kept the Griffin Inn, in old King Street, Norwich, a hostelry long gone.

He was baptised at St George’s Tombland, and grew up in a home where money was scarce. He had to leave school when he was 12 and secured a job as an errand boy for the well-known Dr Edward Rigby across the city at St Giles, where several members of the medical profession lived at the time.

Rigby was one of the more kind-hearted members of the middle-classes of Norwich and was likely to have been interested in paintings of the city and Norfolk countryside.

He took Crome, described as a mischievous, black-haired, bullet-headed, little lad, under his wing and when he was 14 he was apprenticed to Francis Whisler, a house, coach and sign painter who lived in nearby Bethel Street.

It is believed that Whisler taught the boy Crome about paints and how to work with them, mixing the colours. He also made friends with another young apprentice Bob Ladbrooke who worked for a firm of printers and engravers.

Both of them loved painting although neither of them could afford lessons. Instead they taught themselves and their talents soon emerged. Bob was a dab hand at portraits while John loved landscapes.

Smith and Jagger, old-time Norwich print sellers, encouraged them. Seeing these boys had real talent, they started selling their work for a few shillings.

The two young apprentices began working from a studio in a garret and spent more and more time painting.

Half a century ago Eric Fowler suggested the benevolent Dr Rigby may have been at work again when the gifted lad (Crome) was introduced to Thomas Harvey, a wealthy master weaver, who was an amateur artist, and had a wonderful collection of paintings at his Catton home.

“Thomas Harvey’s collection seems to have done for Crome what Paris and Rome might have done for a richer student. And from Harvey he gained an introduction to another sympathetic friend in Sir William Beechey, the fashionable portrait painter,” wrote Eric.

Beechey found Crome to be “an awkward, uniformed country lad, but shrewd in all his remark on art, though he wanted words to express his meaning”.

The two of them got on well. He gave him lessons. Crome grew and flourished. He earned his bread and butter by being a “drawing master” and when he taught the Gurney girls at Earlham Hall he may have been able to put a little jam on the bread.

He worked for a while at Miss Thurger’s school in St Giles where he was described as “very shabby.” In 1792 he married Phoebe Berney at St Mary’s Coslany in Norwich. They lived in Colegate and he worked hard teaching to earn money to support his family.

He travelled to the Lakes with the Gurneys and went to Paris but spent most of his time in his time in his beloved Norwich and Norfolk.

In the 1803 Crome and Ladbrooke formed the Norwich Society and held the first exhibition of a society of painters in a provincial city.

The club meetings were held at St Andrew’s, in a tavern called The Hole in the Wall and membership grew, attracting the likes of John Sell Cotman. This was the nucleus of a school of landscape painters which put Norwich on the map in the realm of art.

It was Crome who is generally looked upon as the founder of the Norwich School of Painting who has, and still is inspiring generations of artists. His work is stunning and timeless.

He seemed to paint in the main to please himself in the periods between his work as a teacher and very little of his early work has survived.

Most of his paintings we see today are attributed to the last 20 years of life which was sadly cut short when he died in 1821 aged 52 at the height of his powers as an artist.

Eric wrote: “He hardly ever signed a picture, and for many years after his death his work was shockingly mishandled and misrepresented by copyists, forgers and dealers.”

He said to his son John just before his death: “John, my boy, paint! And if your subject is only a pigsty, dignify it!”

Wise words from “Old Crome.” He wasn’t old but he became customary to call him such to distinguish him from his gifted boy, John Berney Crome, who followed in his father’s footsteps, and a talented successor.

His father, this modest genius who let his brush do the talking and is now ranked as one of the most important 19th-century landscape artists in Britain, lies buried in St George’s, Colegate, in Norwich.

His work is timeless. Paintings to cherish and I have a feeling he would have enjoyed doing some teaching at the nearby University of the Arts alongside the talented students of the 21st century.

If you want to find out more about this Norfolk art great, then Norwich Castle Museum and Art gallery has no fewer than 26 of his works on display at the moment... and his paintbox too.

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