The Cromer beach scene that never quite was

A postcard of the now-lost Ship Hotel at Cromer, which featured some wonderful three-dimensional mur

A postcard of the now-lost Ship Hotel at Cromer, which featured some wonderful three-dimensional murals which are now in the town's museum. - Credit: Archant

Object of the Month: Alistair Murphy, Curator of Cromer Museum, celebrates the work of an enigmatic Norfolk artist.

John Moray-Smith's wonderfully-evocative semi-imaginary Cromer scene.

John Moray-Smith's wonderfully-evocative semi-imaginary Cromer scene. - Credit: Archant

I moved from a new town in the South of England to Norwich in 1978. Not long after I fell in love with Cromer, moving there in the summer of 1981. I have lived or worked in the town ever since. For the first few years I lived in a flat just off of Church Street not far from the Ship Hotel. Occasionally I would have a pint in its 1950s-style lounge, looking up at a set of distinctive three-dimensional panels.

We - both myself and these panels - have ended up in Cromer Museum. Strictly speaking they are part of the collection and I am an employee but as the years pass the distinction between the two becomes less and less clear. The first of these images is a portrait of Cromer's most famous son, Henry Blogg. The second, a rather fanciful depiction of a lifeboat launch from a beach that resembles Cromer in sand, sea and spirit only. The third, my favourite, shows a mid-20th century beach scene set on a half-recognisable East Beach – again reality is a little under attack – but the mood and feel, the sounds and the smells, speak only of Cromer.

A crowded beach scene, in a time before package holidays or exotic destinations or bucket lists; when the industrial towns in the Midlands each closed down for a week or two and the packed trains steamed across country, through Melton Constable, dropping their tired but newly-liberated passengers at the town's Beach Station. A moment of time caught in plaster and paint: the visitors eat, drink and swim; or they read, sleep and make sand-castles with bucket and spade – and standing to one side, like a member of the Greek chorus in a play, the unchanging Cromer fisherman, hands in pockets, looking on; gazing out past the crowds to the North Sea, dreaming of an empty beach and a crab rich sea.

The life story of the artist, John Moray-Smith, has been for many years, as unreliable as his depictions of Cromer. It was long believed (and Cromer Museum perpetuated the myth) that he was an Italian prisoner of war in England during the Great War – this despite Italy being an ally in that conflict. A recent publication by the Norwich Society has revealed a different, but no less interesting story, of a man who studied along with his wife, Catherine, at the Slade School of Art, and came to Norwich sometime before the Second War. Living in New Costessey, they lived an eccentric life, in a home, described by a Mr Kett - their milkman, no less - as 'exceedingly squalid'.

He was employed by Morgan Breweries to make his wonderful panels for various public houses. Whilst some are lost, many are still in existence. In Norwich they include external murals on the Coach and Houses in St Stephen's, the Berstrete Gates on Ber Street and the Prince of Denmark on Sprowston Road. A set of panels can also be seen inside the Woolpack Inn, hard by Prospect House, home of the EDP.

As for the Ship Hotel in Cromer, it is long gone. Dating back at least to the 18th century it closed in the early 1980s and the Moray-Smith panels took a roundabout route to come to the Norfolk Museums Service, arriving finally at Cromer Museum in the late '80s. The hotel building is now occupied by a national clothing concern. One thing lingers from the past. Above head height on Church Street and in the stone work, no doubt often ignored by passers-by, hangs a bunch of ornamental grapes. Fittingly they look as if they could, themselves, have been the work of Moray-Smith. However photos show them to have hung from the hotel wall long before he and his extraordinary work came this way.

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