John Crome has been called one of England’s three greatest landscape painters.

Norwich Castle reopens on Monday with a major exhibition of his work, 200 years after his death.

A Passion for Landscape: Rediscovering John Crome celebrates the genius of a self-taught artist who began by painting pub signs and coach doors and left a legacy of some of the country’s loveliest landscape paintings.

The paintings of trees and water are extraordinary, sunlight picking out individual tangled twigs in vast trees and sending reflections shimmering along rivers. And although Crome's tranquil, glowing landscapes look idyllic, they are not idealised. He includes factories, and lines of drying washing in his river scenes, and rather than paint the soaring spire of the Cathedral in 1804 he showed the demolition of its infirmary. Weeds and wildflowers are picked out in almost-exotic detail and grand sweeps of scenery include ordinary people going about their labour or leisure.

Eastern Daily Press: The Poringland Oak, c. 1818-20, by John Crome, oil on canvasThe Poringland Oak, c. 1818-20, by John Crome, oil on canvas (Image: © Tate / Tate Images)

“He looked at small things and quiet things. He didn’t try to prettify and please,” said exhibition curator Giorgia Bottinelli.

John Crome was born in Norwich in 1768 and lived in the city all his life. His work is rooted in the landscapes he saw around him, the slow-flowing rivers and gnarled trees, the people and places of his home city and the Norfolk coast.

The son of a weaver, he learned to mix colours and paint while apprenticed to a sign painter. Despite his growing success as an artist he earned his living as a teacher – helping the sons and daughters of the Norfolk gentry learn to paint and draw.

Eastern Daily Press: Portrait of John Crome by John Opie, 1798Portrait of John Crome by John Opie, 1798 (Image: Norfolk Museums Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery))

A Passion for Landscape: Rediscovering John Crome includes some fascinating works which were probably devised as lessons for his pupils.

Giorgia has been working on the exhibition for four years and said Crome remains an enigma. He did not sign his work, left no diaries and barely a handful of letters, and instead of seeking fame and success in London, remained in Norwich.

From here he launched Britain’s first art society outside the capital, the Norwich School of Artists. Today it is internationally renowned as the Norwich School of Painting and includes artists John Sell Cotman, Joseph Stannard and Crome’s artist son John Berney Crome.

As his reputation soared his paintings were shown in London and bought by important Norfolk patrons. At the height of Crome's popularity, almost a century after his death, the Keeper of the National Gallery, Charles Collins Baker, called him, John Constable and JMW Turner the three greatest masters of English landscape painting.

Another 100 years on and his intensely local scenes resonate again. John Ward, who chairs the Norfolk Joint Museums Committee, said: “John Crome’s celebration of the landscape of his native Norfolk is both timeless and timely, with so many of us reconnecting with nature over the past difficult year.”

Ahead of the exhibition, high-tech analysis with infrared photography and X-rays revealed Crome often painted a completely new picture over an earlier one – including a ravishing river scene at Thorpe St Andrew, painted on wood which had once been a wooden coach door complete with a picture of a lion.

Many questions about the popular artist and teacher remain unanswered. “We don’t know why he didn’t sign his paintings. We don’t know a lot of things about his work. It’s infuriating!” said Giorgia. She was delighted to discover one of his letters in the Norfolk Record Office. Crome had been commissioned to report on the state of the civic paintings in St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, and was distressed to find them being damaged by a mixture of dust, sweat and sparrow droppings (the hall was used as a corn market at the time.)

Crome’s own paintings have been better treated. The Castle’s own collection has been joined by pictures from private collections, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Eastern Daily Press: Yarmouth Jetty, by John Crome, oil on canvasYarmouth Jetty, by John Crome, oil on canvas (Image: Norfolk Museums Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery))

This first major exhibition dedicated to Crome for more than 50 years features around 90 paintings, watercolours and etchings. It begins with Crome’s early paintings, including one of just three of his pub signs still known to exist; and moves through his work as an art teacher to the supremely accomplished paintings of Norwich and the surrounding countryside.

“I hope more people will know who he is as a result of this show and appreciate that here in Norwich we have someone who was such a wonderful artist and deserves recognition,” said Giorgia.

Don’t miss:

Norwich River Afternoon, Crome’s vibrant picture of the Wensum running through the city, with the peaceful flow of the glinting water fringed by the factories of New Mills in the background and washing hanging in the riverside yards.

The Poringland Oak where the children playing in the water at the foot of the fabulously detailed tree are believed to be some of Crome’s sons.

Mousehold Heath which was bought by the National Gallery and is now owned by the Tate. A Victorian art critic said even Constable’s Haywain was not as good as this fine landscape.

The play of light across all Crome’s works, although he never paints the sun itself; and the naturalistic detail of his plants which means each tree, flower and weed can be identified.

Eastern Daily Press: Mousehold Heath, Norwich, c. 1818-1820, by John Crome, oil on canvasMousehold Heath, Norwich, c. 1818-1820, by John Crome, oil on canvas (Image: © Tate / Tate Images)

The exhibition is sponsored by The Friends of the Norwich Museums, which celebrates its centenary this year, making it the oldest independent museum friends association in the UK. It is also supported by the East Anglia Art Fund and Arts Council England.

A Passion for Landscape: Rediscovering John Crome opens at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery on May 17 and runs until September 5. Entry by advance booking only, at least one day in advance.

Two linked exhibitions are:

Somewhere Unexpected: Norwich Castle Open Art Show, from May 17. Artists across East Anglia were invited to submit work that acknowledged the significance of our immediate environments in the context of a global pandemic.

Crome’s Norwich – 1821 and 2021 will be at the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell, from May 22 to September 18. Local photographer Nick Stone has walked in the footsteps of John Crome, along river banks and city paths, revisiting the locations he painted. The result is a stunning collection of images blending Crome’s works with contemporary photography.