‘John Crome: a personal vision in printmaking glimpsed in a single print’ by David Billingsley

“As soon as I begin looking at a field, an escarpment or an orchard as though in it there were some code to be deciphered, it becomes unfamiliar… the longer you spend with them, the more mysterious all visual images become.” John Berger (‘Painting a landscape’ published in ‘Selected Essays’)

“ To Crome, the only source of aesthetic emotion was the direct experience of the natural world, especially its intangible aspects (light and shade, air and space). The observation of nature in and around Norwich came to be the central activity of his life. Crome directed all his energies toward achieving an exact and objective record of what he saw; at the same time, he evolved methods profoundly expressive of his subjective responses.” Norman Goldberg (note 1).

“ By the early 19th century printmaking in Britain had reached an all time low. “ Liverpool Museums Exhibitions Website 2018

A Composition, John Crome, ca. 1790-1821, etching in black on cream wove paper, PR536

Participating in Phil Garratt’s lifelong learning course in the history of printmaking at Aberystwyth School of Art has opened a door for this writer onto the work of a number of printmaker artists I previously knew little about and whose scope, skill and imaginative gifts I had, to be candid, overlooked. I was aware of the English Romantic artist John Crome’s capacity for the atmospheric manipulation of aerial perspective in oil paint from seeing such impressively distinctive works by him as Marlingford Grove in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, Willow Tree with a Horseman and a Woman on a Road in the Castle Museum, Nottingham and The Poringland Oak, now in Tate Britain which is arguably his finest painting.

However, until I had the opportunity at the start of this year to request to see artists’ original prints in the School of Art collection, as part of my history of printmaking lifelong learning course studies, I knew almost nothing of Crome’s work as a printmaker. It therefore came as a very pleasant surprise to discover the quality of his second state printed etching in the School’s collection entitled A Composition. This is one of two prints in the collection made from Crome’s original etched plates, the other being Back of the New Mills (note 2).

Crome lived from 1768 to 1821. As the Crome scholar Norman Goldberg pointed out in his commentary and catalogue on the artist’s work (op. cit. in bibliography) Crome’s print making has often passed unnoticed and unrecognized. One could certainly draw that conclusion from the recent Liverpool Museums publication of 2018 quoted above, giving their opinion (in the context of a recent exhibition of Whistler and Pennell’s etchings) that the state of etching in early 19th century had reached “an all time low” when Crome’s work in the field was done at exactly that time (note 3).

It could be further argued that Crome’s entire range of work has probably been unfairly neglected, certainly over the last 100 years for a number of reasons. Partly, this may be due to the contrast between what he achieved (comparatively modest in quantity and generally highly focused in subject matter) seen in relation to the impressive body of work of his younger, near contemporary John Sell Cotman (1782-1842). Both as a draughtsman and a watercolourist Cotman was in a sense the more ‘modern’ and the more ‘classical’ of the two (note 4) with wonderful ability as a draughtsman and subtlety of colour balance, modulation and composition as a watercolourist. However, while both artists have always been associated with ‘the Norwich School’, (Crome having helped to found the Norwich Society of Artists in 1803 and been the association’s President several times) an unsympathetic comparison between the two men is both unnecessary and a pity. They were in fact simply very different artists and personalities, each of distinctive originality and unique skill.

Crome has also of course been overshadowed, almost unavoidably, by the prolific and towering achievements of Constable and Turner whose careers and reputations came to ascendancy after ‘old’ Crome’s comparatively early death in April 1821. As can be clearly seen from looking at his paintings, drawings and etchings however, Crome was, together with Constable, one of the first artists to produce clear visual descriptions of specific and identifiable species of trees. For both Crome and Constable this search for accuracy of description was a consequence of their own highly tuned and personal ways of looking at and recording what they actually saw.

Crome is thought to have made no more than 33 etchings in total (9 of them in soft ground), and very few impressions of his plates were made in his lifetime, during which they remained unpublished. Those that can be dated were probably made in or around 1812 and 1813. Nevertheless, from the quality and fine detail of what he produced in the medium Crome must have been preoccupied and deeply fascinated by the possibilities of printmaking in those years. In 1812 he drafted a prospectus that suggests an intention to publish his etchings. However, it was not until 13 years after his death that a set of his prints was eventually compiled and published in 1834 with the collective title of Norfolk Picturesque Scenery, consisting of 31 Etchings. This was done to assist Crome’s widow financially.

The British Museum has an extensive collection of individual early impressions of Crome’s etchings and The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a full edition of these prints described as “very rare”. However, looking at just one or two of the original prints at first hand, as is possible in the Aberystwyth School of Art, is a worthwhile and rewarding experience.

Crome came from humble origins (his father being a weaver and journeyman) and yet through hard work, enterprise and considerable good fortune he gained an apprenticeship as a sign painter and then took full advantage of the opportunities he was given to show what he could do as an artist in the course of his active working life of about thirty years. To earn a living and support his large family, Crome worked hard as a drawing master and was employed in that capacity from 1792 by local gentry families around Norwich and then later at Norwich Grammar School. It is known that whenever possible he preferred to give drawing lessons outside and direct from nature. He also produced oil paintings, primarily of particular landscapes in Norfolk, for influential sponsors and patrons who included the Gurney banking family, Thomas Harvey, Dawson Turner, Sir William Beechey and Sir Benjamin Wrenche. Crome was not an educated man in the conventional sense, but he did have good contacts with those who were well educated and well connected in society. It was the art connoisseur Harvey, a collector of works by accomplished masters of landscape painting, who introduced Crome to the pictures he owned by Hobbema and Gainsborough and this had a profound influence on Crome’s development as an artist. Once established, Crome exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1806 onwards until 1818. However, he didn’t travel far, only going to France once in 1814 and on one occasion to the Lake District.

Crome’s oil paintings of landscapes were nevertheless appreciated and bought by collectors and seen by a comparatively wide audience. Of necessity he must have regarded these works as the primary means to earn his living. Although Crome was criticized during his lifetime for his work having an occasionally unfinished quality to it, soon after his death it was reported that collectors were suddenly desperately keen to acquire his paintings. This resulted in several imitators of his way of working producing a considerable number of paintings throughout the middle and later years of the 19th century that were for a time wrongly or misleadingly attributed to Crome, who did not sign his work.

In contrast with his paintings, it is evident that Crome viewed his etchings as experimental and essentially private works. It is probably significant that the planned prospectus of a print edition was not published in his lifetime. In a sense therefore Crome’s etchings are especially helpful in giving an insight into the essence of his art. To an extent his drawings can also be viewed in this way and intriguingly for a long period it was thought that none of these had survived.

Crome’s etchings, produced probably between 1809 and 1813, sometimes survive only in a single state. Others were developed in two or occasionally three states by the artist, perhaps as a way of exploring how changes, additions and omissions, could be made to improve or subtly vary the picture presented to view.

A Composition is an etching in black ink on cream woven paper. Almost square in format and measuring just 167mm x 160mm (about six and a half inches by six inches) it is a woodland landscape, showing in the foreground detailed and botanically precise studies of plants (note 5) together with a tree stump and one large tree in leaf dominating a small grove of trees. In the middle ground is a track, some tree trunks, branches, a post and a seated woman with a child. The etching is done without cross hatching and using very fine and precise lines. Significantly there are large areas of un-worked highlights in the second state print that instil the impression of glimmering light and shade (note 6). According to Goldberg (op cit.) the first state of the print (seen in an impression from Dawson Turner’s collection) had no lines in the sky above the level of the paling, no black lines edging the image and little tonal work done on the mound. Further work was done on all these areas by Crome for the second state impression and sometime before publication the etched letters ‘J Crome fecit’ were added.

In A Composition one can appreciate how Crome was particularly fascinated by the form and the texture of trees. This and the transitory effects of light on trunks, branches and foliage is his primary subject. The figures have certainly been included for the purpose of scale to emphasise the majesty of the natural world and I would suggest they were particularly included to show the place of humanity in nature and the mysterious relationship between the two.

That Crome studied and recorded nature intently is very clear from A Composition. So too is his meticulous appreciation of the work of Hobbema and Gainsborough that he had come to know and appreciate through his patrons and friends. While no known drawings or etchings survive by the Dutch artist, what Crome seems to have particularly admired and drawn from looking at Hobbema’s work is the compositional use of a winding path to take the eye to a closely observed wooded area and also upwards to a large sky. This is a device that Hobbema used in paintings such as A Road winding past Cottages in the National Gallery collection in London (NG ref 2571). This pictorial technique is evident in Crome’s A Composition. From studying another Dutch artist, Jacob van Ruisdael (1628 -1682), and particularly works of the quality of his A Pool surrounded by Trees, also in the National Gallery (NG ref 854), Crome appears to have absorbed a way of combining tones of light and darkness that translated into his etching technique as well as his oil painting methods (note 7).

Crome wrote little about his art and as far as we know he didn’t keep a journal or a diary. (In this respect he was very different to Gainsborough, Cotman and Constable who were all highly literate and natural and frequent letter writers.) Just a few of his letters have survived, no more than five it seems. However, one of them, written from Norwich to a friend, James Stark in London in January 1816 (note 8), does give some important insights into what was important to Crome as an artist. He encouraged his friend in his own work to “make the trees stronger, the sky running from them in shadow.” He then goes on to emphasise the importance of “honesty, my boy” in the work of the artist …”making parts broad and of a good shape that they may come in with your composition, forming one grand plan of light and shade.” This will he adds… “give delight to everyone.”

As a way of developing my own appreciation of Crome’s A Compostion and coming to terms with just how fine a print it is, I have attempted making drawings to scale of the original print image in the School’s collection on a number of occasions and I have found this remarkably difficult. Trying to emulate the quality and delicacy of the mark making and the precision and vibrancy of the tone in Crome’s original is a considerable challenge. Nevertheless I can recommend the exercise, because as David Hockney once pointed out in an interview, copying tends to be undervalued as a way of learning about art!

Drawing of John Crome Etching (1) copy

I would agree with Norman Goldberg in describing Crome as a “rustic naturalist” but this is perhaps a limiting phrase. The mood and execution of A Composition actually seems to me to prefigure the ‘plein air’ approach of some of the printmakers of the Etching Revival and indeed the work of some of the French Impressionist printmakers including Camille Pissarro. In its freshness and directness of response to the fleeting beauty of the natural world and in its intimation of the transitory, almost incidental appearance of mortal humanity this print is in my view a remarkably vibrant gem of a work of art.

David Billingsley

March 2019

Note 1:

Quotation taken from Chapter III of Norman Goldberg’s catalogue and critical study: John Crome the Elder. Phaidon published as 2 volumes 1978.

Note 2:

‘A Composition’ (SoA ref PR 356) was bought for the Aberystwyth School of Art collection in 1986 with support from the Catherine Lewis Trust. ‘Back of the New Mills’ (SoA ref PR 355) was also bought for the School of Art collection in 1986 with support from the Catherine Lewis Trust. The second work is a landscape print of a scene in the Norfolk Broads and is finely etched without the use of cross hatching. It shows two men in the foreground with rowing boats on a canal, with mooring posts and a tree. In the middle ground are a farmhouse, barns and a canal side mill with an oriel window, a fence, a tree stump and a ruinous windmill, and in the background there are distant trees and houses.

Note 3:

In his 2018 catalogue ‘Haden, Palmer, Whistler and the origins of the RE (Royal Society of Painter Printmakers)’ Edward Twohig notes (page 18) that “the early 19th century had witnessed occasional incipient interest in etching among artists such as the Norwich School painters”, but he does not expand on his observation.

Note 4:

In his groundbreaking study, ‘Art and the Industrial Revolution’ (New York extended edition 1968), Francis Klingender concisely summarised Cotman’s work as having “profoundly classical sense of design” (p94 ibid).

Note 5:

Crome made some beautifully observed drawings of individual plants such as ‘A Burdock’.

Note 6:

The British Museum’s Print Collection website records and explains in some detail how between 1834 and 1838 Crome’s plates were re-bitten and became in the words of Norman Goldberg “debased travesties of the beautiful work of Crome.”

Unfortunately, unless their plates have been definitively ‘struck’ to establish the end of an edition, artist printmakers have little or no control over re-working and re-editioning of their prints after parting with original etching plates.

Note 7: 

In his later oil paintings Crome used a technical approach of fluid, open groundwork where the original surface paintwork was thinned or removed to accentuate the cool and warm tones in the picture. This may be something he had seen and learnt from in Gainsborough’s landscape paintings. This parallels aspects of Crome’s etching technique and his particular interest in etching as a medium in showing a capacity for experimentation and re-working his materials.

Note 8:

This letter from John Crome to James Stark is published and discussed in detail by Norman Goldberg in John Crome the Elder. Phaidon (2 volumes) 1978.


Norman Goldberg: John Crome the Elder. Phaidon 2 volumes 1978

D Clifford and T Clifford: John Crome. New York Graphic Society. Greenwich, Connecticut 1968

HS Theobald: ‘Crome’s Etchings’. London 1906

CH Collins Baker: ‘The Crome Centenary’. The Burlington Magazine volume 38. May 1921

WM Irins: ‘Prints of English Landscape. Metropoloitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Volume 17.no4 1922

Martin Hardie: ’A Great Painter- Etcher: Old Crome’. The Conoisseur vol VIII no 29 January 1904

Editor’s note: David attended Philip Garret’s ‘History of Printmaking’- Lifelong Learning- course in 2018/19. 

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