In a corner of the sunlit, reedy pool, next to the rutted track, beneath the branches of the ancient oak tree, the painter has included a group of boys bathing. Two of them are his own sons while another is said to be the son of one Mr Aldous, mail-coach driver. The bravest of the boys has waded into the water up to his waist and now gingerly immerses his forearms in preparation for the plunge. His face is ruddy, his flesh as white as English porcelain. The scene seems both real and ideal: a moment in time perpetuated and, in the process, transmuted into an idyll. It is a picture shot through with trace memories of other kinds of picture. Viewed through half-closed eyes, the boys at play could be Diana and her nymphs bathing, about to be spied by Actaeon; or they could be early Christians being baptised out of doors.
John Crome, who painted The Poringland Oak near the end of his life, in 1818, was known as “the Norfolk Hobbema”: on his deathbed he is said to have gasped “Oh Hobbema, my dear Hobbema, how I have loved you”. But for all his attachment to the robust traditions of Dutch Old Master landscape painting he was distinctly his own man. Born in a public house in
In fact, as the exhibitions’s organisers themselves point out in the accompanyung catalogue, “The School of Norwich” is a bit of a myth. Plenty of painters, most of them amateurs of some description, became affiliated to the Norwich Society of Artists; but their work was unneven and, to put it charitably, extremely various. The truth is that
During the late nineteenth century, many years after his death, Crome’s reputation reached its zenith. But he was always, simultaneously, regarded as a bit of a hick. The most dedicated collector of his work, the
It is clear that Crome was not at all the painter Colman took him for. He was a subtle and sophisticated interpreter of the landscape painting tradition, alive not only to the work of Dutch masters such as Hobbema – and Rembrandt, the drama of whose landscapes he emulated in his own striking watery nocturne, Moonrise on the Yare – but also to the new strains of romantic sensibility that stirred during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Like his contemporaries Girtin, Turner and Constable, he made landscape painting into a vehicle of feeling, often experimenting with rough and sketchy effects which led critics of his work to complain of a lack of finish. “This is the scribbling of painting,” one disapproving commentator remarked of a particularly free, early Crome. But the raw naturalism of many of his pictures was a conscious device, an abandonment of “polish” which might be compared to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s forsaking of ornate poetical diction for a more brusque and vernacular language in the Lyrical Ballads.
Like many of the more experimental artists and writers of his time, Crome was a dissenter and a political liberal, which may also have informed his work to a certain degree. He is known to have been an opponent of Enclosure, the national agricultural policy which led to the privatisation of previously common land and its division into rectangular fields and fenced farms. As a writer in the local Norwich newspaper, The Iris, complained in the early years of the nineteenth century, this spelled the destruction of much common heathland “where many hundreds could once be seen on a summer’s evening engaged in their different sports and games … the only place in the vicinity of the city where it was possible to retire from ‘the busy hum of men’…”
Yet long after the land around
John Sell Cotman, the other luminary of the so-called “
But although he did not prosper until very late in his career, when friends secured him a teaching job in
The taste for picturesque, topographical watercolours that developed during his lifetime led to the production of a vast mass of imagery: innumerable studies of the ruined abbey, the romantic coppice, the swiftly coursing brook. Much of this work now seems almost interchangeable, yet Cotman’s work is always instantly identifiable. The essence of his art seems to reflect the very particular cast of his temperament. He was romantically fascinated by nature’s beauty and abundance and movement, but his sense of pictorial structure was classically, almost ascetically rigorous. The result was an art consecrated to the most evanescent phenomena – wind blowing through a tree, clouds scudding through the sky, the movements of water – which simultaneously aspires to a condition of absolute stasis and order.
Cotman used the range and flexibility of watercolour brilliantly to convey his experience of nature, but he also controlled his own repertoire of effects within compositional schemes quite unlike those adopted by any other painter of his time. He treated cloud and hill and sky almost as if they were elements in a collage, to be moved about at will; he found or made, in fencepost or tangle of trees, a graphic order of such rigour that it seems almost to anticipate the art of Mondrian. The desire to elevate sudden impulses or insights into permanent structures of feeling, whether they be poems, paintings or symphonies, was common to many romantics, but few realised the ambition as consummately as this relatively little known, Norwich-born watercolourist.