Formed in 1803 by John Crome (1768-1821) and Robert Ladbrooke (1768-1842) the Norwich Society of Artists was the first art movement to be associated with a specific British region [1,2]. It would be surprising if the history of the city hadn’t shaped the Society’s approach to landscape painting.
The Society’s founders had humble beginnings: Crome was apprenticed to a coach painter while Robert Ladbrooke worked with a printer and engraver. The two became friends, went on sketching expeditions, lived together in a garret (where else?), married two Berney sisters and later founded the Society as a meeting place for artists . Crome remained President until his death in 1821.
The first meetings are said to have been held either in Little Cockey Lane or in the Hole-in-the-Wall Inn just a few dozen yards north. Cockey is a dialect term for stream and although various routes are suggested for this water course a map from 1830 clearly shows Little Cockey Lane running along the back of what is now Jarrold’s Department Store.
In 1805 the Society’s first exhibition was held in Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court, which was demolished when the new Corn Exchange was built in 1826 on the corner of Exchange and Little Bedford Streets.
The Society, which ended in 1833, was outlived by second and third generation artists gathered under the umbrella term of the Norwich School of Painters. As many as 79 painters were formally associated with the School; individual styles varied but what united them was the countryside in which they painted. The French artists Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) had had a profound influence on British landscape painting; both worked in Italy, both employed a picturesque ideal of the Italian countryside as backdrop to their classical, mythological or biblical tales. This was the epitome of ‘High Art’ …
… but the Norwich School painters adopted a humbler model closer to home – Dutch Realism [1,2]. In the second half of the C16, King Philip II of Spain embarked on a programme of violence to root out Protestantism in the Spanish Netherlands, as a result of which around a third of Norwich’s population was comprised of Dutch and Flemish religious refugees . Following this dark period, Dutch painting tended to focus on small, humanistic themes as opposed to the religious subjects that still dominated art in the Catholic south. Dutch Realism was to have a strong influence on landscape painting in Norwich. The realists rejected imaginary landscape in favour of naturalistic countryside that, if it contained figures at all, contained ordinary people going about their everyday lives. Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael (1629-1682) was a particular influence.
This realistic vision of countryside adopted by the proletarian painters of the Norwich School was therefore at odds with the ‘improved’ version that landscape architects Capability Brown (1716-1783) and Humfry Repton (1752-1818) offered the English upper classes – huge private parklands in which lakes were dug, streams rerouted, trees uprooted, all in search of a classical ideal represented in paintings that their clients admired and probably collected on the Grand Tour.
Before he worked for the coach painter, 12-year-old Crome was employed by a physician, Dr Rigby, presumably delivering medicines . Dr Rigby, who had an impressive art collection , introduced Crome to another great collector and amateur painter, Thomas Harvey (1748-1819) of Old Catton, whose town house was on Colegate.
Harvey came from a line of wealthy merchants, ten of whom were mayors of Norwich. He married the daughter of a Rotterdam merchant and gathered a collection of Dutch masters – some directly from dealers in Antwerp – that Crome was allowed to copy [5,6]. Although Ruysdael’s pupil Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709) was not well known in his lifetime he was regarded as the ‘true inventor of the wooded picturesque landscape’  and had a strong influence on Crome and the Norwich School.
Crome was one of the first English artists to paint identifiable species of tree rather than generic forms.
In 1821 Crome died at home in Gildengate Street, off Colegate. His last words were said to have been: ‘Hobbema, my dear Hobbema, how I have loved you’ . He was succeeded by two sons, John Berney Crome and William Henry Crome – both notable landscape artists in their own right – and a daughter Emily who painted still-lifes.
Where Crome was gregarious and ebullient Ladbrooke was morose, his paintings dark. Ladbrooke’s sons, Henry and John Berney, were also considerable artists and members of the Society. In 1816, Ladbrooke formed a breakaway group, the ‘Secession’, possibly over the use of Society funds, possibly over Crome leaving the Presidency to Sillett .
The Society held annual exhibitions from 1805 until the 1830s and when Norwich-born John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) returned from London in 1807 he exhibited 20 works . Several influences can be detected in his paintings including Claude and, in his more experimental paintings, Turner . Cotman evolved a distinctive style, playing with perspective to produce a flattened picture plane composed of blocks of colour in which detail was carefully suppressed . In 2016 I wrote about a visit to the Norwich Castle Study Centre, Shirehall, to see a favourite painting – The Marl Pit – that was no longer exhibited .
In 1803-5 Cotman spent the summer with the Cholmondeley family at Brandsby Hall in Yorkshire. There he painted what the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum thought to be ‘the most perfect examples of pure watercolour ever made in Europe’ .
In 1812, the Great Yarmouth banker and collector, Dawson Turner, employed Cotman as drawing master to his wife and daughters for £200 per annum. Cotman moved his family to be near Turner and there he produced a significant number of seascapes.
In 1823 JS Cotman returned to Norwich where he opened a School of Drawing at St Martin-at-Palace Plain.
By plotting Norwich School ‘paintings on a map of Norfolk it is immediately clear that the majority were painted along the waterways’ . Before the coming of the railways water was essential for trade; it also allowed the Norwich School artists access to the eastern waterlands: nowadays they would be dotted along the A47.
Cotman’s financial position improved in 1834 when he was appointed Professor of Drawing at King’s College School, London. With him went his son, Miles Edmund Cotman (1810-1858) who exhibited with the Norwich Society at age 13 and would later start paintings for his father to finish and sign . JS Cotman referred to these as joint efforts and, perhaps unfairly, Miles Edmund was never entirely viewed in his own light.
John Sell Cotman suffered from serious depression as did Miles Edmund and his brother Alfred, who was committed to an asylum. The family illness also afflicted another son, John Joseph Cotman (1814-1878) .
Unlike his older brother, John Joseph eventually broke free of the house style to paint in a bold manner, rich in colour and reminiscent of Samuel Palmer’s mystical works. By the end of his life this tramp-like figure, known around Norwich as Mad John or Crazy Cotman, produced poetical landscapes that were ‘like the sight of a brightly dressed demi-mondaine at a gathering of Quakers’ .
Joseph Stannard (1797-1830) was considered to be the finest painters of sea and river scenes of the school and may well have achieved national status had he not died young from tuberculosis [1,5]. When asked to engage Stannard as apprentice Cotman requested an extortionate sum and the boy was taught instead by Ladbrooke, explaining why Stannard joined Ladbrooke’s Secession rather than the Society. Stannard’s work ‘tends to be bright and highly finished like the Dutch masters’ as can be seen in his most celebrated work, ‘Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon’, which recorded an event attended by nearly 20,000 people. In this large painting the central sail divides the working people on the right from the gentry at Thorpe Hall – including owner, Colonel John Harvey – to the left.
On the extreme right is Stannard himself, looking across to the other side, probably for his money; Colonel Harvey failed to pay for this large commission, leaving Stannard considerably out of pocket .
Stannard lived in the heart of the city, in St Giles Terrace off Bethel Street.
Like the Cromes, Cotmans and Ladbrookes, Joseph Stannard belonged to a family of painters: wife Emily, daughter Emily, brother Alfred, Alfred’s eldest son Alfred George, and Alfred’s daughter Eloise Harriet. Eloise Stannard (1829-1915) ‘was without doubt a most brilliant painter‘  who exhibited at the Royal Academy. Her still lifes are judged amongst the best Victorian paintings of this genre.
James Stark (1794-1859) met John Berney Crome at Norwich Grammar School and became a favourite pupil of his father, John Crome. Under Crome’s tutelage Stark was immersed in Hobbema’s techniques but after painting watercolour out of doors his work became lighter. In 1828 Stark was elected Vice-President of the Norwich Society of Artists and, in the following year, President.
His father’s name, Michael Stark, crops up in previous posts as the man thought to have invented ‘Norwich Red’, the dye that coloured the city’s cloth . James’s son, Arthur James, was also an artist. The Starks are interred in a family plot in the Rosary Cemetery – the country’s first non-denominational burying ground .
George Vincent’s life was short (1796-c1835). One of Crome’s most prodigious pupils he moved to London where his grand, ambitious paintings brought the Norwich School to a metropolitan audience. He overspent what money his wife brought to the marriage, turned to drink and was sent to the Fleet Prison for debt . One of his best known paintings illustrates the continuing bond between Norfolk and the Dutch.
Henry Bright (1810-1873. Spouse, Eliza Brightley) was born in Saxmundham, Suffolk but moved to Norwich when apprenticed to chemist Paul Squire of London Street, a keen collector of art . Bright took lessons from John Berney Crome and from John Sell Cotman but by exhibiting in London, and selling his second Royal Academy exhibit to Queen Victoria, he ensured a following among the metropolitan elite that gave him wealth beyond Cotman’s dreams. Bright’s highly finished paintings divide opinions: some say overly theatrical , others think none are without great merit .
Despite being John Sell Cotman’s brother-in-law and President of the Norwich Society of Artists, John Thirtle (1777-1839) joined Ladbrooke in forming the three-year Secession. Tuberculosis inhibited his open air painting and his output was limited yet he is still considered one of the finest watercolourists of the Norwich School .
Tuberculosis also claimed John Middleton (1827-1856) – a ‘supreme tragedy for the Norwich School’ . Taught by John Berney Crome in Norwich, then by Henry Bright in London, Middleton was a genius who flourished for 10 years before dying aged 29.
Middleton’s freely-painted watercolours are fresh and modern; his paintings of water courses seem to me to anticipate the impressionistic river-bed paintings of the great John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who was born the year that Middleton died.
The demolition of the Norwich Society of Artists’ premises, to make way for the corn exchange, was a major factor in the group’s demise. It had been weakened by the deaths of Crome (1821) and Stannard (1830), then by the forthcoming departure of Cotman to London, but the annual exhibitions had run at a loss for some time and the Society’s members could not resist the severe downturn in the city’s economy. The last exhibition was in 1833 but later generations of Norwich School painters built upon the Society’s legacy throughout the nineteenth century .
Dates for your diary
From the 2nd to the 23rd of November, Mandell’s Gallery in Elm Hill is holding an exhibition of Norwich School Paintings that John Allen’s father, Geoffrey, began to collect in the 1950s. Unmissable for followers of the Norwich School.
The portrait of John Crome by John Opie RA (‘The Cornish Wonder’), at top, records the friendship between these artists brokered by collector Thomas Harvey. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery has just acquired Opie’s double portrait of his celebrated wife, Amelia , which is now on public view. Afterwards, take a squiz at the Norwich School paintings in the Colman Galleries.
©2019 Reggie Unthank
Thanks: I am grateful to John Allen and Rachel Allen of Mandell’s Gallery, Elm Hill, Norwich; Dr Francesca Vanke, Senior Curator, Norwich Museums; and Linda Martin of the Norfolk Heritage Centre.
- Josephine Walpole (1997). Art and Artists of the Norwich School. Pub: Antique Collectors’ Club
- Anna Green (2013). The Norwich School of Artists. In, A Vision of England: Paintings of the Norwich School, edited by Georgia Bottinelli. Pub: Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.
- Harold Day (1979). The Norwich School of Painters. Pub: Eastbourne Fine Art.
- Andrew Moore (2013) Origins and Equals. In, A Vision of England: Paintings of the Norwich School, edited by Georgia Bottinelli. Pub: Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.
- William Cosmo Monkhouse (1888). Crome, John (1768-1821). Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1890 vol 13. See https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Crome,_John_(1768-1821)_(DNB00)
- Giorgia Bottinelli (2013). City and Country. In, A Vision of England: Paintings of the Norwich School, edited by Georgia Bottinelli. Pub: Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.
- Geoffrey R Searle (2014). Pub: ‘Miles Edmund Cotman (1810-1858)’. Lasse Press, Norwich.
- John Young (1989). ‘A Cotman Drawing of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital’. The Norfolk and Norwich Institute of Medical Education Journal vol 7, pp37-39.
- Giorgia Bottinelli (2013). Fame and Fortune. In, A Vision of England: Paintings of the Norwich School, edited by Georgia Bottinelli. Pub: Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.