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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.

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Portrait of John Crome by John Opie. NWHCM: 1899.4.15. Opie was married to Amelia Opie, Norwich campaigner against slavery.

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 [1]. Crome remained President until his death in 1821.


Robert Ladbrooke (1768-1842), from a drawing by his son John Berney Ladbrooke. Courtesy Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery NWHCM : 1940.FAP2

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. 

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Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court off Little Cockey Lane was demolished in 1826 to make way for the first version of the corn exchange (red star). Hole-in-the-Wall Lane = purple star. Millard and Manning’s plan of Norwich 1830, courtesy Norfolk County Council.

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 ‘court’ of Sir Benjamin Wrench (d1747), physician, Lord of Little Melton. Etching by David Hodgson 1836. NWHCM: 1954:138.Todd8.Wymer.77

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’ … 


‘Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia’ by Claude Lorrain (his last painting, 1682). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

… 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 [3]. 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.

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Ruisdael’s ‘A Wooded River Landscape with a Bridge, a Church Beyond’ (1650s). Courtesy Christie’s. Intriguingly, this picture was once owned by ‘Colonel Clement Unthank of Intwood Hall’ [4], presumably Colonel Clement William Joseph Unthank. The painting has been variously attributed to van Kessel III, Ruisdael or Hobbema but in 2011 Sotheby’s sold it as a Ruisdael for £181,250. 

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 Humphry 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 [5]. Dr Rigby, who had an impressive art collection [1], introduced Crome to another great collector and amateur painter, Thomas Harvey (1748-1819) of Old Catton, whose town house was on Colegate. 


Harvey House in Colegate Norwich.

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’ [6] and had a strong influence on Crome and the Norwich School.

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A Wooded Landscape by Meindert Hobbema 1667. Courtesy The J Paul Getty Museum


‘Norwich River: Afternoon’ by John Crome ca 1819. Considered to be one of his finest paintings, the scene is probably near St Martin’s at Oak (Oak Street). The oil was painted on mattress ticking. NWHCM: 1994.189 

Crome was one of the first English artists to paint identifiable species of tree rather than generic forms.

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The post-card-sized ‘A Wooded Landscape with an Oak’, by John Crome. Courtesy Sphinx Fine Art. This tree is recognisably related to The Poringland Oak held in Tate Britain

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’ [7]. 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.


Crome was buried in St George’s Colegate in the parish from which he rarely ventured far

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 [5].

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‘Foundry Bridge, Norwich’ (1822-1833) by Robert Ladbrooke. Courtesy Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NWHCM: 1938.26. 

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 [1]. Several influences can be detected in his paintings including Claude and, in his more experimental paintings, Turner [6]. 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 [2]. 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 [8].   


John Sell Cotman, ‘The Marl Pit’ c1809-1810. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. Using a limited palette Cotman built up interlocking blocks of deep watercolour separated by crisp edges. The dark green tree mirrors the cloud while other contrasts – light against dark, dark against light – guide the eye around the painting. 

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’ [1].

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‘Greta Bridge, Yorkshire 1810’ by JS Cotman NWHCM: 1947:217.159. The British Museum has an earlier version of 1805

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 his later paintings, Cotman exchanged his crisply outlined clouds for fluid shapes. By adding flour paste to watercolour Cotman was able to apply paint that resisted running but could still be manipulated with a rag or sponge. ‘Storm on Yarmouth Beach, 1831’. NWHCM: 1947.217.210

In 1823 JS Cotman returned to Norwich where he opened a School of Drawing at St Martin-at-Palace Plain.Cotmans School.jpg

By plotting Norwich School ‘paintings on a map of Norfolk it is immediately clear that the majority were painted along the waterways’ [9]. 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.


John Sell Cotman. Acle Flats and Marshes c1830s. NWHCM: 1961.85. 

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 [10]. JS Cotman referred to these as joint efforts and, perhaps unfairly, Miles Edmund was never entirely viewed in his own light.

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‘Gorleston Harbour’ by Miles Edmund Cotman. NWHCM: 1951.235.626. Miles, who painted numerous scenes of boats on water, is considered to have been an excellent ‘architectural’ draughtsman but less good at figure drawing.

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) [10].


John Joseph Cotman ca 1860. NWHCM: 1921.21.23.1

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’ [11].


John Joseph Cotman ‘Landscape with Sun Set, Haystacks and Owl’. Courtesy Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

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John Joseph Cotman’s ‘Whitlingham Lane, Norwich’ ca 1873

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.


Joseph Stannard, ‘Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon’ 1825. NWHCM 1894.35.

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 [1].


Joseph Stannard. Detail from ‘Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon’

Stannard lived in the heart of the city, in St Giles Terrace off Bethel Street.IMG_1587.jpg

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‘ [1] who exhibited at the Royal Academy. Her still lifes are judged amongst the best Victorian paintings of this genre.


Duchess Pears with Black Grapes in a Basket 1895 by Eloise Harriet Stannard. NWHCM 1933.116.1

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.


‘Cromer’ by James Stark c 1830s. NWHCM: 1975.688

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 [12]. 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 [13].


The Stark family monument in the Rosary Cemetery, Norwich

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 [14]. One of his best known paintings illustrates the continuing bond between Norfolk and the Dutch.


‘The Dutch Fair at Great Yarmouth’ by George Vincent 1821. Norfolk Museums Collections GRYEH: 1956.136. The annual Dutch Fair was held on Great Yarmouth beach under the shadow of Nelson’s Monument. 

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 [1]. 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 [8], others think none are without great merit [5].


‘Cattle and Drover before a Wind Pump at Sunset’ by Henry Bright 1849. Courtesy Mandell’s Gallery

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 [1]. 


Riverside Norwich, by John Thirtle. Courtesy Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

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Thirtle House 26 Magdalen Street (1936) where John Thirtle carried on his business as frame carver, gilder and print seller. The house was pulled down in the late 1930s. ©georgeplunkett.co.uk

Tuberculosis also claimed John Middleton (1827-1856) – a ‘supreme tragedy for the Norwich School’ [1]. 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.


‘Lynmouth, North Devon’ by John Middleton. From [1].

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.


‘Alpine Pool 1907’ by John Singer Sargent. Courtesy of http://www.johnsingersargent.org

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 [1].


The Corn Exchange built in 1828 was rebuilt in 1861 and demolished in 1964 when Jarrold’s Department Store extended to occupy the entire block between Exchange Street and what had been Little Cockey Lane. Engraving by James Sillett NWHCM: 1954.138.Todd8.Wymer.108

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.


This small painting by Henry Bright plus 12 of his drawings will be featured in the exhibition. Courtesy of Mandell’s Gallery

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 [15], which is now on public view. Afterwards, take a squiz at the Norwich School paintings in the Colman Galleries.

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Courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

©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.


  1. Josephine Walpole (1997). Art and Artists of the Norwich School. Pub: Antique Collectors’ Club
  2. 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.
  3. https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com/2019/08/15/going-dutch-the-norwich-strangers/
  4. https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/jan-van-kessel-iii-amsterdam-1641-1680-1911613-details.aspx
  5. Harold Day (1979). The Norwich School of Painters. Pub: Eastbourne Fine Art.
  6. 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.
  7. 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)
  8. https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com/2016/02/17/two-east-anglian-artists/
  9. 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.
  10. Geoffrey R Searle (2014). Pub: ‘Miles Edmund Cotman (1810-1858)’. Lasse Press, Norwich.
  11. 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.
  12. https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com/tag/norwich-red/
  13. https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com/2018/10/15/the-norwich-way-of-death/
  14. 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.
  15. https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com/2017/03/15/three-norwich-women/