Influenced by the Dutch Realists, painters of the Norwich Society of Artists depicted Norfolk’s flat land and tall skies in a largely naturalistic way that avoided the religious or mythological themes that had dominated Italian and French landscape painting . Although this society only lasted as a formal entity from 1803 to 1833, the succeeding generations of Cromes, Cotmans, Stannards and their followers ensured that the Norwich School of Painters continued into the Victorian era. But by the end of the nineteenth century the influences of Impressionism could no longer be resisted and new groupings evolved.
Sir John Arnesby Brown R.A. (1866-1955), born in Nottingham, was never part of even a late continuation of the Norwich School. After he and the Welsh painter, Mia Edwards, married in 1896, the Arnesby Browns split their time between St Ives, Cornwall, and Haddiscoe to the south-east of Norwich . ‘AB’s’ admiration of Corot’s and Millet’s Impressionist landscapes  was reinforced by his visits to Cornwall where the Newlyn School were painting rural scenes in an impressionistic manner.
Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959), the son of a Suffolk miller, came to Norwich when aged 14. For six years he was an apprentice lithographic artist at Page Brothers printers; he also found time to attend the Norwich School of Art where he painted in the room below.
This would have been in the old School of Art, built as a third floor extension of the Free Library formerly at the corner of St Andrews Street and Duke Street.
In 1901 the School of Art moved into the newly-built Norwich Technical Institute, occupying the upper two of its four floors.
We have previously seen young Munnings’ early commercial designs, including the Jolly Brewer for Bullards’ Brewery and the art nouveau-influenced illustrations for Caley’s chocolates and Christmas crackers [see 5].
Sir Alfred Munnings took on George Stubbs’ mantle as the country’s leading equestrian painter. He would paint working, hunting and racing horses – even maintaining a studio in Newmarket.
President of the Norwich Art Circle 1932-4, Munnings was knighted in 1944, the year he was made President of the Royal Academy. In a notorious retirement speech broadcast by the BBC, a sozzled Munnings lashed out against modernism and accused Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso of adulterating art.
There must have been something in the East Anglian air for, 53 years earlier, similarly reactionary views had been expressed by a critic from the Eastern Daily Press when he attacked Catherine Maude Nichols (1847-1923) for daring to introduce elements of French Impressionism to the Norwich Art Circle. Miss Nichols was well able to fight her corner for she had travelled to Barbizon near Paris, and Newlyn in Cornwall to familiarise herself with painting outside the East Anglian bubble [see previous post on CM Nichols].
Edward Seago (1910-1974) was born in Norwich, the son of a regional manager of a Norwich coal merchant. From his sixteenth birthday and ten years after, Seago exhibited with the Norwich Art Circle . The Circle had formed in 1885 but Alfred Munnings and Arnesby Brown were still contributing when Seago joined. Although Munnings took a personal interest in the young man’s work , and Arnesby Brown is said to have given him tuition , Seago is generally thought of a self-taught artist with influences ranging from East Anglian artists like Constable, Cotman and Crome to the Dutch Realists. From 1947 he lived on the Broads at the Dutch House, Ludham, and in the decades that followed he was to enjoy enormous success, with collectors queueing down Old Bond Street to make sure of buying a Seago at one of his annual exhibitions at the Colnaghi Gallery.
Despite his enormous popularity with the public, Seago did not achieve enduring critical success, probably because his instincts were derived from East Anglian tradition instead of the avant garde.
Mary Newcomb (1922-2008) was born in Harrow-on-the Hill but spent most of her painting life in East Anglia, including farmhouses at Needham, in South Norfolk, and Newton Flotman, ten miles south of Norwich . She exhibited at the Norfolk and Norwich Art Circle from 1951 to 1963, was a member of the Norwich Twenty Group, and was a visiting tutor at the School of Art in the 1980s. As someone trained in science, Mary Newcomb had a clear idea of how nature worked, yet as a self-taught artist she remained unbothered – perhaps deliberately so – by the traditional spatial concerns of setting down the countryside on canvas. Perspective, depth, recession seem to play little part in her paintings, which can be read as mood boards in which ideas float in a shallow picture plane. These poetical works were often enlivened by descriptive titles: e.g., ‘Lady defying advancing waves and hot driving sand (she is quite safe).’
Jeffery Camp (1923-2020) was born in Oulton Broad, south of the border, down Lowestoft way. In the 1950s he taught at the Norwich School of Art and it was during this period that he won a competition run by the Eastern Daily Press to paint a reredos above the altar of St Alban’s – a beautifully-detailed interwar church in the Norwich suburb of Lakenham.
It was in London that Camp made his reputation. In the 1960s he taught first at the Chelsea School of Art then at the Slade. In 1961 he had been elected a member of The London Group, which had been set up in 1913 by metropolitan artists such as Walter Sickert and Wyndham Lewis to ensure that contemporary art, of the kind not supported by the Royal Academy, would have a voice. In 1984 he became a Royal Academician .
In some ways comparable to the London Group (although not composed exclusively of artists), the Norfolk Contemporary Art Society was founded in 1956 to suggest contemporary art to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery that would counterbalance its fine collection of Norwich School painting. In 1959, an exhibition that included works by Lucian Freud and Jeffery Camp raised enough money for NCAS to purchase a painting by Camp and to loan it to the museum.
In the 1950s, Sheffield-born Derrick Greaves (b. 1927) achieved early fame as one of the four Kitchen Sink painters (along with Ed Middleditch, John Bratby and Jack Smith). In the post-war years their work focused on everyday lives. But by the time Greaves set up the Printmaking Department at the Norwich School of Art (1983-1991) Pop Art had made incursions and his own style had undergone a radical change: ‘I made attempts to form a pictorial language which would be easily accessible to all who cared to look’ . His paintings became highly stylised, involving abstracted outlines of objects often set in intense fields of colour. He still lives and works in rural Norfolk.
The enterprising Mandell’s Gallery of Elm Hill is holding an online exhibition of Derrick Greaves’ recent work. Click here for further details.
Edward Middleditch R.A. (1923-1987) – another member of the Kitchen Sink School – came to the Norwich School of Art as part-time Head of Fine Art (1964-1984) before becoming Keeper in charge of ‘Schools’ at the Royal Academy. After the early fascination with social realism his work, too, became more stylised, although he retained his love of flowers and landscape throughout.
Michael Andrews (1928-1995) was born in what would become known as Norwich’s Golden Triangle. He was born in 142 Glebe Road at a time when older residents could still remember the site as open fields belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral. His association with the Norwich School of Art began in the Sixth Form, when he attended Saturday morning painting classes held by Lesley Davenport.
In the early 1950s, Andrews was taught at the Slade School of Fine Art by the Principal, William Coldstream; later, he taught at the Slade himself. In 1976, RB Kitaj wrote about ‘The School of London’, conjuring up a loose group of ‘world class’ painters who were adhering to figurative art in the face of abstraction. Michael Andrews was one of this group, along with Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin and Francis Bacon.
Despite being included in a cohort that represented the human form in a largely figurative way, Andrews himself painted very few portraits . However, his painting showing him teaching his daughter to swim sold for over a million pounds in the 1980s and is one of the favourites hanging in the Tate Gallery.
In 1981 he returned to Norfolk to live at Saxlingham Nethergate, about 10 miles south of Norwich. Michael Andrews was a member of the Norwich Twenty Group.
In the second half of the C20, in an age of abstraction, life drawing was increasingly abandoned and Life Rooms closed down. To counteract this loss of essential skills the Head of Fine Art at the Norwich School of Art, Edward Middleditch, recruited the ‘Two Johns’, John Wonnacott (b.1940) and John Lessore (nephew of Walter Sickert), to develop the Life Room.
‘The Life Room (Norwich School of Art)’ © John Wonnacot (1977-1980). Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NWHCM : 1981.92. The plaster casts were still there when I attended life drawing classes in the mid-1980s.
Between 1978 and 1986, Wonnacott taught the traditional skills necessary for figurative painting: looking, measuring, seeing the relationships between objects, the negative shapes, looking again. Wonnacott’s own work is characterised by a wide-angle view.
Colin Self (b.1941), born in Rackheath and living in Norwich, is firmly rooted in East Anglia and can trace his Norfolk ancestors to the Domesday Book. He studied at the Norwich School of Art where he was encouraged by Michael Andrews, but it was after his time in London, at the Slade School of Fine Art, that he emerged as a major figure in the Pop Art movement [3, 11]. Pop Art took its cues from supposedly ‘low’ culture – movies, pop music, consumerism – but Colin Self’s early work was influenced by Cold War politics and thoughts about the nuclear threat. This work, which depicts a battery of Bloodhound missiles, was influenced by staying on a Norfolk farm near a US airbase .
‘The landscape in some ways is my visual script’ (Colin Self) .
As far back as 1885, ‘Schools of Art turned out droves of talented academic female artists’ who, at least in Norwich, were winning most of the major annual prizes : women were not to head those departments until a century later. In 1985 (to 89), Brazilian-born Ana Maria Pacheco (b.1943) succeeded Edward Middleditch as Head of Fine Art at the Norwich School of Art, becoming the first female to hold such a post in the UK.
Pacheco, also a printmaker and painter, is primarily known for her sculptures. These involve slightly larger than life-sized figures carved from single lime trees. Two main themes in these dark and thought-provoking works are the imposition of power and the tension between the Old World of her birth and the New.
Gerard Stamp (b. 1955), who lives in Norfolk, was educated at Norwich School where he was taught painting in a room above the cathedral’s Ethelbert Gate .
Gerard Stamp does paint landscape though he is better known for his ethereal watercolours of Norfolk’s medieval churches. His experience as an illustrator and designer is part of his painting but it never dominates; the overriding impression is of the kind of mystery and stillness that Cotman imparted to his own unpeopled churches. To achieve this, Stamp makes a pencil drawing that he completes in watercolour as a first stage. ‘Then (when it’s bone dry) I wash over the entire painting with copious quantities of water, sometimes with a sponge. That removes pretty well everything (including pencil) but leaves the stained paper (which looks a bit like an image seen through tracing paper). Then I rework the entire painting again.’
Cotman thought that St Michael Coslany in Norwich-over-the-Water provided one of the nation’s finest examples of flintwork . Here, Stamp captures the beautiful tracery flushwork that echoes the lacework of stone in the upper part of the window.
The influence of the Norwich School of Painters continued to be felt throughout the C19 but, by the end of that century, Impressionism had arrived and local art became open to the many art movements that followed. As we have read, it wasn’t until the latter part of the C20 that women occupied positions of influence in the art schools and from 2001-2008 Susan Tuckett became Principal of the Norwich School of Art and Design. Of course, many of Norwich’s female artists work outside any formal or academic grouping. Here are two personal favourites:
Zheni Maslarova Warner, born in Bulgaria in 1954, has lived in Norwich since obtaining her degree in Fine Art in her early twenties. At the Norwich School of Art she studied under Ed Middleditch and Derrick Greaves and later taught life drawing at the NSA. Since then she has migrated from the figurative to the abstract, producing canvases reminiscent of the colourist Howard Hodgkin. The titles of her works seem playful rather than descriptive for Warner is motivated largely by colour, building up depth and luminosity with rich layers of paint. After a viewer at a gallery looked at the back of one painting, convinced it was lit from behind, Warner started to use light boxes and neon, embroidering her paintings with illuminated wire as a further play with colour and light.
Jayne Ivimey’s (b.1946) artistic connection with Norwich runs deep: her great-great-great-grandfather was one-time President of the Norwich Society of Artists, James Stark. Ivimey went to the High School, studied art at The Sorbonne before returning to Norwich for her Master’s degree at Norwich University College of the Arts (one of the Art School’s various incarnations). Like her friend Mary Newcomb, she is fiercely observant of the natural world. She seems as much an investigator as artist with works including: a study of the effect on salt meeting fresh water; the Beaufort wind scale; coastal erosion; and the grim drop in the number of bird species.
The Red List makes shocking reading for it numbers the endangered bird species that have declined by at least 50% in the last twenty five years. In response, Jayne Ivimey visited Norwich Castle Museum and other collections to see the preserved bird ‘skins.’ These were then sculpted in stoneware clay that was fired to matt bisque, which – in contrast to shiny ceramic – confronts us with the ghostliness of things we are about to lose. In her words, ‘a material that remains a material rather than an art form.‘
This is a personal look at art in Norwich and I am only too aware of the many fine artists I’ve omitted. Apologies.
©Reggie Unthank 2020
- Ian Collins (1990). A Broad Canvas. Pub: Parke Sutton Publishing, Norwich.
- Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton and John Stevens (1982). A Happy Eye: A School of Art in Norwich 1845-1982. Pub: Jarrold & Sons Ltd., Norwich.
- Adrienne May and Brian Watts (2003) Wide Skies Pub: Halsgrove.
- Ian Collins (2010). Watermarks: Art in East Anglia. Pub: Black Dog Books, Norwich.
Thanks. For discussions, I am grateful to Keith Roberts, John Allen, Gerard Stamp and Jayne Ivimey. Ian Collins’ books were invaluable. The Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery was the source of many paintings in this post; explore their treasures on http://norfolkmuseumscollections.org/#!/home.