The two most influential aesthetic doctrines spanning the turn of the nineteenth century were picturesque theory and associationism. The development of the picturesque is associated primarily with the English artist, writer and Anglican cleric William Gilpin, whose earliest writings on the subject date from 1768 and who published a series of British tours in search of picturesque landscape from the 1780s. Gilpin was concerned with those varieties of countryside that would make an agreeable picture, emphasising formal and compositional attributes, such as ruggedness, broken forms and variety, when making an aesthetic appraisal of it.1 His advocacy of this new aesthetic category, designed to mediate the existing distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, proved highly influential. Associationism derived ultimately from ideas propounded by the English philosopher John Locke and then further developed by other thinkers in the eighteenth century, receiving one of its best-known articulations in Archibald Alison’s Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790). Alison attempted to ground aesthetic responses not in formal features but in cognition, explaining reactions to landscape, for example, as the projection of habitual responses to remembered stimuli of pleasure and pain. The significance of Alison’s approach was that it helped to position landscape painting as a site for the production of meaning, as opposed to being merely the imitation of something found in nature.

With respect to the heathland landscapes painted by artists of the Norwich school, such as John Crome’s Mousehold Heath, Norwich c.1818–20, there is an interesting contrast between these two positions on landscape (fig.1). Adherents of Gilpin’s aesthetic could find little of interest to say about such terrain, which seemed to be entirely without picturesque merit. As Gilpin noted of his approach to Norwich, it was not until the city was spread out before him that he had any pleasurable sights to record. Before he reached it,

the heaths soon prevail; and become both foreground, and distance without any variety. The road leads between the bare mounds of new-inclosed commons; nor does the eye find any thing to rest on, till within a mile of Norwich.2

John Crome Mousehold Heath c.1818–20

John Crome
Mousehold Heath, Norwich c.1818–20
Tate N00689
Photo © Tate

However, those who were disposed to pay attention to Alison’s text could draw on the idea of a particular landscape as a repository of stimuli to awaken ideas by association. In the case of Mousehold Heath its emotional appeal was of great relevance to its understanding.3 As the art historian Trevor Fawcett has pointed out, it is surely significant that the application of associationism to landscape painting was made apparent in a lecture by the Norwich writer William Taylor, which he delivered to the Norwich Philosophical Society in 1814:

A work of art, a painted prospect, delights, either (1) directly, as an imitation of nature; or (2) indirectly, as a nucleus of association. One part of the pleasure is derived from the sensations excited by inspection; one part of the pleasure is derived from the ideas excited by association. In proportion as these sensations, or as these ideas, are vivid and interesting, is the effect and merit of the work.4

In the later part of his argument Taylor averred that for him the associations of man’s achievement outweighed associations derived from the natural world, and he therefore preferred to contemplate cityscapes. Nevertheless, he was aware that others disagreed with that inclination and he quoted his Norwich contemporary, Frank Sayers, who championed the associations derived from the contemplation of nature in his disquisition ‘Of Beauty’:

The beauty of landscape arises from the ideas of peace, of health, of rural happiness, of pleasing solitude, of simple manners, of classical imagery, connected with the groups of trees, with the lawns and fields, and water, which enter into their composition.5

Crome was a member of the Norwich Philosophical Society and it is very likely that he heard Taylor deliver his discourse. It is equally conceivable that he had also read Sayers’s essay. Nevertheless, while both Taylor and Sayers were eloquent defenders of the idea of association, their artistic taste was conventional. If Crome took from either of them an endorsement of the possibility of a painting rousing emotions by association he developed that possibility beyond anything Taylor or Sayers envisaged.

Crome’s thoughts and feelings about nature and about painting are difficult to establish. He did not leave behind any kind of landscape treatise, nor does he seem to have been a regular letter writer, for only five letters survive. Fortunately, however, one of these letters reveals a great deal about his approach to painting. It was written to his pupil James Stark in January 1816, and as it is the closest we are likely to come to a first-hand account of Crome’s aesthetic principles, his remarks on painting are worth quoting at length:

In your letter you wished me to give you my opinion of your picture. I should have liked it better if you had made it more of a whole, that is, the Trees stronger, the sky running from them in shadow up to the opposite corner, That would have produced what I think it wanted, and have made it much less a too picture effect. I think I hear you say this fellow is very vain and that nothing is right that does not suit his eye. But be assured what I have said I thought on first sight, it strengthened me in that opinion every time I looked at it. Honesty my Boy. So much for what it wanted. But how pleased I was to see so much improvement in the figures. So unlike our Norwich School – I might say they are good. Your boat was too small for them (you see I am at it again). But to return the water pleases me, and I think it would not want much alteration in the sky. I cannot let your sky go off without some observation. I think the character of your clouds too affected that is, too much of some of our Mordern [sic] Painters who mistake some of our great masters because they sometimes put in some of those round characters of clouds; they must do the same. But if you look at any of their skys [sic] they either assist in the composition or make some figure in the picture (nay sometimes play the first fiddle). I have seen this in Wovermans [sic] and many others I could mention. Breath must be attended to, if you paint but a muscle give it breath. Your doing the same in the sky 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 must always please a good eye, and keep the attention of the spectator and give delight to everyone. Trifles in nature must be overlooked that we may have our feelings raised by seeing the whole picture at a glance, and not knowing how or why we are so charmed.6

From these remarks a number of themes can be picked out. Firstly, that the aim of landscape painting is to move the spectator: ‘that we may have our feelings raised … not knowing how or why we are so charmed.’ Crome is therefore insistent on the need for a picture to produce an impact that can be discerned immediately and that is carried through consistently across the composition: ‘what I have said I thought on first sight’; ‘seeing the whole picture at a glance’; ‘I should have liked it better if you had made it more of a whole’; ‘forming one grand plan of light and shade’. In consequence of this, Crome regards detail as always secondary to breadth: ‘Trifles in nature must be overlooked’; ‘Breath must be attended to, if you paint but a muscle give it breath’. (‘Breath’ was used for ‘breadth’ in the colloquial dialect of Norfolk at the time.) Finally, mannerism is to be avoided – ‘I think the character of your clouds too affected’ – if only because on closer inspection it will be seen that what look like artistic precedents for a particular approach are, in fact, bound to particular circumstances – ‘they either assist in the composition or make some figure in the picture’ – that may not be appropriate for other uses. This wariness about artificial modes of depiction helps explain the most ambiguous phrase in the letter: ‘… have made it much less a too picture effect’. This could be read as ‘a two-picture effect’ which would imply that Crome believed Stark’s composition lacked unity, but it is more likely that he intended something closer to ‘a too picturesque [or picture-like] effect’, implying a somewhat meretricious way of painting, over-reliant on existing pictorial formulae rather than the study of nature.

Critical reactions to Crome’s paintings provide useful evidence of how his work appeared to his contemporaries. At the time of his death his achievement was well enough recognised for him to receive obituary notices outside Norwich, as for example those which appeared in the Magazine of Fine Arts and the New Monthly Magazine.7 Before that time, however, and especially at the moment of his works’ first appearance in London exhibitions, it is evident that Crome’s paintings were sufficiently distinctive from many of his contemporaries’ landscapes to be singled out for discussion. Much of this circled around the issue of finish and the extent to which a relatively broad handling was acceptable to established taste.

One of the most striking pieces of evidence about the appearance of Crome’s landscapes comes from the diary kept by the landscape painter and Royal Academician Joseph Farington. Crome had two pictures in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1806, both titled A Landscape. One of them was correctly attributed to him as ‘Crome’, but the name ‘Croom’ was used for the other and for his name and address in the catalogue, a mistake presumably stemming from the way Crome pronounced his own name when his details were being recorded. Farington’s first note of Crome’s quality comes from a conversation he had with a fellow artist: ‘Daniell I called on. He had been to the Exhibition. He sd. an Artist from Norwich, Crome, excelled Reynolds in His own way.’8 It is presumably Samuel William Reynolds whom Daniell had in mind here. Although best known today as a mezzotint engraver, Reynolds also exhibited small landscapes in oil, whose vigorous handling and use of chiaroscuro were seen by some as Rembrandtesque in their effect. Such works might well have appeared to share similarities with Crome’s work of this time. Farington paid his own visit to the exhibition four days later, on 5 May, and recorded the comments of the art critics John Taylor (the Sun) and James Boaden (the Oracle) as they took stock of what they perceived to be new and unwelcome trends in landscape painting:

The exhibition I went to … There I met J. Taylor and Boaden. The latter after looking round the room said he had never seen so many bad pictures. On looking at Turner’s ‘Waterfall at Schaffhausen’, He said ‘That is Madness’, – ‘He is a Madman’ in which Taylor joined. – In the Anti-room, looking at an Upright Landscape by Croom, Boaden said, ‘There is another in the new manner, – it is the scribbling of painting – so much of the trowel, – so mortary, – surely a little more finishing might be borne?’9

Although these reactions seem extreme, especially when considering the refinement of some of Crome’s later paintings, such as Mousehold Heath, it is worthwhile dwelling a little on what occasioned them. The development of naturalism in the early nineteenth century saw a number of landscape artists begin to adopt a style of painting where the facture was more prominent than academic precepts had traditionally recommended.10 Although all critics acknowledged that certain old masters had developed a bravura way of painting, such that observation of the handling in their pictures was part of the aesthetic pleasure derived from their contemplation, this freedom of execution was no licence to exaggerate breadth. A picture whose handling was too obtrusive ran the risk of offending polite taste or even becoming incoherent or unintelligible at the level of detail.11 It also seemed to suggest a lack of respect for the craftsmanship associated with works of fine art. Broad handling was quite acceptable in preparatory sketches, but finished works were expected to show a more considered approach, with the handling subservient to the realisation of the subject. For example, William Gilpin, while noting that ‘a free, bold touch is itself pleasing’, went on to argue that it was easier to accomplish than a smooth finish and, furthermore, could be the excuse for poor work:

A stroke may be called free, when there is no appearance of constraint. It is bold, when a part is given of the whole, which it cannot fail of suggesting. This is the laconism of genius. But sometimes it may be free, and yet suggest only how easily a line, which means nothing, may be executed. Such a stroke is not bold, but impudent.12

His next remarks extend this observation and they go to the heart of Boaden’s and Taylor’s dismay when examining the paintings by Crome and Turner, which, in their eyes, might be considered guilty of both of the weaknesses Gilpin here identifies:

If … you endeavour to draw … the spectator from the subject to the mode of executing it, your affectation disgusts. At the same time, if some care and pains be not bestowed on the execution, your slovenliness disgusts, as much … the artist who deals in lines, surfaces, and colours, which are an immediate address to the eye, conceives the very truth itself concerned in his mode of representing it.13

With particular respect to the tradition of English landscape, a handful of artists working towards the close of the eighteenth century were deemed by some commentators to have overstepped the mark, painting too broadly for comfort in their final works, notably William Hodges, Richard Wilson and Thomas Gainsborough. Writing in 1809, the critic of the Quarterly Review noted of Gainsborough’s later landscapes,

He does not seem to have been aware, that many forms might pass, and even captivate, in drawings on a small scale, where an agreeable flow of lines, and breadth of effect are principally sought, which would become uncouth and unsatisfactory, when dilated on canvas and forced on the eye with all the vigour that light and shade, and richness of colour, could lend them.14

If Crome’s work had appeared initially to be part of this tendency towards an uncouth and unsatisfactory style of painting, changes in taste together with his own development as an artist saw his paintings become more easily reconciled with critical expectations. But it is also true, as his letter to James Stark vividly demonstrates, that Crome insisted on breadth as a desirable quality in landscape painting. Niggling ‘trifles in nature’ were to be sacrificed to breadth: ‘Breath must be attended to, if you paint but a muscle give it breath.’ As late as 1820 Crome could still be criticised for lack of finish or insufficient labour, but by his death many critics appreciated how he combined powerful effects with well-considered compositions. He was certainly a much more careful painter than his detractors believed. Close examination of his paintings reveals that Crome’s technical refinement was of a high order and his surfaces were, in fact, widely varied in their handling.15 This can be seen clearly in Mousehold Heath, where the wild flowers in the left foreground are painted with particular care, especially when compared with the broadly painted and therefore much more abbreviated marks on the right-hand side of the composition, standing in for the plant-cover sprawling over the sandy bank (fig.1). Although the conservator Rachel Scott has suggested that the current sketchy appearance of the right-hand foreground may have become exaggerated as a result of the fading or loss of glazes over time, even when first painted the plants shown here would not have received the same attention to form and botanical differentiation as is seen in the heathland flowers on the left.16 Those flowers have a sharpness of definition that makes empirical sense insofar as they occupy the patch of ground nearest to the spectator and are recognisable as characteristic heathland plants: common poppy, mugwort, nodding thistle, lesser burdock and curly dock.17 But this relatively close focus in the foreground also works to make even more emphatic the way the composition conjures up a sense of limitless space beyond it, with the landscape unfolding under an enormous sky. As this example shows, Crome’s mature works show an understanding of breadth that is best considered as a concern with the unity and impact of the composition as a whole, as opposed to the handling of individual features. It is arguable in this regard that his great achievement as an artist was to develop a highly sophisticated manner of painting, not for its own sake as a sign of virtuosity, but as a means of transcending the ‘trifles’ he deprecated so as to display instead the essence of a place and the fugitive effects of light, space and atmosphere that animated it. In Mousehold Heath breadth allows Crome to express the vitality of this landscape.

Crome exhibited his paintings in London relatively infrequently. At the Royal Academy he showed on eight occasions (every year from 1806–12, except 1810, and then again in 1816 and 1818), exhibiting thirteen paintings in all. At the British Institution he exhibited his work on only three occasions in his lifetime (1818, 1820 and 1821), showing a total of five paintings overall. Given the unfamiliarity of Norfolk scenes to a London audience, it is scarcely surprising that a high number of Crome’s titles in his London showings were non-specific, carrying more generic titles than those paintings he exhibited at the Norwich Society of Artists, where his local audience could have been expected to recognise the places he had painted. Of the thirteen works he showed at the Royal Academy, only six had even the most perfunctory topographical information in their titles, the others being variously described merely as Landscape or A Sketch from Nature. At the British Institution, however, all of his five exhibits except the one shown in 1818 (A Blacksmith’s Traverse) had some reference to the local area in their titles. As well as his growing confidence as a painter, it may be that the success of the Norwich Society of Artists encouraged Crome to introduce at least a modicum of geographical specificity to his titles in the last five years of his exhibiting record.

Unfortunately, there are too few critical reactions to Crome’s painting style to ascertain precisely how his work was received throughout his career, whether in Norwich or in London. However, it is clear that his commitment to the Norwich Society of Artists and his relatively infrequent exhibition in London meant that his sales and critical estimation were largely centred on Norwich and Norfolk. That said, his success in developing a sequence of exhibitions at Norwich led to some account of them appearing in journals with national coverage. The review of the 1809 Norwich Society of Artists exhibition that appeared in Le Beau Monde and Monthly Register was one of them. The critic was not entirely hostile to Crome’s work and found much to praise in some of his smaller pictures, but others were described as affected with a sickly colouration, some being too bold, others looking unfinished and chaotic.18

The reviews Crome received from Norwich newspapers were more measured, as might be expected, and those that appeared in the same period that Mousehold Heath was completed are of particular interest. In the review of the 1818 exhibition of the Norwich Society of Artists he was praised for his ‘peculiar talent of giving interest to local scenery by striking effects of sky and atmosphere’. One picture was described in terms that recapitulate Crome’s advice to James Stark about avoiding trifles: ‘Beautifully finished with strong contrast of chiaro-scuro – a fine surface without heaviness, and spangly, spirited execution without fritter or littleness.’19 The review for 1820, however, was more critical. His lack of finish was again singled out as a problem, making at least one of his pictures, his undated The Fish-Market, Boulogne (fig.2), too sketch-like for the reviewer’s taste. Praise for two other landscapes was tinged with the same concern about finish in his other works: ‘Mr Crome presents for inspection two pictures, in his usual free and unconstrained manner, and with more than the degree of labour which he ordinarily finds time to bestow on his works.’20

John Crome, The Fishmarket, Boulogne undated

John Crome
The Fishmarket, Boulogne undated
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Norwich
© Norfolk Museums Service 

Crome’s decision to send a Heath Scene to the British Institution in 1821 allows us to gauge the reactions of London critics not only to one of his final paintings but also to a specific location that was not familiar to them. With regard to his artistic merits the critics were broadly united in praising him, especially insofar as he had taken such a lowly subject and raised it to the dignity of art. The Sun’s critic, for example, commented on Crome’s growing confidence and ambition: ‘this artist’s style is calculated to produce very powerful effects on a larger scale than we have yet seen him attempt.’21 The critic of the London Magazine started the review of the paintings in that year’s exhibition by quoting, with amendments, Henry Fuseli’s well-known diatribe against modern landscape painting, given in his lectures as Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy, where Fuseli had compared the imaginative landscape painting of the old masters with the modern interest in topography, ‘the tame delineation of a given spot … what is commonly called Views.’22 For the reviewer, Crome’s landscape is decisively separated from such a verdict:

Mr. I. Crome [sic] has an enviable ‘Heath Scene near Norwich’, in which the student may see how much a subtle observation of the elements, in their wild moods, does for a most uninteresting flat. This view is not at all like a mere topographical delineation. It assumes a much higher station.23

The Examiner had already noticed Crome’s works, if only in passing, in previous reviews, and included him as one of those who had exhibited ‘beautiful landscapes’ at the British Institution in 1820.24 The same newspaper, in reviewing the British Institution’s 1821 exhibition, was moved to single out Crome and his erstwhile pupil James Stark for their naturalism, comparing Stark with Hobbema and Crome with Rembrandt. Crome’s advice to Stark, quoted earlier, is vindicated in the praise both artists received:

The reader who has not seen Mr. J. CROME’S Heath Scene, No. 40, will form no inadequate idea of it, if, recollecting the solemn chiaroscuro of REMBRANDT, he conceives the stinted vegetation of a flat and extensive heath, painted with smart touches to such an effect … Mr STARKE [sic] renders the limited views of trees, &c, of which his landscapes generally consist, peculiarly pleasing by dint of close similarity with their originals … He evidently has got by heart the express and almost infinite touchiness of HOBBIMA [sic] … and avoids the damning character of a plagiarist, by making his acquired knowledge an offering to English nature. To this Artist and the Messrs. Crome the Gallery is much indebted, and from their talents the painters of Norwich have obtained a very increased éclat.25

Remarks such as these indicate that by the early 1820s Crome’s reputation was rising and his achievement was beginning to receive its proper recognition.26 Crome was already well known in Norwich as the co-founder of the Norwich Society of Artists, a regular contributor to its exhibitions and a significant teacher of younger painters. Now his attainment in the development of landscape painting was being recognised by critics based in London. He was poised, therefore, to have his work considered with increasing respect. Ironically, within weeks of these favourable notices appearing, Crome succumbed to a sudden illness, and died on 22 April 1821, aged only fifty-two.

Crome’s reputation grew steadily after his death. In 1868, on the centenary of his birth, a plaque was erected in the church where he is buried (Saint George Colegate, Norwich) in which he is described as ‘one of England’s greatest landscape painters’. The decision to buy Mousehold Heath for the national collection in 1863 was prompted by a similar judgement.