Norfolk’s Great Art Pioneers
Over 200 years ago a group of Norfolk painters made their unique mark on the art world
Over 200 years ago a group of Norfolk painters made their mark on the art world. Dominic finds out about the Norwich Society of Artists, aka the Norwich School
One of the best-known – at least in East Anglia – groups of local artists in the early 19th century emerged in Norwich, with the creation of The Norwich Society of Artists, or the Norwich School, in 1803.
Renowned painters John Crome and Robert Ladbrooke were the society founders and they were joined by a raft of artists, amateur and professionals, including the sons of Crome and Cotman, Eloise Harriet Stannard, Joseph Stannard, James Stark and George Vincent.
The primary aim was to be a self-help discussion group for ‘an Enquiry into the Rise, Progress and present state of painting – with a view to point out the best methods of study to attain to Greater Perfection.’
Dr Giorgia Bottinelli, curator of historic art at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, is an expert on
the Norwich School.
Why was the school so important, and how influential was it?
The Norwich Society of Artists, now known as the ‘Norwich School’, was founded in 1803 and was the first regional society of artists in Great Britain. The term ‘Norwich School’ refers to three generations of 19th-century painters who, at some time during their careers, lived and worked in Norwich and Norfolk. John Crome himself referred to ‘our Norwich School’ as early as 1816.
The Norwich School artists were linked by friendship, family and master-pupil relationships rooted in their city and county and their paintings reflect the influences they had on each other. Although their subject matter was diverse, including still life, portraiture and architecture, they are considered a school of landscape painters, very much associated with Norfolk.
Their work gives a rich and unique picture of the county: busy river scenes, heathland, fields, agriculture, cottages, wooded lanes, cityscapes, churches and the coastline all combine to record and promote a sense of place that reaches beyond the particular views they paint. Artists today continue to find inspiration in the Norfolk countryside with its broad skies and wide-open landscapes.
Just as Thomas Gainsborough is today associated with Suffolk and John Constable is linked with Dedham Vale so the Norwich
School artists are known worldwide for their depiction of Norwich and Norfolk. They exhibited throughout Britain and soon became widely regarded throughout the country.
Their naturalistic landscapes were a departure from the traditional idea of painting landscapes as imaginary or idealised scenes. Their views of Norfolk’s windmills and wide countryside quickly came to be seen as quintessential portrayals of the region, and this idea of the Norfolk landscape still persists today.
Do you think it has the recognition it deserves?
The fortunes of the Norwich School artists have waxed and waned over the decades. The work of the pre-eminent Norwich School artists was much imitated which has led to inferior work being erroneously associated with the Norwich School.
A great deal of Norwich School paintings were made, exhibited and collected in Norfolk; an unintended consequence of this is that there perhaps aren’t as many examples to be experienced by the public in national institutions.
Yet, almost 100 years ago the Keeper of the National Gallery, Charles Collins Baker, wrote about Crome as one of ‘our three greatest masters’ – the other two being Constable and Turner – whose work demonstrated ‘that landscape painting … is peculiarly the business of the English genius.’
Even before then, as early as 1897, the British Museum curator Laurence Binyon wrote that Crome and John Sell Cotman were ‘the glories of the Norwich School … it is right to recognise that Crome and Cotman are far more than local glories: Norwich claims them by right of birth, England by right of genius.’
‘Their work gives a rich and unique picture of the county’