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The White Spire
( Originally Published 1913 )
In a whole class of oil-paintings you see it, the white spire so slim and graceful and tall; standing up out of a mass of buildings ; standing up out of a mass of trees ; or deep in the distance, standing up into the sky. Sometimes it is very tall and very slim indeed; sometimes it is drawn more accurately, and shows less thin and more broad at the tower-base, even when the tower-base is hidden. But it is always the white spire of Norwich Cathedral, and when you see it in an old oil-painting or water-colour drawing, you rightly say, " The Norwich School."
The Norwich School.-" What is meant by the Norwich School? " asks Mr. Laurence Binyon. " The word 'school,'" he goes on to answer, " has been used in several senses. It meant, first of all, the body of painters produced by a certain country, a certain province, or a certain town. In the earliest times of painting there were few migrations, and a painter's work generally savoured of the soil where he was born and bred. It is in that sense that we talk of the Norwich School. Impute it to what cause we will, there is no doubt that the Eastern counties have been far more prolific of painters than the rest of England. The average excellence and number of their artists remind one of Holland, which in actual physical features they of course so much resemble. The Norwich School had no common bond of theory; it is their Norwich birth and training which constitute them a distinct body. And if we are to group painters into schools at all, this is the most reasonable principle to build on."
The Men of the School.-So much for what is meant by the " Norwich School." The chief members of it were John Crome (" Old Crome "), James Stark, John Sell Cotman, George Vincent, and Henry Bright. In order of fame and present importance the names run, Creme, Cotman, Stark, Vincent, Bright. They were not all quite contemporaneous ; here are their dates: Crome, 1769-1821; ; Cotman, 1782-1830; ; Stark, 1794-1859; : Vincent, 1796-1830 ; Bright, 1814-1873. Notice how curiously the precedence accords with their dates of birth. The last of them, Bright, is only forty years dead, and his fame has not had time to ripen. But I think his work will one day be hailed as marvellous, though a fine small landscape by him was on sale in King Street, St. James's Square, for only L25 recently. There were minor members of the school, but I have not space enough to deal with them.
The Marks of the School.-The white spire is one of the sign-manuals of the school. Norfolk artists, they loved Norwich and its fine, tall, white-shining spire, seen from every distance in the wide, flat shire. But that is not the only mark of the school. Crome founded the school and the others studied in it, so what was Crome's own style ? It is worth while knowing, for Norwich School pictures are very valuable already, and any that a collector can secure will grow in interest and value year by year.
What was Crome's style ? " Beautiful rural pieces, with trees that might well tempt the little birds to perch upon them," George Borrow, who knew him, wrote, in 1851. Crome was our supremest painter of trees, it is true, but that is not all. Go to the National Gallery and study his " Mousehold Heath." Mr. Martin Hardie has well described it : " A bare, open slope, rising against a range of sunlit clouds, relieved in the foreground only by a single figure and some weeds, yet the whole is full of quiet majesty, the glory of the setting sun, and the solemn hush of eventide. Creme painted it ` for air and space,' he said, and brilliantly was his purpose achieved. Through all his work there is this same harmonious symphony of gold and brown, of rich warm colouring, that makes his pictures an epitome of English autumn." That is it, exactly ; Norwich School pictures are usually landscapes or seascapes, and when they are landscapes they are autumnal in colouring. Golden brown is the prevailing tone. And there is " an accent of strength with simplicity, of richness with restraint," which secures that Norwich School pictures, though again and again representing the white spire or some other well-known feature of the Norfolk landscape, are never monotonous to behold or commonplace in appearance.
Other Features of the School.-Cotman was greatest in seascape, perhaps, and mainly a water-colourist. Stark was a forest painter, fond of wonderful greensblue-greens-in his shadows and distances. Vincent was a marine-subject painter, in the main. Bright's landscapes have naturally a more modern note than those of his forerunners in the school. But with all of them, Crome's pictures in particular, the sky was a chief feature. Wonderful rolling clouds, light on them here, shadow on them there-the white spire standing up in the shadow and golden (sometimes) with rays of the lower light. The clouds were painted in pigment laid on thickly, as if the palette-knife more than the brush had been used. Crome and Cotman etched, as well as painted ; Cotman and Bright did wonderful landscape sketches.in pastel.
Collecting the Norwich School Pictures.-For a View of Norwich (the white spire again) a picture by Crome, 13 1/2 inches by 18 inches, 300 guineas were paid at the sale of the Huth collection. At the same sale a large " Crome " fetched 3,000 guineas, a record price. For " The Valley of the Yare," by Stark 17 1/2 x 30 1/2, 120 guineas were paid, in 1905. For " Fruit Boats on the Lagoons, Venice " (9 x 14), by Cotman, 95 guineas were paid, in 1905. There are still small pictures of the Norwich School to be found and picked up cheaply. I bought a sketch by a minor artist, Williams, for a shilling the other day; it showed the white spire, and, at the back of it, on the same board, was a fine oil-sketch of Norfolk landscape, unfinished. Two clever minor artists of the school, the Pauls, some forty years ago expended their talent in copying and then imitating pictures of the school ; these counterfeits have all the characteristics of the school rudely rendered ; they were painted quickly, because they were painted by the score. They used to be taken from provincial town to provincial town, and be sold by auction. Do not be taken in by one of these, though some of them are worth acquiring.