Eyre Crowe’s legacy

Eyre Crowe, in the words of his obituarist in The Times (13 December 1910), ‘had long outlived any artistic celebrity that he may once have had’. Few of the newspaper’s readers would have been old enough to remember how his De Foe in the Pillory had been sold for £400 on the first day of exhibition in 1862, how the periodicals had called him ‘the coming man’, or how back in those days he was quite a swell, socialising with other young artists whose names, it would turn out, were to become better known than his own.

Despite the longevity of Crowe’s career, he never made enough money to live by art alone. Nevertheless, he was one of a very small number of artists (in comparison with the thousands who exhibited pictures every year) elected to the Royal Academy. He was elected as an Associate in 1876, after a number of years of critical success, but never attained the rank of full Academician. His career began slipping away soon afterwards, largely due to his advancing age and the changes in the art world. Yet he continued to produce artworks year after year, maintaining his name in the public domain, but in the process associating it with declining quality and the maintenance of a painting style which had had its day.

The general disinterest, even disgust, with which Victorian painting was regarded by the next generation, sunk Crowe’s reputation along with that of his contemporaries. However, since the 1950s, his contribution has been reappraised. The pictures which interest modern scholars are not the scenes from history, or from popular novels, or showing moments with literary connections, for which he was most celebrated at the time; rather, Crowe’s modern scenes of daily life for ordinary people seem to capture a reality which his historical themes never could. Crowe changed his artistic style rather abruptly in the late 1860s and early 1870s, rejecting history painting (for a while), and producing a number of the earliest ‘social realist’ works. He was criticised at the time for choosing unappealing subjects and presenting them with a clarity which could as easily be achieved by a photographer – even his friend, Frederic George Stephens, the art critic for the Athenaeum magazine, wrote in connection with his 1874 work The Dinner Hour, ‘we think it was a pity Mr. Crowe wasted his time on such unattractive materials’ – but the unsentimental, simple, lifelike style of these paintings is now seen as Crowe’s triumph.

The details of ironworking depicted in Shinglers (1869) caused interest in 2003 when the picture was offered for sale (as The Foundry) as part of the Forbes collection. It was donated by the purchaser to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where it hangs as an illustration of a bygone way of working. Another realist painting, A Sheep-Shearing Match (1875), was enthusiastically accepted by the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, in 2002. Crowe’s slavery pictures regularly illustrate books and lecture series in the United States; while his most famous British painting, The Dinner Hour, is, according to two modern critics, ‘the ancestor of the Northern townscapes of L.S. Lowry’ and ‘a unique picture in Victorian art’ (Julian Treuherz, Hard Times: Social Realism in Victorian Art; and Christopher Wood, Victorian Panorama: Paintings of Victorian Life).

Crowe’s other sphere of achievement was his writing. He produced some art criticism and articles on his American experiences in the 1850s, in order to earn money, and doubtless could have made a career out of writing had he not decided to concentrate on art. The two books which he wrote in the 1890s, With Thackeray in America, and Thackeray’s Haunts and Homes, were ‘pot-boilers’, in that they cashed in on Crowe’s connection with the famous novelist, but for that reason they are still known and enjoyed by Thackeray afficionados. However, they have an interest beyond Thackeray in describing a world which had already vanished by the time Crowe published his reminiscences.

The image of the struggling artist is a hackneyed one, but usually used to describe the early years of one who later triumphed over adversity and enjoyed success and adulation. Crowe’s story, like the untold story of most artists, ran the other way round. He was full of promise, and often appeared to be on the brink of a real breakthrough, but ultimately failed to achieve the success he, and others, felt he deserved. His life and career in many ways echo the story of mid-to-late Victorian Academic art in Britain: he began painting when artists were not quite considered to be gentlemen, but ended his life as a respectable pillar of the establishment; he benefited from the huge public interest in art in the 1850s and 1860s, but shared in the general financial crisis of the art world from the 1880s onwards; and his diaries reveal that he was bemused, outraged and tolerant in equal measure of the ‘progress’ in art which helped to sweep away the all-encompassing power of the Royal Academy by the early 20th century.

Although a delineation of Crowe’s career is a useful counterpoint to most artists’ biographies, which concentrate on those few individuals who have achieved the unusual experience of popular, critical and monetary success, he was not merely an example of his time. He was an individual in more ways than one, an ‘artist of genius which will not condescend to please’ (Art Journal, 1869, p.164), who chose unusual subjects and painted them in novel ways; a tactic which earned praise and bafflement in equal measure. His stubborn streak prevented him from pursuing the other avenues which were open to him at various times, but also prevented him from abandoning his career at points at which other artists would have given up. He continued painting historic and literary scenes into his eighties because he liked doing so; he never considered ceasing to paint, despite the critical maulings he was getting and the disinterest of the public. Art was crucial to the way in which Crowe regarded himself, and he took it seriously.

(c) Kathryn Summerwill 2009

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