Eyre Crowe built on his work from the 1850s during the following decade, but with vast improvements, so much so that by 1865 he was, according to an Art Journal reviewer, being talked about as a ‘coming man’ and future Royal Academician. His paintings continued to be predominantly on historical or literary themes (Competitive Examination (1866) and Shinglers (1869) being the principal exceptions), using a genre style comprising a definable incident, truthful facial expressions and period details. Although Crowe had been painting similar pictures since the 1840s, he found himself in this period as part of a group of artists whose works of ‘historical incident’ began to capture the imagination of critics and public alike. He was an honorary member of the St John’s Wood Clique, the members of which, from 1863, were often mentioned in the same breath by reviewers, and praised for their earnestness, care and historical accuracy.
The 1850s and 1860s were notable in Britain for the rise of picture-purchasing merchants and industrialists, who preferred smaller-sized works by contemporary artists, which they could hang in their homes, to the large Old Masters which had formerly commanded the highest prices. The Royal Academy exhibition was the premier showcase of contemporary British art, and also its most important market-place, as dealers increasingly took over from private patrons as the purchasers of paintings. At least one of Crowe’s paintings was accepted at the Royal Academy exhibition every year in the 1860s (as an ‘Outsider’, or a non-member of the Academy, he had no automatic right of inclusion but had to submit his paintings anonymously to a competitive process), and as can be seen below, the broad view of the critics was that his technique was improving every year. He was also a founder exhibitor at the annual exhibition of cabinet oil paintings at the Dudley Gallery in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, which opened for the first time in 1867, along with the other members of the St John’s Wood Clique and a host of other up-and-coming artists not yet accepted as Associates or Members of the Royal Academy.
Whether the praise of the critics translated into sales and monetary success for Crowe is less clear. De Foe in the Pillory was sold for the huge sum of £400 in 1862 (the equivalent of around £27,000 today*), but by 1868 Crowe was still unable to commit to a holiday in France for ‘pecuniary reasons’. His financial troubles may have been caused in part by erratic production of good, or saleable, paintings: newspaper and magazine criticisms give the impression that some of his work in the mid-1860s had declined from the powers shown in paintings of the early 1860s such as De Foe in the Pillory, Brick Court (1863), and Luther (1864); and the remarks on Shinglers and The Jacobite (both 1869) suggest that Crowe’s independent nature and sense of humour occasionally led him to paint works which, although meritorious, might not reflect the taste of potential purchasers. However, it is also noticeable that some of Crowe’s best works, such as Brick Court and Mary Stuart, remained in his possession for many years. It would seem unlikely that such works could never find purchasers, given their merits, raising the possibility that Crowe found them hard to part with, even at a good price.
* Source= Lawrence H. Officer, “Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1264 to 2007,” MeasuringWorth, 2008. URL: http://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk/
(c) Kathryn Summerwill 2009