Eyre Crowe’s canon of work from his first Royal Academy exhibit in 1846 through to the late 1860s was almost completely dominated by scenes illustrating moments from history or literature. His paintings showing the contemporary injustices of slavery in America, produced in the 1850s, were notable exceptions, but were not favourably received by the critics. Crowe played safe, producing historical paintings which were popular with the public, and were similar to the works of his artist friends in the St John’s Wood Clique. These paintings of the 1860s made his name, but a change was signalled by his exhibition of the contemporary realist work Shinglers at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1869.
In the following three years, Crowe’s transformation from predominantly historical to predominantly contemporary genre painter, was established. Of the 30 paintings which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in the years 1870-1879 inclusive, only seven were clearly on themes of history or literature. Every one of his seven paintings of 1873 and 1874 were contemporary, as were the five in 1877 and 1878. In this, Crowe was part of a general movement of British genre artists. William Powell Frith’s paintings Life at the Seaside (Ramsgate Sands) (1854), Derby Day (1858) and The Railway Station (1862) were phenomenal public successes and garnered interest in the faithful rendering of modern life, which remained strong throughout the 1870s. These paintings were easily comprehended by members of the public, could be engraved and were often reprinted in newspapers and magazines, and were generally small enough to fit into the homes of the middle class merchants and professionals who increasingly formed the market for contemporary art.
Although works of ‘historical anecdote’ were similar in style and composition to those on contemporary themes, and painted largely by the same artists, the modern paintings became increasingly popular both with the public and with the painters themselves. George A. Storey, a member of the St John’s Wood Clique, described in his autobiography (Sketches from Memory, 1899) how he became disillusioned with historical paintings, seeing them as contrived and untruthful, mere illustrations which could add nothing to the viewer’s conception of the period in comparison with artworks produced at the time of the event. Crowe may not have felt so strongly, as he continued to produce the occasional painting set in the past throughout the remainder of his life; however, his success depended on producing works which buyers would want to purchase, and in the 1870s he threw himself into contemporary genre and realism with enthusiasm.
The change was welcomed by the critics, who also praised Crowe’s advances in technique throughout the decade. His characters were clearly drawn and imbued with personality and humour. Series of similar paintings are evident in this decade, indicating his willingness to repeat popular themes, and, probably, a legacy of various sketches from his travels which he was keen to make into finished paintings. Among these favourite topics were the schoolboys of the Bluecoats (Christ’s Hospital) School in London in their picturesque uniforms playing outside school (Bob-Cherry, Out of School, Silkworms, School Treat, and Bluecoat Boys Returning from their Holidays), fox-hunting (After a Run, Foxhounds in Kennel, and Handing the Brush), and French church scenes (Sanctuary, Prayer, and Bridal Procession at St. Maclou, Rouen).
It was in the 1870s that ‘social realist’ paintings showing the harsher sides of life for the poor and disposessed enjoyed a brief flowering of interest, largely through the illustrations in The Graphic magazine (founded 1869) and the paintings of its employees Luke Fildes, Herbert von Herkomer and Frank Holl. These paintings were always a very tiny minority of those exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibitions, and were often criticised for their perceived ugliness and ‘unfitting’ subject matter. Recent scholarship has noted Crowe’s part in this phenomenon, particularly in reference to his 1874 exhibit The Dinner Hour, Wigan. The most detailed modern assessment of Crowe’s realist work is found in Julian Treuherz’s Hard Times: Social Realism in Victorian Art (1987). Treuherz rates Crowe as one of the most successful regular Royal Academy artists attempting social realist painting. He was the first exhibitor to produce art based on urban industrial scenes; and in 1874 The Dinner Hour and A Spoil Bank numbered two out of only four social realist paintings in the whole exhibition of 1,433 works. Their distinguished companions were Holl’s Deserted – A Foundling, and Fildes’ Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, which was so popular that it had to be protected by a railing and a policeman.
Crowe was an avid sketcher and was particularly interested in people. His paintings are almost entirely figure paintings, and the people in them are clearly delineated and imbued with character and individuality. He was touched by the human condition, as can be seen from his reactions to the slavery issue in America in the 1850s, and many of his realist paintings depict ordinary people going about their working or daily lives. Unlike Fildes’ paintings, and the paintings of many other contemporary genre artists, however, Crowe’s pictures were never sentimental. They did not seek to tell a tale or elicit an emotional response; rather, they were faithful depictions of scenes of everyday working-class life. Such scenes had not hitherto been considered suitable subjects for academic art, and many contemporary writers criticised the paintings on this account.
Of Crowe’s paintings of the 1870s, The Dinner Hour, Wigan (1874) is now the best known. However, Sanctuary (1877), judging from the criticisms of newspaper and magazine writers, was considered at the time to be his best work, fully justifying his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy the previous year.
(c) Kathryn Summerwill 2009