While the 1860s and the 1870s were successful decades for Eyre Crowe, culminating in his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1876, the 1880s were marked by an apparant dramatic decline in his artistic powers. In many ways, the pattern of his work continued in the fashion established at the beginning of the 1870s. The 23 paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1880 to 1889 were dominated by contemporary scenes, with only five works inspired by historical or literary events. Crowe continued to produce paintings showing children playing or at school (‘How happy could I be with either’, School at the Aitre, Bairn’s Play, Arithmetic), and scenes from Normandy (School at the Aitre, Fish Market, Bairn’s Play, Honeymoon in Normandy, Old chantry at Auberville), which, which the exception of School at the Aitre, were considered neither very important or inherently very interesting. Crowe’s contemporary paintings tended to be based on genuine locations, many depicting scenes from London, where he lived (such as the series of paintings of Bluecoats schoolboys, and ‘Sandwiches’ showing board-men in Trafalgar Square), but a larger number set in Rouen and Normandy. The French paintings were especially evident in 1877, 1884 and 1885, suggesting that Crowe may have spent long periods in France at this time. Crowe also painted provincial locations within England, such as Wigan, Bristol, Portsmouth and Evesham. These pictures were perhaps inspired by his inspecting trips, although his brother George lived in Bristol and Portsmouth at various times, and Crowe may well have done some sketching while on holiday there.
His paintings showing historical events tended to be larger and more complex, but were criticised for lapses in technique. In a relatively new departure for Crowe (The French Savants in Egypt, 1798, from 1875 being the only predecessor), his historical paintings depicted military personnel and battle scenes, perhaps reflecting a general preoccupation of many Britons with their expanding empire. The most important of these were Explosion of the Cashmere Gate at Delhi, Sept. 14, 1857 (1881), which was ‘full of incidents well selected, excellently designed, and carefully painted’, The Defence of London in 1643 (1882), which was, in contrast, roundly criticised by all reviews except that of the Athenaeum; Hougoumont, June 1815, the Day after the Battle (1886), whose themes were praised if not the execution; and Nelson leaving England for the Last Time (1888), which was an immense piece, eight feet long. Again, this picture was not considered to be technically competent. Three paintings exhibited in 1889, but not mentioned in any principal newspaper or magazine reviews of the Exhibition (Military Honours, In Quest of the Finnan Haddies, and The Signal Mortar) would also appear to have been on military themes.
For his works based on historical incidents, a great deal of careful research was required in order to represent the event in the most accurate way possible. A package of sketches and notes, predominantly from the 1890s, but including some earlier papers, survives in the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and provides some evidence of Crowe’s researches in the British Museum and other places. A letter is preserved, from William H. Saunders, curator of Dickens’ Birthplace Museum, Portsmouth, to Eyre Crowe, referring to Crowe’s painting Nelson’s Last Farewell to England, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888 (National Art Library, MSL/2001/4/1/1). Crowe had evidently written to him with many questions about the type of oars used at the time, the clothes Nelson would have worn, and the sword he would have been carrying, all of which questions Mr Saunders answered. Mr Saunders also provided a description of the event as seen by his own father, which undoubtedly informed many of the details in the finished painting.
However, despite the care that Crowe took over his works, there is little sense that his election to the Associateship in 1876 prompted in him a desire to produce more paintings on either elevated or popular themes which were likely to help secure him full membership of the Academy or make some money. Rather, apart from the occasional historical paintings, which according to the critics were lacking in power compared to his previous output, Crowe’s canon of works from the 1880s onwards seems mundane and lacking in inspiration. Perhaps, having achieved the Associateship, and a fairly comfortable lifestyle, and having no wife or children to support, Crowe had little desire to work towards anything else. His age may also have been a factor; he celebrated his 60th birthday in 1884, and young artists were beginning to alter the landscape of British art into something increasingly alien to Crowe and his contemporaries. Colour, emotion, and effect was more important to the new blood than the precise technique, composition and meaning with which Crowe’s training in the late 1830s and early 1840s had been concerned. In 1869 Crowe had been accused by the critic of the Art Journal as an ‘artist of genius who will not condescend to please’. His individualism in terms of subject choice and humour had produced erratic results, but he knew no other way to paint. It is, then, quite understandable that Crowe should have ceased to strive too hard to please in an art world more and more different from that in which he felt comfortable, and should instead have simply painted what he liked.
(c) Kathryn Summerwill 2009