The 1890s marked another shift in the balance of paintings exhibited by Eyre Crowe at the Royal Academy. 23 paintings appeared in the Royal Academy exhibitions from 1890 to 1899. The year 1894 marked Crowe’s 70th birthday, and it is increasingly evident that his output was determined principally by his own enjoyment of the subject matter. Although he continued to produce some well-received scenes of contemporary life, most notably Trial for Bigamy in 1897, he increased his output of his old favourite themes of historical and literary events. Most remarkably, ten out of the 23 paintings were landscapes or paintings of buildings, with limited portrayal of human figures. Landscape painting, or at least the public exhibition of landscapes, was a new departure for Crowe, as indeed was portrait painting, which figured in a further three instances. Although portrait painting was becoming a major feature of the Royal Academy exhibition, landscape was still considered by the establishment as one of the lower forms of artistic endeavour. Crowe’s canon of works from the 1890s tends to suggest that his painting was increasingly inspired by holidays, meetings with friends, and his own interests.
Perhaps the words of the critic at The Times, referring to Lady Coventry’s Escort (1892) rang in Crowe’s ears a little:
… certain painters, whose hand and eye are not what they were, still attack the most complicated and difficult subjects … A simple portrait, a simple landscape, from their brush might pass without offence; but they attempt a crowd, an elaborate piece of history, a picture with much action and movement in it …
However, Crowe was not to be greatly troubled in public by the critics for much longer. While in previous years, a number of newspapers and periodicals had followed the Royal Academy exhibition in detail, casting judgements upon favoured and reviled paintings alike, times were changing in the art world. The Times, the Illustrated London News and even the Art Journal, which had previously devoted many column inches to the annual exhibition, began in the 1890s to spread their coverage of the art world among many of the other exhibitions which were springing up to challenge the hegemony of the Royal Academy. Henceforth, one article per year would suffice, and this would only provide enough space to note the best or most striking paintings of the year. Only the more learned Athenaeum continued to give much coverage to the Royal Academy exhibition, and to Eyre Crowe’s paintings. This was perhaps largely because its critic from 1861 to 1901 was Frederic George Stephens (1828-1907), contemporary and friend of Crowe, and one imagines, a man becoming increasingly out of step with the opinions of the younger generation of artists and connoisseurs.
Ironically, although there is less in print about Eyre Crowe’s works from the 1890s in contrast to previous decades, we are able to see the items he produced thanks to the appearance, from 1888, of Royal Academy Pictures, a supplement to Cassell and Co.’s Magazine of Art. Reproduction techniques had improved greatly in the later 19th century, so that whereas the Illustrated London News had blazed the way with engravings in the 1850s, Royal Academy Pictures was now able to provide the public with photographic quality images of the principal paintings in the exhibition, in one handsome bound volume. The publication, save for a very brief introduction, was unencumbered by essays or criticism, a format which suited the aesthetic and modern age, but which was very different to the tradition in which Crowe had grown up.
Many of the paintings produced in the 1890s remained in Eyre Crowe’s possession until they were sold at auction after his death, reaching modest sums. Only The Founder of English Astronomy (1891) is known to have been sold immediately after its exhibition, being donated by its purchaser to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. This painting is still on public exhibition, and The Brigs of Ayr and The Crow-Boy have recently been sold at auction.
(c) Kathryn Summerwill 2009