This club was established by the Norwich painters John Crome and Robert Ladbroke in 1803. Before we go on to examine the artists of the Norwich School, let us first look at the state of Norwich in the early years of the 19th century. The aristocracy still held sway in the county, but it was the middle classes who ran the city. Richard Bacon had been for twenty years the editor of the Norwich Mercury newspaper, that he and a colleague had bought in 1785. He would shortly retire and his young son would take his place. At No. 18 Gentleman’s Walk a new insurance company, the Norwich Union Fire Office, was slowly establishing itself under the guidance of its founder, the Kentishman Thomas Bignold. The botanist James Edward Smith (later to be knighted) had recently returned to his native city having founded the Linnean Society in London. People were regularly hanged in the Castle Ditches, and nearby the cattle market was thronged every Saturday with buyers and sellers of sheep and cows. Coaches left daily from the Angel in Gentleman’s Walk for London, the brightly dressed guard blowing his horn as the coach rattled along the cobbles to the open road. Most of the city gates which had stood since the middle ages still protected the town.
At first the Society of Artists met at the Hole in the Wall, a long-vanished pub that was built into the remains of a disused church somewhere near Bedford Street. There the local artists would meet to discuss techniques and recent developments in art, while supping a pint or two of ale. It was not at first an exhibiting organisation; this was a natural expansion of the group’s activities that occurred in 1805. These successful art exhibitions continued for over 20 years, by which time John Crome himself was dead. The origin of the Society was brought about during a brief lull in the Wars with France. We should remember this conflict was the backdrop to the many sketching trips that the members of the club undertook to villages within walking distance of Norwich. Great Yarmouth was another popular source of subject matter, of fishing boats and the sea; this town too was easily reached by wherry from Norwich. John Crome travelled to France once the defeat of Napoleon made this possible, but the vast bulk of his pictures are of local scenes.
John Sell Cotman was another member of the Norwich School, from 1807 when he joined the club, but he frequently painted in other parts of the country. Whereas Crome and Ladbroke were self-taught working class artisans (a sign painter and printer respectively) Cotman was from a higher class of society. His father was a successful silk merchant, and he had been educated at the Norwich Free Grammar School. It was at this ancient school in the Cathedral Close that Crome himself was engaged to teach drawing. He was remembered by one of his pupils as an engaging and amusing man, quite different from the normal schoolteachers of the day who dourly imposed the rules of Latin grammar with a stick. Norwich School was advanced for the time in giving art lessons
There were many other members of the Norwich School of Painters, although none so famous as Cotman and Crome. Two members of the Society I will mention, both of them unusual men. One was the editor of the Norwich Mercury, already referred to in the opening paragraph of this article. His name was Richard Mackenzie Bacon, and although his son-in-law and grandson were to become influential painters in London, he himself was not an artist. As far as I am aware, he was the only non-practising member of the Society, but I am sure he had plenty to say at their convivial meetings. The other member was Benjamin Robert Haydon, a West Country born artist who worked in London. He was much fêted when he came down to Norwich to unveil his portrait of the Mayor. He was elected an honorary member of the Society and was one of the few non-locals to belong to the Norwich School of Artists.
We normally associate the school with landscapes after the Dutch manner, but portraits were favoured early in his career by Ladbroke. Still life and genre paintings do not appear to have been popular among the members of the Norwich School. Although Benjamin Haydon was best known as a painter of historical subjects, he did not submit any canvases for hanging at the annual show.
This was a remarkable flowering of local talent in a provincial city. There was no great history of artistic endeavour in Norwich, and its founders were humble working men. The movement was encouraged by the local elite, the doctors, lawyers and businessmen of Norfolk, men like Dawson Turner the Yarmouth banker and Samuel Bignold of the Norwich Union. The Society folded in 1834 when the President, John Sell Cotman, removed to London, where he was appointed drawing master to King’s College School. By then the Society was known by the cumbersome title “The Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts” It ceased to operate as a group, but the many members like John Berney Crome and James Stark continued to paint, although the draw of London diluted the Norfolk concentration of artists.