Norwich Castle and Museum

From London, a couple of hours on the train from Liverpool Street Station.

Norwich Castle holds the museum of the city, rather expensive to get in to at the time of writing, though with a more modest fee an hour before closing time. Anyhow, this is the place to see work by the Norwich School of painters, which was centred around John Crome (1768-1821) and John Sell Cotman (1782-1843). There are lots of works by these two and their followers, typically brownish landscapes in a bright light. These artists are at their best in watercolour, and this is a great strength of the Norwich collection.

The later generation of Norwich School artists, lasting on into the Victorian period, don't really compare to Crome and Cotman. There is a whole room of paintings by latter-generation Cotmans, and another with Crome's contemporaries and pupils. The best of the bunch is Henry Bright (1816-1873), whose shore and sea paintings include powerful studies of light in stormy weather, most notably in the large pictures St Benet's Abbey and Orford Castle, Suffolk. Also William Joy's Lifeboat Going to Vessel in Distress (1841) is very dramatic. Other artists represented include, among others, David Hodgson (1798-1864), Henry Ninham (1793-1874) and George Vincent (1796-1832).

Pre-Raphaelite painters are represented by Burne-Jones and A. F. A. Sandys. Burne-Jones's large Annunciation (1867) is obviously much-inspired by Rossetti's picture of the same subject, and the composition as a whole is very Rossetti-like, though Burne-Jones shows a greater command of draughtsmanship. As well there is a large tapestry (in the Keep) The Star of Bethlehem designed by Burne-Jones, and executed by William Morris (who also drew the floral background) in 1906. Sandys has several excellent pictures which are well worth studying. Mary Magdelene (1862) is a small utterly Pre-Raphaelite portrait of a red-haired girl with an enamel hairpiece. Two portraits by Sandys were not on show during my last visit. Of these, the portrait of Philip Bedingfield shows a pink-faced gentleman rather exotically dressed in blue-edged brown jacket with a flowering cactus and Morris-style wallpaper behind. The accompanying portrait of Mrs Bedingfield is equally interesting, with the lady showing an intense expression and with ruins in the background. These two pictures (from 1859) alone establish Sandys as an important portraitist. There is an early Self Portrait (1848), dark and unlike his mature style. The most seriously Pre-Raphaelite picture, though, is Autumn (1860), showing an old military man, his young wife, and plump child relaxing out of doors. This picture is notable for its harsh brightness and skin tones, in the manner of Holman Hunt, and for its incredible detail, for example the over-ripe bullrushes bursting in the foreground. There is a single picture, Study of a Head (1877) by Emma Sandys (1843-1877), which is fair, but looks feeble compared to her husband's work hung beside it.

There is an important work by Alice Havers (Mrs Fred Morgan), Mary Kept All These Things and Pondered Them in her Heart, and we can also note the large panoramic view of Jerusalem (1842) by David Roberts, an eminently representative and satisfying example of the work of that artist. There is a collection of works by Alfred J. Munnings (1878-1959), who was prominent at the Royal Academy but seems to be unrepresented in most galleries. A skilled colourist and painter of nature, the several big oils by Munnings in the Norwich collection show mainly shire horses. In the same room there are landscapes by Arnesby Brown, including a good one of Norwich itself.

J. J. Colman was the head of the famous Colman's Mustard, a locally-based firm, and there is a portrait of him by Hubert von Herkomer, done in an old-master style with all dark except face and hands. This leads us on to sculpture, as there is also a noble bust of Colman by Thomas Brock. The few other sculptures include a good Meleager (The Hunter) by John Gibson, with a lifesize Greek youth with dog. John Bell, a local sculptor who achieved considerable eminence, has an overly-sentimental but one-time enormously popular Babes in the Wood. And there are busts by Roubiliac, Turnerelli (Nelson) and Nollekins.

The museum is good on pottery, and there is a small but quite representative collection of work by William de Morgan, comprising tiles and bowls. There is also some Doulton ware, pottery and tiles by the Martin Brothers, and Parian Ware copied from various sculptures. Finally, there is some art nouveau silver and jewellery, including good figural pieces from Birmingham, in the collection.

A few words on the museum itself - the castle is complete from the exterior, a great cube of a building, and the museum highlight is the spectacular beamed interior of the castle. The castle was started in the 11th Century by William the Conqueror, and completed in Caen stone (imported from Normandy) by his son, William Rufus. Norwich Cathedral was built at the same time, apparently worked on in part by the same stone masons as the castle.

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Norwich School of Artists // Norwich Cathedral // St Peter Mancroft // Other interest in Norwich

Victorian art in Britain