Sunday, September 13, 2020

The River, the City, and the Artist.

One of Europe's oldest cities, Norwich has a long and illustrious history. Like many great cities, it was founded on the banks of a river. Vital to Norwich's development and growth in trade and commerce, transport and culture, in the nineteenth century the river Wensum became a popular setting for artists of the Norwich School of Painters. 

In the briefest, highly selective sketch of Norwich's history - 

Norwich's  origins can be traced back to three Danish-Saxon fishing communities which once dwelt upon the terraced shingle banks of the Wensum known as Conesford, Westwic and Norwic which unified under the name of of Norwic (North port or settlement)  to become Norwich. Fully established as a town by the 10th century CE Norwich had its own mint which issued coins with the word NORVIC inscribed upon them. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, stone quarried from Caen in Normandy was transported across the North Sea and river to build and construct the City's two Norman architectural jewels, its Castle and Cathedral. 

The City's independence and trading status were enhanced under a Charter granted by King Richard I (the Lion heart) in 1194 for an annual payment to the King which freed the City and its citizens from all rents, tolls and taxes previously paid and permitted them to elect their own Reeve, (the senior official responsible under the Crown who often acted as chief magistrate). King Richard's Charter, granted in reward for Norwich's contribution to his ransom when kidnapped whilst returning from the Crusades, effectively allowed the City to be self governing, giving Norwich the same rights as London.

From the 13th century onward Norwich became a manufacturing city, exporting a wide variety of goods including pottery, wool and textiles, via the river Wensum. The river effectively connected the City to trade as far afield as Scandinavia and Russia, Germany and the Baltic North Sea cities as well as the Netherlands and Flanders. 

Norwich's trade and commerce with the Netherlands and Flanders in particular was vigorous throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Dutch and Flemish (modern-day Belgium) influences in fields as diverse as horticulture, architecture, textiles in particular wool, painting, religious denomination, civic social policy and not least, migration over the centuries have all been significant in contributing to Norwich's economic well-being and cultural heritage. 


Like many cities in medieval Europe, Norwich built a wall around itself for defense, taxation of goods and control of entry to trade in the City. The city walls were built circa 1280 to 1340. At around 4 kilometres in length they enclosed an area larger than the city of London. Norwich's city walls were supplemented by Cow tower and Bishop gate bridge strengthening defenses at its weakest point, the exposed bend of the river which  semi-circles around the Cathedral. The Wensum was integral to the defense of medieval Norwich. Its semi-circular bend from New Mills at the north of the City to Carrow south-east of the City effectively functioning as a wall. 

The medieval river-gate at Carrow is unique to European city defenses. Consisting of two 'Boom' towers'  one standing on each side of the river, by placing either a timber 'boom' or chains between them, effectively prevented any vessel from sailing further upstream. Their ruins at Carrow bridge, along with a long stretch of the city's medieval walls nearby, survive to the present-day.  


It would have been after passing between the 'Boom-towers' water-gate at Carrow (historical photo above) that visitors by river to Norwich would have seen the city's many churches towers, (Norwich has the large number of  medieval churches in Northern Europe).  The city's two largest architectural structures, the  Castle  perched upon earthwork mound and Cathedral with flying buttresses and spire pointing heavenwards would have been visible many miles from the low viewpoint of water before arriving at the walled city.   

A spectacular section of the old city wall  survives to this day. It  rises sharp up the valley with the Black Tower at its summit. The  surviving section  is a remarkable display of medieval engineering skill and dramatic to view. Poorly signed, this section of the City's medieval walls remains unknown to many locals even.

Tragically, shortly after the completion of the City wall, Norwich, like almost every other city in Europe suffered from the pandemic of the Black Death which peaked from 1347 to 1351. The Black Death was the second disaster affecting Europe during the 14th century, the Great Famine occurring 1315–1317. The Black Death plague is estimated to have killed between 30% to 60% of Europe's population. Norwich was not exempt from this death-toll with over half its population dying from the disease. It was against the background of the Black Death that the city's Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (1343–c.1416) wrote her Revelations of divine Love, the first book to be written by a woman in English,which continues to grow in popularity for its spiritual message. 

A major contributing factor to Norwich's identity occurred during the Elizabethan era when Protestant refugees from the Spanish Netherlands were invited to settle in Norwich to invigorate the City's declining textile industry. In 1565 some 30 households of master weavers and their families, 300 people in total, traveled from the Netherlands to Norwich seeking refuge from Spanish Catholic persecution. Reports of the City's religious tolerance resulted in many more religious refugees migrating from the Netherlands and contributing to Norwich's manufacturing industries of weaving and wool. At one time almost one third of Norwich's population consisted of skilled artisan refugees, a crucial factor in shaping the City's identity. 'The Strangers' as they were known, brought with them their pet Canary birds. Fancy breeds of the Canary bird were  bred in in the city  and in the early 20th century  they became emblematic of Norwich football team. The Canaries holds claim to having the world's oldest football supporter's song, On the ball, City. 

England's first provincial newspaper the Norwich Post was printed in Norwich in 1701. Succeeded by the Norwich Mercury in 1737,  its reflective of the city's high literacy rate as well as its radical politics. Support for the French revolution was initially high in Norwich, its leading intellectual William Taylor even visiting Paris in order to  kiss the soil of Liberty. Norwich's radical and sane politics continues to the present-day. In the 2016 advisory Referendum it voted for the UK to Remain in the European Union. 

Its been said that prosperity and literacy were the two factors which were the driving forces between 1750-1850 which contributed to Norwich's theatrical, artistic, philosophical and musical life. Together, they cross-fertilised Norwich's cultural life in a way that was unique outside London. 

In contrast to its close continental connections Norwich was, and still is, geographically remote from any other English town in transport links, a situation which was not improved until the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of the railway. Indeed, its been said  that it was sometimes quicker for a Norwich citizen to travel via river, sea and canal to Amsterdam than to London until the arrival of the railway. Travelling to London involved traversing marsh and forest on poor roads with the risk of robbery and overnight hostelry and rest for horses. In contrast, travelling to Amsterdam involved transportation via tidal river, sea and canal, its primary hazard being crossing the North Sea.

Whether because of its radical politics or more likely a received perception of the City as a 'back-water', Norwich was not officially recognized  as a seat of learning until 1963 when elected as the host city to the University of East Anglia. The University was named  'East Anglia' as representative of the region as a whole rather than its host city, resulting in few even today knowing its location. The University  didn't however hesitate to adopt Norwich City's  'Do Different' motto as its own. 

Currently teaching over 17,000 students statistically UEA is the British University with the highest percentage of students nationwide who choose to settle in the city of their graduation, a major contributing factor to the City's 9% population growth in the past decade. Prestigious UEA alumni include the geneticist, Paul Nurse, awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine and novelist, Kazou Ishiguru, awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 2017.  

With its many continental connections and influences its not too surprising that Norwich is one of the most European influenced of all English cities. The City's 'Do different' mindset is in evidence today in its growth as a regional retail centre, as a place of academic excellence and as a place which has a unique blend of international and local artistic life. 

2. Norwich School of Painters

John Thirtle's (1777-1839) watercolour Rainbow effect, King Street, (40 x 63 cm) depicts the City's busy river. The low eye-level of Thirtle's water-colour creates the effect of the viewer as part of the river-traffic. A rainbow, reflected in water following an evening downpour makes for a dramatic moment.  Observation of Nature, including atmospheric effects such as weather and changes of daylight being of particular interest to the Norwich School of artists.

In the foreground of Thirtle's water-colour there can be seen the river vessel most commonly associated with Norfolk, the wherry, a low draught, single sail craft capable of transporting heavy loads. In the background can be seen  a segment of the city wall rising steep up the  wooded valley with the Black tower at its summit. This section of the old city wall as previously discussed, survives to the present-day. 

John Thirtle was one of a number of Norwich artists  associated with The Norwich Society of Artists  which was established by the two friends who married sisters, John Crome (1768-1821) and Robert Ladbrooke (1768 –1842). The Society was formed in 1803 in order to hold regular meetings and discussions to establish 'An enquiry into the Rise, Progress and Present state of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of study to attain the Greater Perfection in these Arts'.

The clear-cut world of Classical representation of form and content is finely balanced with Romanticism in many artworks of the Norwich School, not least in the bold and skillfully executed water-colours of J.S. Cotman (1769-1842) including his Trowse Hythe (Below). Trowse, on Norwich's outskirts, is where the smaller river Yare joins the Wensum and where the river Wensum mysteriously ends.  

Its the sheer modernity of J.S. Cotman's art, in particular his water-colours which arrests the viewer today. Unsurprisingly Cotman's art received a mixed reception in his life-time. Curator and expert on the Norwich School of Painters Ms. Giorgia Bottinelli assesses J.S. Cotman thus- 

'One of the most original watercolourists of the nineteenth century, John Sell Cotman never achieved fame as an artist in his lifetime, something he so desperately craved and which fleetingly appeared to be within his grasp early in his career. On the whole his work did not appeal to the 19th century taste for the romantic and the picturesque: it was often controlled and unsentimental, with a focus on abstracted shape and inherent structure. It was not until the early 20th century and the rise of modernism that his work finally achieved the recognition it rightfully deserved'. [1] 


Several of John Crome's greatest art-works are set within only a short walk from his doorstep, the Colgate region of Norwich, including his late work Norwich river: Afternoon (above). 

Usually considered to be the leading light of the Norwich School of artists, John Crome was a shrewd, self-taught artist who survived the perils of bankruptcy, debt, imprisonment, madness, early death from disease, alcoholism and lack of patronage which others in the Norwich School suffered in their precarious careers as artists. In 1816, following Napoleon's defeat when  it was once more safe to visit France Crome did so, exhibiting and selling his paintings in Paris as well as purchasing paintings there.

John Crome studied the works of 17th Dutch masters closely in particular those by Hobbema, Cuyp, and Ruisdael to create art which celebrated the beauty of the Norfolk landscape. Far from merely imitating Dutch painting styles Crome learnt from the Dutch masters to develop his own unique style and today his paintings are ranked alongside Turner and Constable as amongst the finest in nineteenth century British art.  

The bright colouration and highly-polished finish of John Crome's Norwich river:Late Afternoon has often been commented upon. Its title reflects the close attention Norwich School artists played to qualities of light. 

Scientific analysis of  the canvas of Norwich river:Late Afternoon revealed that it was not in fact canvas but mattress ticking, a cotton or linen textile tightly woven for durability and to prevent feathers poking through the fabric. It was used to cover mattresses. Whether Crome's usage of mattress ticking was from necessity or experiment is not known. 

It was whilst working on a painting entitled A view of the Water Frolic, Wroxham Broad in mid-April 1821 that John Crome contracted a fever, dying later in the month. His last words were reputed to be, 'Oh Hobbema, my dear Hobbema, how I have loved you !'   

 Joseph Stannard's  Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon
(Height 109.8 x Width 175.8 cm. dated 1824). 

Joseph Stannard (born Norwich September 13th 1797 - died Norwich 6th December 1830) began exhibiting his paintings in 1811 when aged just 14. Like his younger brother Alfred, he was keen oarsman. He was also an  accomplished ice-skater who entertained Norwich folk with his skating skills during cold winters. Often in financial difficulties and/or poor health, Stannard's growing years were dominated by the Napoleonic wars which were prohibitive to travel in mainland Europe. When stability did return to Europe with the victory of Waterloo, he took the opportunity to visit Holland where  he viewed paintings by seventeenth century Dutch landscape masters Ruisdael, Berchem and Hobbema which deepened his interest in marine and seascape subjects; the marine artist Van de Velde in particular influenced him.

 In 1824 Joseph Stannard's fortune changed when the Norwich manufacturer, art collector and patron, John Harvey commissioned him to paint Thorpe Water Frolic:Afternoon.

Harvey was inspired with the idea of having a festivity on the river at Thorpe, just outside Norwich, from his witnessing water-festivities at Venice while on the Grand tour of Europe. The first water-frolic at Thorpe in 1824 attracted crowds of over 30,000 when the population of Norwich was little more than 10,000. Harvey's agenda was to establish Norwich as a sea-port for the export of his merchandise. 
Like all good sailors particular attention is paid to weather conditions and a vigorous cloudscape frames Stannard's water-frolic.There's an interesting inter-play between Stannard the sailor who has depicted the rigging and canvas sails of boats with every rope in its correct place and the medium of canvas on which he painted. The canvas of Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon is dominated by a large canvas, a sail catching the breeze.  Stannard's own boat The Cytherea is on the extreme right and was described in a contemporary newspaper report of the event -

'its colour is purple; the inside is adorned with an elegant gilt scroll, which completely encircles it; on the back-board where the coxswain sits, is a beautiful and spirited sea-piece, representing a stiff breeze at sea, with vessels sailing in various directions, painted in oils, and the spoons of the oars are neatly covered with gilt dolphins'.

Art historian Trevor Fawcett speculated- 'If the Thorpe water frolics were really great pageants, as the Norwich Mercury suggested, and if the multitudes who attended were all actors, then Stannard played his part thoroughly...[2]

Although there is a judicious amount of poetic licence in Stannard's Thorpe Water Frolic its also an important social document. Norwich's textile and loom workers, courting couples and rugged seamen all enjoying a care-free day on the river away from cramped working conditions are all depicted. They, along with Stannard in red, shielding his eyes to view his patron, are on the right bank of the river. Thomas Harvey standing in a gondola, the growing middle-class, civic dignitaries, naval officers and the aristocracy of Georgian England are on the left bank of the river. 

Joseph Stannard never became an official member of the Norwich School but nevertheless he clearly admired  and was influenced by John Crome and an enigmatic relationship exists between the two artists. As a precocious artist, Stannard's family requested Crome to teach young Joseph, but Crome quoted an astronomical fee which was seen as a blank refusal by the Stannard family. 

Curiously,  Stannard's Thorpe Water Frolic shares two details with John Crome's late work Norwich river:Afternoon firstly, of a small boy at the stern of a boat trailing a toy, and secondly of a woman dressed in bright yellow apparel, also at boat's stern. (The first recorded use of chrome yellow as a colour name in English was in 1818).

Norwich surely lost a great artist with Joseph Stannard's early death from tuberculosis aged just 33. However, his masterpiece, the river-scene Thorpe Water-Frolic:Afternoon remains a jewel in the crown of Norwich Castle Museum's extensive collection of paintings by the Norwich School.

Joseph Stannard has been assessed thus-

'As a draughtsman Joseph Stannard stands out as a major figure, there being almost a majestic grace and simplicity about his work. Whilst most of the Norwich School painters specialised in landscape, he retained an interest in seascape painting and achieved a quality which not only outrivalled most of his fellow painters, but most of the painters of the 19th century. The late Major boswell, whose family had dealt in the Norwich School paintings for generations, maintained that Joseph Stannard was the greatest genius of the School'. [3]
The Norwich School of Artists great achievement was that a small group of self-taught working class artists were able to feature urban Norwich with its churches, court-yards and cityscapes and rural Norfolk with its windmills, heath, marsh, woodlands and waterways as settings for their art.  Undaunted by meagre local patronage, together, leading artists Crome and Cotman, along with Joseph Stannard, established a school of landscape which continues to grow in reputation and stature.
The art historian Nikolaus Pevsner claimed that the picturesque was England's greatest contribution to European visual culture. Defined as visually attractive, especially in a quaint or charming way, English picturesque art is now, largely through the pioneering achievements of the Norwich School of artists, can now be recognised as Norwich's greatest contribution to European painting.

3. Just a little Browne and Norwich's future

According to the church historian Thomas Fuller (1608-61)  17th century Norwich was, 'either a city in an orchard, or an orchard in a city, so equal are houses and trees blended in it' . This blending of the urban with leaf continues in present-day Norwich with its reputation as one of greenest of English cities. Thomas Browne, the city's first botanist, natural historian, archaeologist and literary figure of significance, was a contemporary of  the historian Thomas Fuller, and indeed a book by Fuller is listed as once in Browne's vast library. 

In many ways Thomas Browne (1605-82) is one of most dazzling and valuable jewels in the crown of Norwich's cultural heritage. Known of world-wide, contributing to diverse fields of knowledge Browne's star is currently in the ascendent with a resurgence of interest in the physician-philosopher and his diverse literary works. Browne was also, as the archaeologist Alan Carter noted, one of the first to speculate upon Norwich's origins. In Urn-Burial  (1658) he alludes to coins minted in Norwich (the earliest with  the inscription name Norvic is dated 850 CE), to the city being established sometime after the Roman occupation of Britain, and to it being a place of size before  destruction by fire following a Viking raid by King Swen Forkbeard in 1004 CE-

'Vulgar Chronology will have Norwich Castle as old as Julius Caesar; but his distance from these parts, and its Gothick form of structure, abridgeth such Antiquity. The British Coins afford conjecture of early habitation in these parts, though the City of Norwich arose from the ruins of Venta, and though perhaps not without some habitation before, was enlarged, builded, and nominated by the Saxons. In what bulk or populosity it stood in the old East-angle Monarchy, tradition and history are silent. Considerable it was in the Danish Eruptions, when Sueno burnt Thetford and Norwich', [4]

More often than not Thomas Browne refers to the Wensum simply as 'the Norwich river'. Its been speculated that the word 'Wensum' is a corruption of the old English of 'wendsome' meaning winding, and this, as almost all old rivers, the Wensum certainly is, as can be seen in the photo below of the river Wensum at Drayton, a few miles north-west of Norwich. 

Geographically speaking, the Wensum is an old or senile river, that is a river with a low gradient and low erosive power and with having flood-plains. Today the Wensum is listed as a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest and as a Special Area of Conservation. Nevertheless it is under threat of environmental damage from a proposed Western Link Road (WLR) which will seriously damage river wildlife and its immediate environment with little, if any benefit to the easing of  traffic in the region whatsoever.[5]

On several occasions in his Natural History notes Thomas Browne refers to the network of shallow lakes in the north-east quarter of Norfolk as 'broad waters' . In all probability its from his description that the nomenclature of these shallow lakes  originated from to become  known as the Norfolk Broads. Today, the Norfolk Broads have National Park status and protection 'however it was not until the 1960's that aerial photography determined the Norfolk Broads were in fact not natural but man-made, the product of many years of digging for peat as a source of heat which following flood and inundation from the sea, formed the present-day Broads. 

On the river upstream between New Mills to Hellesdon Mills its possible to often spot the iridescent blue plumage and bullet-like flight of the kingfisher zipping low over the water. As a keen ornithologist who at one time or another kept an eagle, cormorant, bittern, owl and ostrich to study, Browne noted of Norfolk -

The number of rivulets becks & streams whose banks are beset with willows & Alders which give occasion of easier fishing & slooping to the water makes that handsome coloured bird abound which is called Alcedo Ispida or the King fisher. They build in holes about gravel pits.. their nests wherein is to bee found great quantity of small fish bones. & lay very handsome round & as it were polished eggs.

Browne was a keen botanist and noted of the aquatic plant Acorus Calamus  known as Sweet Flag (photo below).


'This elegant plant groweth very plentifully and beareth its Julus yearly by the banks of Norwich river  chiefly about Claxton and Surlingham. & also between norwich & Hellsden bridge so that I have known Heigham Church in the suburbs of Norwich strewed all over with it, it hath been transplanted and set on the sides of Marish ponds in several places of the country where it thrives and beareth ye Julus yearly. [6]

The Sweet Briar bridge to Hellesdon (photo above) is a great example of the legacy from the 1930's. Constructed in 1932, Sweet Briar bridge, along with the acres of landscaped parks of Eaton and Wensum, innovative social housing at Mile Cross, libraries, and urban regeneration in general, were all constructed and achieved through the collective work-force of the unemployed of Norwich during the Great Depression of the 1930's era.

The river Wensum upstream of New Mills is navigable only to light, non-powered vessels and is at turns scenic, neglected and wild. Its only with one's eye at water level that one gains a perspective of  the sheer size and abundance of mature trees growing near the river. Approaching Hellesdon Mill two varieties of willow can be seen growing together. (above). 

The weeping willow is a naturally occurring mutation of Salix babylonica which was introduced to England from China in the early 17th century during a time of fascination with all things Chinese ts cultivated for it's beautiful appearance. The more common willow Salix fragilis, 'crack willow', is named for the loud noise it makes when it breaks.  Grown on the river-bank so that its binding roots protect the bank from erosion its used for commercial willow farming (withey beds) and is managed by pollarding. Some of humans' earliest manufactured items may have been made from willow. A fishing net made from willow discovered by archaeologists dates back to 8300 BCE and basic crafts, such as baskets, fish traps, wattle fences and wattle and daub house walls, were often woven from osiers or withies (rod-like willow shoots, often grown in coppices). [7]

The Dictionary of British Place-names states that the name Hellesdon comes from Hægelisdun (the spelling of the location 985 CE), meaning 'hill of a man named Hægel', with the spelling changed to Hailesduna by 1086. Hægelisdun is recorded  traditionally, as the place where King Edmund was killed by Viking invaders in 869 CE, although there remains no agreement on exactly where King Edmund died.

Its intriguing to think that momentous history such as King Edmund dying in battle near Norwich remains ultimately unknown, such speculation returns our far from exhaustive essay where it began, the remote in time origins of the city, whilst also  exploring the fascinating relationship between city, river and artist.

At the current time of writing, Norwich faces the same challenge as many cities throughout the world in the wake of the Pandemic (2020 - ?) how to make the city, in particular its centre, a safe place to visit, work, socialise and be entertained.  Norwich,  having survived war, plague, flood, fire, famine, rebellion and riot in its thousand plus year history, will surely become a busy, enterprising city, proud to 'Do Different'  once more in the near future.


The Wensum river at 'The Willows', five minutes from my doorstep.


* The Anglo-Saxon origins of Norwich: the problems and approaches by Alan Carter Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 7 (1978), pp. 175-204  pub. Cambridge University Press
* The Norwich Knowledge: An A-Z of Norwich - the Superlative City Pub. 2011
by Michael Loveday. Highly recommended
* Norwich, the growth of a city.  Green and Young Norfolk museums Service 1981

* The Norwich School of Painters -  Harold Day pub. Eastbourne Fine Art 1979
* The Norwich School of Artists - Andrew Moore pub. HMSO Norfolk Museum Services 1985
*Romantic Landscape:The Norwich School of Painters -Brown/Hemingway/Lyles pub. Trustees of the Tate Gallery 2000
* A Vision of England : Paintings of the Norwich School ed. Bottinelli pub. Norfolk Museums 2013


[1] EDP May 20th The artist they called too colourful
[2] from article by Trevor Fawcett-Roper in Norfolk Archaeology 1976
[3] The Norwich School of Painters -  Harold Day pub. Eastbourne Fine Art 1979
[4] Urn-Burial (1658)
[6] Notes on Natural history of Norfolk especially its birds and fishes pub. Jarrolds 1905.
[7]  Info on Willow by Nik Thomson with thanks.

Archaeological maps of the development of early Norwich.

*All text identical to the Wikipedia entry on the Norwich School of Artists was penned by myself in 2003.

* Essay dedicated to the memory of the Norwich artist Joseph Stannard, b. Norwich, 13th September 1797 - 1830. Stannard's premature death surely lost the City a great artist.

Also in memory of Jennifer Carrier, long-time friend and Norwich 'old girl'.