homas Creswick was born in Sheffield in 1811 and died after a long period of illness aged just 58, in London, in 1869. He was educated at a private school in Hazlewood, Derbyshire, thereafter spending some time in Birmingham, where he started his career under the direction of the artist J. W. Barber (Maas 49) and became a painter of landscapes and rural scenes. In 1836 he moved to London and in 1850 became a full member of the Royal Academy.
An example of Creswick’s art, A View of Windsor.
Creswick was a prolific practitioner: in the years between 1828 and 1870 he exhibited 266 paintings in the London venues, displaying 139 at the R.A. and the remainder at the S. S. (Suffolk Street Galleries) and the British Institute (Graves 67). Yet these represent only a part of his output; always popular, he produced many works for private commissions, mostly in oil but sometimes in watercolour. Creswick also engaged with graphic art. His paintings were engraved and published as prints, and he illustrated several topographical volumes as well as contributing to gift books. An enthusiastic member of the Etching Club, he worked with steel and copper engraving, and was a skilled ‘draughtsman on wood’ who contributed to the ‘box-wood revolution of the late 1850s.
Multi-skilled in the technical demands of image-making, Creswick typified the sort of jobbing professional who promoted his work wherever he could. Moving seamlessly between fine art and book-art, he pursued a portfolio career in which he could earn some hundreds of pounds from the sale of his oils, but had to supplement his income with the piecemeal sums – typically £10–£15 per image – that were paid for his etched designs and wood-engravings. At once a tradesman and a professional, a purveyor of poetic landscapes and a supplier of copy, Creswick was one of the many artists who contended for clients and sales in the ruthlessly competitive art-market of the early and mid-nineteenth century.
His chosen field was especially crowded, with painters producing thousands of rural scenes; as Christopher Wood remarks in 1988, ‘Landscapes formed the majority of pictures at the Royal Academy throughout the Victorian period. So many were painted that they are still filling salesrooms … even now’ (11). Creswick operated within this popular milieu: catering for the tastes of a large middle-class audience, his paintings offered a soothing, idealized version of the English landscape which especially appealed to the new urban professionals and businessmen who endorsed the Romantic notion of the countryside as a site of innocence and purity, far from the demands of the counting house and the congested streets of the cities.
Style and Idiom
Creswick worked in the idiom of the Picturesque, the eighteenth century tradition that was theorized by William Gilpin and Uvedale Price, developed by painters such as Gainsborough and Richard Wilson, and carried forward by Constable and David Cox.
Three more examples of Creswick’s art. a) Landscape with Willows. b) Landscape with Harrow in the Background. c) The Ford.
These artists followed the compositional rules of the Picturesque and Creswick similarly adheres to its iconography. Drawing on the many examples of the type, he deploys a visual language made up of trees (typically placed as framing devices), a well-defined foreground (usually populated with peasants or cattle), a stream, river or pathway, an architectural feature (castle, house, church), a large expanse of sky, a prospect (often of mountains), or a vista reaching into the far distance. Some or all of these signs appear in his paintings, and it is instructive to compare them with those of contemporaries or near-contemporaries working in the same tradition. It is particularly instructive to contrast Creswick’s middle-or-the-road approach with the more obviously ‘poetic’ treatments of John Linnell and Samuel Palmer.
Left: Creswick’s The Valley of Llangollen. Right: John Linnell, A View Near Hampstead.
Left: Creswick’sEnglish Landscape. Right: Samuel Palmer, Going to Evening Church.
Working within the limits of the Picturesque, Creswick still managed to assert an individual style. An important element in his approach was his emphasis on verisimilitude, or ‘copying from nature’. Active in a period when most landscapes were created entirely in the studio, he studied in the field and completed at least some of his compositions au plein air. His paintings are informed with the aesthetics of realism, and Ruskin regarded him in terms that he usually applied to the Pre-Raphaelites’ mimesis. In volume one of Modern Painters (1843), for example, Ruskin comments at length on his close observations from nature, the ‘work of a man who has sought earnestly for truth’ (344) as part of an attempt to mirror what he saw. Many others made the same judgements and it was commonplace, in the Art Journal and other contemporary magazines, to characterize Creswick’s art as naturalistic, driven forward by ‘truthfulness’ (Smith 3).
However, his work is far from the obsessive detail of the Pre-Raphaelites: sensitive to atmosphere and tone, he excelled at the treatment of foliage and aerial perspective, conveying a vivid sense of place and presence while not reducing his subjects to a catalogue of parts. We have only to compare the hard-edged transcriptions of J. E. Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite painting, The Blind Girl (1856), with works by Creswick. This juxtaposition immediately reveals how concepts of ‘truthfulness’ and ‘realism’ can be interpreted in very different ways, with Millais depicting the sharp immediacy of the here-and-now and Creswick projecting a faithful impression of a changing scene, glimpsed as much as seen.
Two very different notions of the ‘real’. Left: Millais’sThe Blind Girl. Right: Creswick, View of the Thames at Battersea.
Creswick’s other trade-mark is his focus on landscapes which assert the idea of nature as a benevolent force. Unlike contemporaries such as Clarkson Stanfield, who stretched the expressiveness of landscape and endowed it with dramatic emotion, usually in conjunction with the sea, Creswick’s pictures encapsulate a ‘sunny’ vision of nature (‘Creswick, Obituary’ 26) that is both literal and metaphorical. In his art, the British weather is perpetually mild rather than tumultuous, offering its viewers an uplifting experience based on quiet contemplation.
Left: Creswick, The Old Mill at Bettws-y-Coed. Right: Stanfield, Oxwich Bay.
Creswick’s paintings were thus designed as escapist fantasies. Like many others such as Birket Foster and B W Leader, he celebrated a poetic version of the English idyll which was not intended to be challenging. In an age when consumers turned from social problems to the contemplation of dreams – exemplified by the medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites, neoclassicism and the weird dreaminess of fairy-art – Creswick authored another, alternative view of the British scene.
His vision of the English landscape might also be read as an act of patriotism, asserting the beauty of the home nations as a representation of British values by showing the land as a place of quiet serenity and calm. Creswick’s conservatism is an important part of the zeitgeist, and it is not surprising that he became a figure of the ‘Victorian Establishment’ (Maas 49), the antithesis of the bold pioneering of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites.
‘Thomas Creswick: Obituary’. Notes and Queries 4th Series: 5 (June 1 1870): 26.
Graves, Algernon. The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their work from its Foundation in 1769–1904. London: Henry Graves and Co. and George Bell, 1906.
Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painters. London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1969.
Ruskin, John.Modern Painters. London: Smith Elder, 1843. Vol.1. Freeditorial online version, 344.
Smith, William, ed. Old Yorkshire. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1882.
Wood, Christopher. Paradise Lost. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988.
Created 21 March 2021