Thomas Creswick: Trying For Nature

The often-outspoken 19th-century art critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900) argued that great art is "the expression of the spirits of great men" and it took a great painter to capture the true character of nature. It’s fitting then that some of the finest 19th-century landscapes were produced by Thomas Creswick (1811-1869) - a burly affable Yorkshireman with an honest spirit and a friendly outlook.

Ruskin was obsessed with landscape painting and would carefully pick through every aspect of an artist’s interpretation. If your rhododendrons were poorly rendered or the foliage fell short, he’d be on you with a tirade of criticism. 

“...the stem of Gaspar Poussin's tall tree, on the right of the La Riccia, in the National Gallery, is a painting of a carrot or a parsnip, not of the trunk of a tree.”

He wasn’t all that fond of our national treasure either...

“[John] Constable's manner is good and great, but being unable to draw even a log of wood, much more a trunk of a tree or a stone, he left his works destitute of substance.”

John RuskinRuskin reaching for a Murray Mint.

Ruskin’s venom was often aimed at those who sought to meddle with the true beauty of nature by fiddling with a composition or painting the natural elements inaccurately.

“Every alteration of the features of nature has its origin either in powerless indolence or blind audacity.” 

So be it on your own head if you switched a birch for a beech or inserted an erroneous bush.

At the heart of his critique was the belief that we, the viewers, should be encouraged to celebrate the beauty of true nature as God intended without embellishment or errors.

“If we stand for a little time before any of the more celebrated works of landscape, listening to the comments of the passers-by, we shall hear numberless expressions relating to the skill of the artist, but very few relating to the perfection of nature.”

However, there were a few painters that Ruskin felt broadly got it right with the most well known being J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) who he held in a state of virtual Saintdom.

“Turner is the only man who has ever given an entire transcript of the whole system of nature, and is, in this point of view, the only perfect landscape painter whom the world has ever seen.”

Another is Thomas Creswick who, although not referred to in the same breath as Turner, did tick the boxes with regards to honest landscape painting. 

Thomas Creswick

Creswick was a typically down-to-earth Yorkshireman with a sense of humour and a love of the great outdoors. He studied nature diligently and toiled to capture what he saw.

Thomas CreswickThomas Creswick studying a bush in the distance.

The Victorians enjoyed him and scattered their walls with engravings of Welsh idylls and picturesque spots in Devonshire.

Thomas Creswick EngravingThe Evening Walk, etching by Thomas Creswick (1842)

Thomas Creswick PaintingThe Stile by Thomas Creswick, National Gallery.

Thomas CreswickUndulating Landscape With River, Cattle & Birch Trees. From our own collection.

He was born in Sheffield but his name is synonymous with the ‘Birmingham School’ of artists that sought to depict nature accurately and with character. Together with his contemporaries, including David Cox (1783-1859), he would often escape to North Wales and Ireland in search of rugged views and rural streams. At the time, Birmingham was a furnace of trades and the world’s leading manufacturer of metalware. Factories clanked and hissed their way through the day as workers toiled alongside steam-powered machinery.

Thomas CreswickFigures and Animals Along a Riverbank by Thomas Creswick.

In 1827, Creswick’s studies paid off when he exhibited at the Society of British Artists in London and then subsequently sent two pictures to the Royal Academy. This early success ultimately led to him becoming connected with London’s art community and eventually finding a home there. In 1850, Creswick had the honour of becoming a fully elected member of the Royal Academy - the very first landscape painter to achieve this accolade.

At around the same time, he scaled an even greater summit when he received praise from John Ruskin. In his defining work, Modern Painters, Ruskin describes him as “one of the very few artists who do draw from nature and try for nature.” 

He also analyses Creswick’s work ‘Nut-brown Maid, in the Book of English Ballads’:

“Look at the intricacy and fulness of the dark oak foliage where it bends over the brook, see how you can go through it, and into it, and come out behind it to the quiet bit of sky. Observe the gray, aerial transparency of the stunted copse on the left, and the entangling of the boughs where the light near foliage detaches itself. Above all, note the forms of the masses of light. 

“Not things like scales or shells, sharp at the edge and flat in the middle, but irregular and rounded, stealing in and out accidentally from the shadow, and presenting, as the masses of all trees do, in general outline, a resemblance to the specific forms of the leaves of which they are composed.

“...look into the weaving of the foliage and sprays against the dark night-sky, how near they are, yet how untraceable; see how the moonlight creeps up underneath them, trembling and shivering on the silver boughs above; note also, the descending bit of ivy on the left, of which only two leaves are made out, and the rest is confusion, or tells only in the moonlight like faint flakes of snow.”

And he continues.

“Look at Creswick's oak again, in its dark parts. Intricate as it is, all is blended into a cloud-like harmony of shade, which becomes fainter and fainter, as it retires, with the most delicate flatness and unity of tone. And it is by this kind of vaporescence, so to speak, by this flat, misty, unison of parts, that nature, and her faithful followers, are enabled to keep the eye in perfect repose in the midst of profusion, and to display beauty of form, wherever they choose, to the greatest possible advantage, by throwing it across some quiet, visionary passage of dimness and rest.”

Creswick died on the 28th of December 1869 - leaving behind an extensive portfolio of fine landscape paintings. His straightforward approach, careful observations, and desire to paint what he saw, resulted in some of the finest works of the 19th-century. In every sense, he represented the best of British.

In January 1887, a publication titled “Yorkshire Anecdotes” sums up Creswick’s life nicely. Here’s an excerpt.

“Mr Creswick was essentially a painter of English and Welsh landscape; … Occasionally he exhibited Irish and Scottish scenes, but was always most at home among the rocky glens of Wales and Devonshire, in English rural lanes, and roadside, 'houses of call' where waggoners with their teams congregate under the shade of oak, or beech, or lime tree. In pictures of this class he will be much missed, for we know of none able to cover the ground so pleasantly as he.”

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