Biography and History

Robert Hartley Cromek (1770-1812), engraver and publisher of prints. He abandoned law for literary and artistic pursuits. He came to London in 1788 where he studied under Francesco Bartolozzi. He then undertook the engraving of book illustrations, among them many by Thomas Stothard and Henry Fuseli. In 1805 Cromek engaged William Blake to produce designs for an illustrated edition of Blair's Grave. For these he paid Blake 20 guineas. It is these wonderful paintings, at some early date sold by or disposed of by the Cromek family, which only recently, after being lost for many years, were re-discovered in Scotland and offered for sale by Sotheby's in New York . It had apparently originally been intended that Blake should do the engravings. But when Blake submitted a couple of specimens to him Cromek strongly disapproved of them. In the event Cromek commissioned the Italian Schiavonetti, an action which earned Cromek Blake's undying hostility. Cromek travelled extensively to Scotland and the north of England promoting this project by which means he raised some 589 subscribers without any benefit to Blake.

During one of his tours Cromek picked up a volume of Chaucer and suggested to Stothard his famous picture of The Canterbury Pilgrims. According to Sir Leslie Stephen's article in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) "This statement was intended as an answer to the far more probable story that Cromek really took the hint from a sight of Blake's design for the same subject. Blake asserted that Cromek gave him a commission for the picture. Cromek replied that Blake must have received the commission 'in a vision'. It seems that on failing to get the design on the same terms as the designs for the Grave he offered Stothard £60 (afterwards raised to £100) to paint the picture without explaining the previous transactions with Blake. Cromek exhibited the picture in several towns, and sold it for £300. He excused himself from paying Stothard in full on the ground of money difficulties. Schiavonetti's death (7 June 1810) delayed the engraving and Cromek was much affected by the disappointment." The article in DNB concludes:"Cromek was a shifty speculator, who incurred the odium attaching to men of business who try to make money by the help of men of genius."

In this assessment Stephen appears to have been guilty of a considerable misjudgment. The new entry for Cromek in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) by Dennis M. Read (2008) goes only some way to correcting the picture. There it is stated:"It is not possible to determine definitively whether Cromek or Blake first conceived of painting and engraving this subject." Peter Ackroyd's Blake, (1999) however, goes much further. His account is summarized as follows: In the summer of 1806, Cromek approached Thomas Stothard to produce a painting based on The Canterbury Pilgrims. (Stothard had himself thought of just such a design as early as 1793). Blake, however, always insisted that Cromek had stolen the idea from him. He told the story of how he had trustingly shown Cromek his sketches for the subject and how Cromek had gone away delighted with the idea. Shortly afterwards he learned that Stothard had been commissioned to paint the same picture; it was the clearest proof of Cromek's double-dealings. However there was no evidence that Blake sketched any designs for a Chaucerian fresco before 1810 - a year after Stothard's painting was finished.

The true story is that Blake, piqued by Stothard's and Cromek's success and still smarting from The Grave humiliation, set out, after the event, to produce his own version and outface Stothard. Even in his last years Blake was still accusing Stothard of plagiarism and theft - to such an extent that Stothard, the most peaceable and just of men, eventually refused to have anything to do with him. When Blake did produce his own version the Miller is said to be based on Cromek:"A terrible fellow, such as exists in all times and places, for the trial of men." Blake was paranoid and a fantasist and it is quite possible that he came to believe his own version of events. Certainly Blake focused his disappointments on the figures of Stothard, Schiavonetti and Cromek and when Cromek died he savagely exulted:"Come Artists knock your heads against This stone/For Sorrow that our friend Bob Screwmuch's gone."

The bitter conflict between Blake and Cromek over The Grave and"The Canterbury Pilgrims" came to a head in May 1807 when, in response to a letter from Blake, Cromek wrote a letter back which has become one of the most celebrated documents in Blake literature and which is quoted in full in T.H. Cromek's manuscript account of his father:"When I first called on you, I found you without reputation; I imposed on myself the labour, and a herculean one it has been, to create and establish a reputation for you. I say the labour was herculean, because I had not only to contend with, but I had to battle with a man who had predetermined not to be served. What public reputation you have, the reputation of eccentricity excepted, I have acquired for you... I have some reason to embrace your wild opinion, that to manage genius, and to cause it to produce good things it is absolutely necessary to starve it; indeed, this opinion is considerably heightened by the recollection that your best work, the illustrations of The Grave, was produced when you and Mrs Blake were reduced so low as to be obliged to live on half a guinea a week! Before I conclude this letter, it will be necessary to remark, when I gave you the order for the drawings from the poem The Grave, I paid you far more than I could afford; more in proportion than you were in the habit of receiving, and what you were perfectly satisfied with; though, I must do you the justice to confess, much less than I think is their real value..." Why did you so furiously rage at the success of the little picture of 'The pilgrimage' Three thousand people have now seen it and have approved of it. Believe me, yours is 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness!'" (See Letters of William Blake pages 127-130.)

In 1808 Cromek visited Scotland to collect information about Burns. The result was his Reliques of Burns, consisting chiefly of original letters, poems, and critical observations on Scottish songs, 1808. This was followed by Select Scottish Songs, ancient and modern, with critical observations and biographical notices by Robert Burns edited by R. H. Cromek, 1810. Cromek made a second collecting tour in 1809, and then met Allan Cunningham who provided him with 'old songs', in fact of his own manufacture. Cromek printed these (with perhaps little knowledge of their true nature) in Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway song, with historical and traditional notices relative to the manners and customs of the peasantry, 1810.

In 1810 Cromek, as secretary to the Chalcographic Society, promoted a scheme to sell twenty engravings of British art to 170 subscribers for 100 guineas under the aegis of a Society for the Encouragement of Engraving. Blake derided it and, in response, wrote a vituperative draft"Public address to the Chalcographic Society" in his note book.

Cromek began to show signs of consumption in the winter of 1810, and died of the disease on 14 March 1812 at the age of only 42. In 1813 The Grave was re-issued with lives of Cromek and Schiavonetti. Cromek's widow subsequently made a large sum of money from publishing a print after Stothard which proved a huge success. Cromek's posthumous reputation, as reflected in the article in the DNB, appeared to have been blighted by an acceptance of Blake's version of events. In the early 1860s, his son T. H. Cromek set out to collect materials which would enable him to present a fair account. His manuscript was never published. But the substantial manuscript biography described below and original supporting materials - the major extant archive of Cromek father and son - now provide the detailed evidence for that reassessment.

T.H. Cromek's manuscript collections were not known to G.E. Bentley when he produced Blake Books, (1977). T.H. Cromek does not appear in the index. In 1995 Bentley produced his Blake Books Supplement and here the index does contain a number of references to Cromek junior. Most relevant, on page 255, is a reference to"T.H. Cromek, MS Memorials of the life of R.H. Cromek (1865) p. 9 in the possession of Mr. Wilfred Warrington" which refers to one of the volumes in the present archive. See (1) below. This shows that the existence of the manuscript biography (but not the accompanying volumes?) is now known to Blake scholarship.

Dennis Read (author of the new DNB entry for R.H. Cromek) had sight of T.H. Cromek's Manuscript Biography of his father at some time in the 1980s; (It is cited as a source). Michael Warrington, presumably a member of the family who owned the manuscripts until recently, wrote the ODNB article on T. H. Cromek and he also refers to this manuscript source. In the last decade there has been a scholarly debate between Dennis Read and G.E. Bently Jr about the origins of the"Canterbury Pilgrims" (a central issue in the archive below). Read, relying on"new information" (i.e. these manuscripts?), shows that the idea for the drawing originated with Cromek, not Blake. G.E. Bentley puts counter arguments. (See G.E. Bently Jr Blake Books Supplement page 619). The debate, therefore, is still alive. There can be no doubt that the manuscript biography with the extensive accompanying material described below, almost all of it unpublished, provides in detail the evidence necessary to support the reassessment of Cromek (and Blake) and to support the account given by Holroyd - though, he, apparently, had no knowledge of these manuscripts.

Thomas Hartley Cromek (1809-1873), painter, only son of the engraver and book-illustrator Robert Hartley Cromek. In 1830 he set out for Florence and Rome where he did much drawing and sketching. In 1834 he journeyed to Greece. Arguably this journey to Greece prompted some of his finest drawings which reveal a freshness of colour and an originality of method. Cromek returned to England in 1835 and in January 1836 was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Cromek's biographer, James Fowler, records that by 1836 his reputation as a painter was fully established and at this time he gave lessons to Edward Lear. Between 1840 and 1849 in both Florence and Rome he received a constant flow of commissions and gave lessons to many of the distinguished visitors then flocking to Italy. Back in London in the summer of 1843 he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to show his drawings to the Queen and Prince Albert, both of whom bought pictures. When the artist Peter De Wint heard of this he jealousy remarked that"the Queen has no taste" a comment which, naturally enough terminated his friendship with Cromek. Despite the friendship of Clarkson Stansfield and others Cromek never maintained in England the level of success he had achieved in Rome. By 1861 his health had so deteriorated that he lost the use of his hands and no paintings are recorded after this date. He died in Hatfield Street, Wakefield, Yorkshire, somewhat impoverished, on 10 April 1873. The ODNB article by Michael Warrington who gives, as among his sources,"T. H. Cromek. Reminiscences at home and abroad, 1812-1855. Unpublished MS, priv. coll."

John Pye (1782-1874), landscape engraver. He was born in Birmingham in 1782, the son of an engraver. He went first as a pupil of Joseph Barber of Birmingham. In 1801 he came to London and became a paid assistant of James Heath (1756-1834) by whom he was employed on engraving works on natural history and illustrations for books. In 1805 Pye was entrusted by Heath with the execution of a plate of Inverary Castle from the drawing by J. M. W. Turner. In 1810 John Britton, who was then publishing The fine arts of the English School, commissioned Pye to engrave for it Turner's picture"Pope's villa at Twickenham," and the plate was such a success that from that time on Pye became Turner's favourite engraver. Pye's plates after Turner include views of Oxford, Venice, Italy, Yorkshire etc."These remarkable works in which for the first time the effects of light and atmosphere were adequately rendered, placed Pye at the head of his profession and entitle him to be regarded as the founder of the modern school of landscape engraving" (DNB.) Pye also executed many other large plates for, amongst others, E. Landseer and D. Roberts.

Throughout his career Pye was largely engaged upon illustrations for the popular annuals and pocket-books. For these he engraved works by Turner, S. Prout and G. Cuitt. His complete mastery of the principles of chiaroscuro in the translation of colour into black and white meant that his services were always much in demand, sometimes in correcting the plates of other engravers.

Pye was the most energetic of the founders of the Artist's Annuity Fund in which he was assisted by his friend William Mulready. It received the royal charter in 1830. He spent much of his time in France and was honored by the French and Russian art establishment. But he never sought or received honours from the Royal Academy, to which he was bitterly hostile, in consequence of its refusal to recognise the claims of engravers to equal treatment with painters and sculptors. In 1836 he gave evidence on behalf of the profession to a select committee of the House of Commons and wrote a good deal on the controversy. In 1845 he published his well-known Patronage of British Art, a work full of valuable information in which he put forward with great ability his arguments against the academy and his demands for its reformation. In 1851 he renewed his attack in a pamphlet A glance at the rise and constitution of the Royal Academy of London and he lived to see some of the changes he had advocated carried out.

The main purpose of the correspondence, of course, was to supply information on R. H. Cromek and here Pye's assessment goes a long way to achieve the purpose which T. H. Cromek intended of providing a corrective to the various hostile commentaries on Cromek (most notably that of William Blake). In addition to the information supplied about R. H. Cromek, this sequence of letters, written when Pye was 80 years old, together with the manuscript account of his conversations with T.H. Cromek (see below) provide new and important first hand information about Pye himself, his relationship with Turner, and the history of British engraving in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

From the outset Pye responded with enthusiasm to Cromek's request for information about his father, a man for whom he had much regard. He admired also, as a sacred duty, THC's desire to do justice to his father's memory.

Source: From the finding aid for C1313