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Reference group
Cranbrook colony (act. c.1854–1900) was an informal community of artists associated with the small town of Cranbrook, Kent, where they spent their summers working. The group consisted of the close friends John Callcott Horsley and Thomas Webster; the brothers George Hardy (1822–1909) and Frederick Daniel Hardy; and George Bernard O'Neill. Augustus Edwin Mulready (1844–1904) and George Henry Boughton were also frequent visitors to Cranbrook and are often linked with the group.

The work of the Cranbrook colony can be brought together under the broad umbrella of English genre painting, loosely inspired by Dutch and Flemish painting of the seventeenth century. However, the individual styles of those who made up the group were diverse. As a group the colony never made an impact comparable to those who could claim a cohesive artistic purpose, like the manifesto-led Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The reluctance of the Victorian art establishment to accept scenes of everyday life as serious subject matter may also account for the colony's failure to gain recognition in proportion to its output.

Cranbrook had remained unspoilt by industrialization. Previously a thriving market town, it was bypassed by the London to Folkestone railway, which opened in 1842, the closest station being at Staplehurst, 6 miles away. This produced a shift in the local economy, leaving Cranbrook quiet and well preserved. It offered a congenial setting for an artistic community, quaint and tranquil yet within commuting reach of London, where F. D. Hardy, O'Neill, and Horsley kept residences. By the early 1860s Cranbrook was recognized as an artists' colony. In 1863 the artist Samuel Palmer wrote to Horsley:
I have read a good deal at one time or another about our colonies. You may suppose that I could not be indifferent to the institutions and productions of the colony at Cranbrook. It has been my frequent day-dream and I long to see it (Greg, 13)
.The artists' connection with the town dated from 1854, when F. D. Hardy began living at Waterloo Place. Webster visited the Hardy brothers regularly and in 1856 introduced them to Horsley, with whom he had struck up a close friendship when they were both students at the Royal Academy Schools. By 1857 Webster had settled in Cranbrook and Horsley took lodgings there until he found a suitable house in 1861. The diaries of Horsley's wife, Rosamund, provide much of the information on the early formation of the colony, which soon became a lively social network of the artists and their families.

Through the family connections of his wife, Emma Stuart Callcott, the Irish-born O'Neill met Horsley, and was introduced to Cranbrook. The O'Neills began renting in Cranbrook in about 1860. A. E. Mulready and G. H. Boughton were also connections of Horsley. Mulready is recorded as staying in Cranbrook in 1870 and 1872, although he is not known to have produced any rural scenes, in common with the rest of the group. The Anglo-American Boughton was a frequent visitor to Cranbrook, and like Horsley was an early client of the architect Richard Norman Shaw.

Aside from a shared appreciation of the Kentish Weald town in which they settled, family connection and friendship united the artists. Webster, the eldest of the group, was a family friend and mentor to the Hardy brothers. Works like Contrary Winds (1843; V&A), with its detailed cottage interior, were to prove particularly inspirational to F. D. Hardy, who for many years shared a studio with Webster in High Street, Cranbrook. Despite the generational gap they appear to have enjoyed a mutually influential working relationship.

The work of the Cranbrook colony is in the domestic genre: often highly sentimentalized subjects and historical themes, reflecting popular taste and the rise of the middle classes as art consumers. This new art-buying public, less interested in the classical and overblown historical subjects favoured by their grand-tour educated predecessors, wanted works that spoke of everyday human emotion and family life. The artists who made up the colony catered for this new taste. Much of their work was bought by collectors who had made their money in the industrial centres of the midlands and the north of England, where examples of their work are in public collections.

Webster, who was already well established before settling in Cranbrook, developed subject matter that presented an idealized rural England, as in Roast Pig (1862; Sheffield City Art Galleries). His work was not always well received. The critic and politician A. H. Layard mentioned Webster by name in his essay on the Art Treasures exhibition held in Manchester in 1857, which criticized the new vogue for sentimentalized pictures of children: ‘Surely, even if the higher aims of art be altogether discarded there is something better to be done in its most humble sphere than to paint pictures to amuse nursery maids and their charges’ (Quarterly Review, 1857, quoted in Greg, 41) .

The work of F. D. Hardy also featured children. Among his best-known work is The Young Photographers (1866; Tunbridge Wells Museum), probably set in the nearby town of Tunbridge Wells. His detailed interiors brought him great success and he is considered the most prominent member of the group. The Dismayed Artist (1866; Wolverhampton Art Gallery) is one of the few works by the colony to be signed Cranbrook. It is perhaps the most illuminating in its depiction of the working practices of the group, with a young artist (possibly Hardy himself) entering a cottage and appearing disappointed to discover the inhabitants whitewashing their fireplace, destroying the rustic charm of the interior.

Cranbrook residents were employed as models, increasing the connection of the artists to the area. The vernacular architecture of the Kentish town was integral to the work of the group. George Hardy appears to have painted mainly cottage interiors. The historical and romantic associations of Old Wilsley, the timber-framed cloth hall rented by the O'Neills, provided the setting for many of G. B. O'Neill's paintings, including Gran's Treasures (1866; Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and The Despatch (c.1875; Wolverhampton Art Gallery).

Horsley was similarly inspired by Elizabethan and Jacobean interiors, and many of his paintings feature historical costume pieces of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although the move to Cranbrook coincided with more contemporary subject matter the influence of such Dutch masters as Pieter de Hooch (whom he acknowledges in his memoirs) is particularly evident in his works, for example Going to a Party (1866; Rochdale Art Gallery) and The Banker's Private Room: Negotiating a Loan (1870; Royal Holloway College), for which A. E. Mulready is thought to have posed as the banker.

The artists of the Cranbrook colony enjoyed commercial if not critical success, but the group has struggled to make its mark on art history. The assessment of a reviewer of an exhibition in 1977 of the colony's work (Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle) was characteristic of critical opinion in the twentieth century: ‘these paintings, alas, while interesting enough as documents, are not moving because they are so feeble as works of art’ (Roberts, 214). More recently a growing appreciation of the aesthetics of Victorian narrative painting has prompted a re-evaluation. The social sensibilities of O'Neill's The Foundling (1852; Tate collection) and the domestic subtleties of Webster's A Letter from the Colonies (1852; Tate collection) are seen as powerful commentaries on mid-nineteenth-century life. A major exhibition, The Cranbrook Colony: Fresh Perspectives (Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 2010–11), once again united some of the best-loved examples of the group's work, highlighting their collective importance in the history of Victorian art.

Sonia Solicari

Sources  

J. C. Horsley, Recollections of a Royal Academician, ed. E. Helps (1903) · A. Greg, The Cranbrook colony: F. D. Hardy, G. Hardy, J. C. Horsley, A. E. Mulready, G. B. O'Neill, T. Webster (1977) [exhibition catalogue, Central Art Gallery, Wolverhampton, 22 Jan – 12 March 1977; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 26 March – 17 April 1977] · D. S. Macleod, Art and the Victorian middle class: money and the making of cultural identity (1996) · K. Roberts, ‘“The Cranbrook colony” at Wolverhampton’, Burlington Magazine, 119 (March 1977), 207, 214 · J. Thomas, Victorian narrative painting (2000) · Rosamund Horsley's diaries, Bodl. Oxf.