What does the industrial revolution, the first Christmas card and the tune of 'On Ilkla Moor baht'at' have in common? The Cranbrook Colony. But who were they? I travelled to the Cranbrook Museum to find out.

Arriving at the home of the Cranbrook Museum, a beautiful red- brick building that dates back to the 1480’s, I didn’t know what to expect.  All I knew was that a group of Victorian Artists had settled in the area and started to produce artwork.  So, when Geoff Apps, one of the Museum’s most dedicated volunteers, led me through a maze of dark timbered rooms and twisting staircases to the ‘Pile Room,’ I was in for a treat.  

The six men involved were; Thomas Webster RA (Royal Academy), John Calcott Horsley RA, George Bernard O’Neill, Augustus Mulready, George Hardy and George’s younger brother, Frederick Daniel Hardy.  The room is bursting with memorabilia, photos and examples of their work so when Mr Apps drew my attention to a black and white engraving above the doorway, it took a few moments to realise what I was looking at.  It was the room I was standing in.  The children and chimney sweep may have gone but the view I was seeing was exactly the same as that of Frederick Daniel Hardy when he had painted the picture. It wasn’t my only surprise.   

Just around the corner, a gilt frame displays a small red inked Christmas card.  Dated 1843 this is a copy of the first Christmas card ever produced and it was created by John Horsley for Sir Henry Cole, the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Sir Henry commissioned the card as he no longer felt able to write to all of his acquaintances individually to wish them a merry Christmas.  One thousand were produced but, although the scene is that of a festive table, it drew criticism for showing a child drinking wine. 

John Horsley was also the man responsible for linking the group to the wealthy midland industrialists as, through his links with the Royal Academy, he gained commissions for paintings that would ‘brighten the walls of their drawing rooms’. Their work was considered to be highly fashionable and the artists frequently repainted scenes with slight alterations, such as the omission of a hat stand or the lines on a floor, in order to keep up with the demand for originals.  In fact, such was their popularity that many of the original paintings can now be seen in the Wolverhampton Museum.

Thomas Webster, one of the most productive and respected artists, was considered to be the father of the group as he was the first to settle in Cranbrook.  His donkey cart became a regular feature of the town and, as he loved to paint children, many of his works, such as the ‘Dame School’, the ‘Village Choir’ and the football match depicted on the ‘Cranbrook Ball Field’ can be attributed to the area.  And it is through his painting of the ‘Village Choir’ that the tune for ‘On Ilkla Moor bah’tat’ comes in.  The figure playing the clarinet is Mr Clark, a cobbler from Canterbury whilst the man in the centre is Mr Francis.  Mr Clark was unable to read or write, although he could compose music, and having become literate though Mr Francis, he composed the hymn tune of ‘Cranbrook’ to say thank you.  The tune later went on to acquire the Yorkshire based words of ‘On Ilkla Moor baht’at’ that we know today.    

Thomas Webster was also an encouraging master and it was through him that, the largely self taught Frederick Hardy, developed his skills.  Without the advantage of a Royal Academy schooling he struggled, initially, with the depiction of peoples faces and it is well known that, in one particular painting, he produced the scene but another artist provided the lady’s face.  Fifty examples of his work are held within the Cranbrook Museum and he went on to have ninety-three pieces exhibited at the Royal Academy.  Quite an achievement for someone who had never been taught there.    

It’s his elder brother, George, though that’s the mystery man.  Having entered the Royal Academy School at the age of nineteen he favoured rural scenes and is known to have travelled England, Scotland, Wales and Northern France in order to paint.  What he looked like though is a different matter and his photo is the only one missing from the museum’s collection.  So, if you have any information that could help the museum track down their missing picture, please do get in touch.  They’re a lovely bunch and they would love to hear from you. 


Further details

For details of opening times, admission charges and other exhibits please take a look at http://www.cranbrookmuseum.org/

Oh, and do allow yourself lots of time for there is far more there than you first suspect.   


Many, many thanks are due to Mr Rodney Dann and Mr Geoff Apps for their generous time, cups of tea and photographic assistance.  I will be back!

P.S There won’t be an entry next week as my computer needs fixing, but I will be back on Friday 5 November with an article about All Saints Church in Tudely. 

Have a great half term.  :)