An Artist’s View of Cromer – Part 2 (artworks 4-6)

By Wayne Kett, Collections Development Officer

This is the second instalment of my blog looking at artistic representations of Cromer and the surrounding area and some of the stories the artworks help us tell. The first three artworks feature here and this blog focuses on artworks 4-6.

4. The Manby Mortar

By Hannah Buxton (1828-9)

CRRMU : 1981.50

A reminder of the perilous nature of working at sea. This drawing by Hannah Buxton shows the life saving Manby Mortar being demonstrated or practiced by Overstrand fishermen to ‘rescue’ children from the silver fir tree at Northrepps Hall (the tree acting as the rigging of a ship). In the bottom right corner Anna Gurney (in her wheel-chair) directs the operation.

Anna Gurney directs the use of the Manby Mortar

Captain Manby is a name synonymous with Great Yarmouth and you can learn more about him and his life saving invention here. It is however Anna Gurney I would like to focus attention on because by all accounts she led a remarkable life.

She was paralysed from the age of 10 months following a bout of polio and spent the rest of her life in a wheel-chair. However this did not stop her leading a rich and meaningful life defined by two strands, her philanthropy, motivated no doubt by her families Quaker roots and her interest in scholarly pursuits.

Anna Gurney the philanthropist and social reformer

Her belief in the importance of education led her to set up a school in Overstrand, initially using the Parish Church, but later raising funds for a dedicated school building to be erected (and still in use today).

From at least the 1820s Anna was actively involved with the abolitionist movement as she is credited with establishing a branch of the Anti-Slavery society in Norwich alongside Amelia Opie. Later she supported the work of the social reformer and future campaigning partner of William Wilberforce – Thomas Fowell Buxton. Coincidently this drawing is by Hannah Buxton, Anna’s cousin and wife to Thomas.

And then there is her championing of the Manby Mortar – I have found reference that the demonstration illustrated in the drawing actually depicts an occasion when Anna had invited Captain Manby to Northrepps Hall to demonstrate his mortar. It is therefore unclear who was calling the shots in this particular drawing. However it is noted that Anna frequently directed operations from the cliff edge or beach during particularly challenging rescues and this is depicted in a watercolour painting.

A watercolour showing Anna Gurney in her wheelchair being pulled by two male servants, attending her three ladies, Anna Gurney would be pulled to the cliff edge to supervise rescues off the shore at Overstrand

Anna was not simply an advocate of this life-saving equipment, she was actively involved in training fishermen in its use as well as directing its deployment. Furthermore she paid for the initial purchase of the equipment required. At the time of this drawing around 60 or 70 lives were lost every year with over 20 ships being wrecked so the difference it made to a great many people’s lives should not be under estimated.

Anna Gurney the Scholar

Many of us struggle to understand even a decent level of ‘holiday French’. By the time Anna was a young woman she has already mastered Latin, Greek, Old English and Icelandic. In later life she also learned Swedish, Danish and Russian to the extent she would read literature in those languages.

Her interests were widespread and varied and she was the first ever female member of the British Archaeological Society and had an interested in the geology of the Cromer Forest Bed. There is an interesting blog written by the Museum of Natural History at the University of Oxford that goes into far more detail.

I can however confirm that Anna Gurney did indeed donate hundreds of specimens to Norwich Castle in the 1840s and 1850s and that these are still in our collection, a few are even on display at the Castle.  

NWHCM : 1845.30 – Steppe Mammoth molars donated to Norwich Castle by Anna Gurney in the 1840s.

Where can you see this drawing? This drawing is part of our stored collection and is not currently on public display.

5. Cromer from East Beach

By Miss Caroline Gray (1829)

CRRMU : 2012.43

I love how detailed this watercolour is. We have a huge photographic collection at Cromer (13,000 + images) and I was recently looking for the earliest images we have of Cromer. I found one from 1842 and then a few more from the 1850s. This pre-dates them all by several decades, besides which the early photographs are often fairly blury whereas this artwork is crystal clear.

In the distance you can see the cast iron 1822 jetty which lasted just two decades before being washed away in a storm in 1843. On the beach industry and work is visible as people with donkeys are collecting flints, whilst fishing boats are ashore and at sea. To the left are signs of leisure with the depiction of bathing machines a familiar site from the middle of the 18th century until the early part of the 20th century. Up on the hill is the familiar sight of the Church tower and the rest of the town with some buildings such as the Bath House still there today.

I can find nothing of note about the artist Caroline Gray, this is the only painting of hers we have in the collection at Cromer Museum. Intriguingly the back of the paintings is inscribed:

Cromer. Norfolk. Caroline Gray. May. 1829. from Nature. “T’was here my careless Childhood stray’d,” “A stranger yet to Paint.”

This quote is an allusion to a poem by the 18th century poet Thomas Gray:

“Where once my careless childhood stray’d, A stranger yet to pain!”

Thomas Gray, ‘On a Distant Prospect of Eton College’.

The artist and poet share a surname, but I can find no definitive link between them. Thomas Gray died 52 years before this painting in 1777.

Where can you see this drawing? This drawing is part of our stored collection and is not currently on public display.

6. Poppyland Railway Poster

Artist unknown by us (1910)

CRRMU : 1978.23.102

For me there is only one way to arrive in Cromer for a day by the sea and that’s by train. I love that when I catch the train to Cromer I am following in the footsteps of generations of day-trippers and holiday makers since the railway first arrived in Cromer in 1877 (Cromer High Station). Ten years later Cromer Beach station opened (1887). The line was threatened with closure during the early 1960s as part of the Beeching report, but luckily managed to avoid the chop.

This iconic poster from 1910 shows a young woman and children walking over Lighthouse Hills in North Norfolk with Cromer in the background. Cromer’s fame as a fashionable destination began in the 1700’s with the latest in medical thinking prescribing sea air and bathing as beneficial to health. To serve this growing influx of visitors a host of ale houses and taverns sprang up amongst the traditional flint walled fishermen’s cottages.

The arrival of the railway in 1877 allowed easier access to the burgeoning town.  The popularity of the seaside town grew when poet and theatre critic Clement Scott visited in 1883. He fell in love with the area and duly named it ‘Poppyland’ due to the once common sight of the evocative red bloom along the coastline. Scott wrote a series of letters in the Daily Telegraph as well as a book ‘Poppyland – papers descriptive on the East Coast’ and the town became a fashionable destination for the London scene.

The opening of the pier in 1901 allowed the crowds to take the sea air and stroll along the seafront in style. Cromer was rather liberal for the time, allowing mixed sea bathing between the sexes, this freedom was too much for some people and modesty preserving bathing machines were still very much in evidence.

Where can I see this artwork? Currently the poster is in store, but will shortly be back on display at Cromer Museum.

For more archive images of Cromer you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook where we regularly share images from our collection.

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