Friday, 27 November 2020

John Cross (1819–61)

The Wikipedia entry for Tiverton-born artist John Cross is quite brief, so here are some more detailed biographies from a couple of sources.

"Death of Becket" after the painting by John Cross, in Canterbury Cathedral
"Death of Becket" from the book
The Pageant of British History

From page 36 of the 1883 book Art in Devonshire: With the Biographies of Artists Born in that County:

Cross, John, historical painter, a native of Tiverton, born in 1819. His father, who was superintendent of the lace factory at that place, removed to St. Quentin, to become foreman of the English factory established there. Here young John Cross worked at the factory in the machinery department; but as he showed a strong disposition for art, he was admitted into the School of Design, founded by Delatour. Here he worked so well that at the end of the last year but one he was presented with a medal. From this place he removed to Paris, and entered the studio of M. Picot, a painter of the classical school, and acquitted himself so well that he was appointed treasurer and director of the studio, and won several medals.

At the time of the completion of his studies at M. Picot's, the British Government offered prizes for the best cartoons portraying subjects from English history or poetry, the competing cartoons to be exhibited in Westminster Hall. To this Cross sent a cartoon, the subject of which was "The Assassination of Thomas a Becket"; but owing to certain conditions not having been complied with, he did not obtain a prize. The picture, however, was very highly approved, and had been much admired when previously exhibited at the hall at Fervaques. A second competition, two years later, opened by the same authority, took place at Westminster Hall, and to this Cross sent a picture, representing "Richard Cœur de Lion, at the Siege of Chaluz, pardoning the archer who had wounded him". This painting obtained the first premium of £300, and it was thought so highly of that it was purchased by the Government at £1,000, and placed in the hall of the Fine Arts Commissioners in the Palace of Westminster.

He had now gained early in life the summit of his reputation. Everything looked well with him, and for a time he was sought after and looked upon as the rising historical painter of the day. The Fine Arts Commissioners engraved the picture at their own expense, and he received a commission to repeat it in reduced size for Mr. Heathcot, of Tiverton, together with an order for a new picture, "Lucy Preston, imploring the pardon of her father from Queen Mary II". His health unfortunately began to fail, and to this circumstance must be attributed the fact that he did nothing after to sustain his reputation. He painted pictures certainly which showed great talent, but nothing which took with the public as his early ones did. He received commissions to paint two pictures, "Edward the Confessor naming Harold his successor", and "William of Normandy swearing Harold on the reliques". These have been well spoken of.

He next took to portrait painting and teaching drawing for a livelihood. His paintings became weak and feeble, and in 1860 two pictures which he sent to the Academy were actually rejected. His last works of any note were a picture from his prize cartoon, "The Assassination of à Becket", and "The Coronation of William the Conqueror", which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858. Both remained unsold at the time of the artist's death, which took place on the 26th February, 1861. The paintings he left were exhibited at the Society of Arts, and a subscription was raised to a small amount for his family. His friends purchased his "Murder of à Becket", and placed it in Canterbury Cathedral; and "The Burial of the two Princes in the Tower", which they presented to the Albert Memorial Museum at Exeter.

According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, £300 in 1847 would be roughly £31,000 today, and £1,000 would be £104,500, so his Richard the Lionheart painting was clearly very significant, akin to winning the Turner Prize now.

From page 215 of the 1888 book Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 13:

CROSS, JOHN (1819–1861), painter, born at Tiverton in May 1819, was the son of the foreman of Mr. Heathcote's lace manufactory in that town. He showed great talent for art when quite young, but his father discouraged him, as he wished him to apply himself to mechanics. His father, however, removed with his family to St. Quentin in France, as superintendent of a branch manufactory in that town, and young Cross, though at first employed in the machinery department, was admitted, through the entreaties of his mother, to the art school founded by De Latour in that town. Here Cross made such progress that he moved to Paris and entered the studio of M. Picot, one of the painters of the old French classical school; here he gained several medals, and eventually became a director of the school.

In 1843, when the competition was started for the decoration of the houses of parliament, Cross determined to enter the lists, and came to England, bringing a cartoon of ‘The Death of Thomas à Becket,’ which he had already exhibited in France. This he exhibited at Westminster Hall in 1844, but did not meet with success. He, however, applied himself with great vigour to the composition of a large oil-painting for the exhibition in 1847. This was called ‘The Clemency of Richard Cœur-de-Lion towards Bertrand de Gourdon,’ and gained a first premium of 300l.; it was purchased by the commissioners for 1,000l., and was engraved at the expense of the commission. This success advanced Cross in one bound to the foremost rank of the profession, but the labour and anxiety brought on a serious illness, from which he was a long time recovering. He henceforth devoted himself to historical painting, which was unfortunately a branch of art that met with little support, and required a stronger constitution to carry it on than Cross possessed.

In 1850 he sent his first contribution to the Royal Academy—‘The Burial of the Young Princes in the Tower,’ followed by ‘Edward the Confessor leaving his Crown to Harold’ (1851), ‘The Assassination of Thomas à Becket’ (1853), ‘Lucy Preston imploring the Pardon of her Father of Queen Mary II’ (1856), and ‘William the Conqueror seizing the Crown of England’ (1859). His works, though of the highest class of art, remained unsold, and this told upon his health, which began to fail rapidly. With his health his powers also failed him, and the pictures contributed by him to the Royal Academy in 1860 were actually rejected. He tried teaching drawing and portrait-painting, and struggled on under the afflictions of disappointment, failure, and increasing illness.

He died 27 Feb. 1861 in Gloucester Place, Regent's Park, aged 41, leaving his wife and family totally unprovided for. Several leading artists to whom Cross was personally endeared, and who had a high opinion of his abilities, started a subscription in order to purchase some of his unsold works and raise a fund for his wife and family. An exhibition of his principal works was held at the rooms of the Society of Arts in the Adelphi, and the subscription resulted in the purchase of ‘The Assassination of Thomas à Becket,’ which was placed in Canterbury Cathedral, and ‘The Burial of the Young Princes in the Tower,’ which was placed by his Devonshire friends in the Albert Memorial Museum at Exeter. The latter picture had been engraved by the Art Union in 1850.

On page 108 of the 1878 edition of A Dictionary of Artists of the English School: Painters, Sculptors, Architects, Engravers and Ornamentists: with Notices of Their Lives and Work it notes that a window's pension was granted by the Government:

His friends purchased his 'Murder of Thomas à Becket' and placed it in Canterbury Cathedral, and a small civil list pension was granted to his widow in consideration of his merits as a painter.

The 1908 book The Pageant of British History has three low-resolution depictions of John Cross paintings:

Some engravings of John Cross paintings can be seen on the fine art print site Meister Drucke.

07/12/2020 Update: The archivist at Canterbury Cathedral kindly confirmed that 'The Assassination of Thomas à Becket' painting is still in their collection, but is currently in storage.

09/12/2020 Update: Unfortunately the Royal Albert Memorial Museum could find no record of 'The Burial of the Young Princes in the Tower' ever being in their collection.

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