The Earth and Spring by Walter Crane, 1875. Gouache on paper, laid down on linen, signed with monogram, and dated 75, lower left; 121/2 x 29 inches (31.5 x 74 cm). Collection of National Gallery of Canada.
The Earth and Spring was shown at the General Exhibition of Water-Colour Drawings at the Dudley Gallery in 1875, no. 456. The Dudley Gallery in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, had held its first exhibition of watercolour drawings in 1865. It was a gallery founded on genuinely liberal principles, open to both professional and amateur artists. Its exhibitions were very heterogeneous, but until the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, it was the principal forum for the artists associated with the nascent Aesthetic Movement. Walter Crane was a member of a group of young artists who exhibited there and who were dubbed by hostile critics the "Poetry Without Grammar School".
The artists associated with this school were united in their admiration for the work of Edward Burne-Jones. In his Reminiscences Crane recalled seeing Burne-Jones' work for the first time at the exhibition of the Old Water-Colour Society in 1865:
The curtain had been lifted, and we had a glimpse into a magic world of romance and pictured poetry, peopled with ghosts of 'ladies dead and lovely knights,' - a twilight world of dark mysterious woodlands, haunted streams, meads of deep green starred with burning flowers, veiled in a dim and mystic light, and stained with low-toned crimson and gold, as if indeed one had gazed through the glass of 'Magic casements opening on the foam / Of perilous seas in faerylands forlorn'. It was, perhaps, not to be wondered at that, fired with such visions, certain young students should desire to explore further for themselves"(84). Crane's The Earth and Spring epitomizes the “Poetry Without Grammar School” with its poetic beauty despite its obvious flaws in draughtsmanship and perspective. This painting shows not only the influence Burne-Jones, such his Pan and Psyche of 1872-74, but also the works of Italian Renassance Old Masters Crane so admired, such the mythological subject by Piero di Cosimo traditionally known as the Death of Procris, or Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. Crane would have seen both these paintings at the National Gallery in London.
The source for the figure of the Earth is unknown, but it may be based either on an Etruscan tomb effigy or a classical funereal frieze. The facial features are certainly derived from ancient Greek sculpture. One possible source is the portrait of the Roman matron Ulpia Epigone, shown on her funerary relief, which dates to c. AD 80. Crane could have seen this sculpture during his honeymoon spent in Italy from 1871-73, since it is in the Vatican Museum in Rome. The source for the figure of Spring would appear to be similar figures in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The theme of Spring was one that obviously fascinated Crane, as he returned to it in his paintings time and time again.
When The Earth and Spring was shown at the Dudley Gallery in 1875 it did not, in general, receive favourable reviews. For example. The Saturday Review criticized the painting for its supposed mannerism and crude color:
A set of artists who have been aptly dubbed ‘the Peculiar People’ always make themselves prominent in the Dudley Gallery…Amongst the most peculiar of ‘Peculiar People’ is Mr. Walter Crane. The mannerism with which this hopeful artist started becomes more and more mannered. We have had the pleasure of appreciating his poetic conceptions, but after all a picture cannot be regarded exclusively as a thought. Mr. Crane has a colour systematically crude; he also has a habit, as in ‘Earth and Spring’, of throwing an antique statue bodily on the ground immobile as marble. We are called upon to witness the life-giving presence of ‘Spring,’ but it is only too obvious that life has been extinct for many centuries” (410).
In contrast, W. M. Rossetti writing in The Academy mixed praise and criticism: “The like may be said concerning the recumbent figure of Mother Earth in Mr. Crane’s second contribution, named The Earth and Spring. The sonnet given in the catalogue marks well the character of the work…The landscape-background here is pleasing and well-felt in this simple poetic way. Spring is a Cupid-like boy, poorly drawn: Earth is grand in pose, but her foot somewhat clumsy. Mr. Crane takes a good place among the neo-classicists who seem to think that they must paint goddesses and demigods, but should mingle naïveté with abstractness in the form of presentment (148).
The sonnet written by Crane for the painting to which W. M. Rossetti refers is inscribed on an old label on the painting’s stretcher:
Child Spring, escaped from harsh Dame Winter's rod,
Upon the still green meads stole forth to play,
Glad in the sun's first smile that early day, -
Fresh daffodils declaring where he trod
Full softly; while upon the tender sod
Amid the quickening blooms, asleep Earth lay, -
Though Spring to her had many a word to say,
And token sweet to bear from Day's bright God.
Then on his pipe he made sweet noise, that woke
The singing fowl by every wood and hill,
And soaring treble from the answering sky, -
Until the sweet unrest Earth's slumber broke:
Though, fearing it a dream, yet bode she still
A little space, till Spring to her did cry.
Crane, Walter. An Artist’s Reminiscences. London: Methuen & Co., 1907
Rossetti, William Michael: “Fine Art. The Dudley Gallery,” The Academy, 7 (February 6, 1875): 148-49.
“Spring Exhibitions.” The Saturday Review. (March 27, 1875): 410-11.
Last modified 8 July 2021