The Norwich School of painters was the first provincial art movement established in Britain, active in the early 19th century. Artists of the school were inspired by the natural environment of the Norfolk landscape and owed some influence to the work of landscape painters of the Dutch Golden Age such as Hobbema and Ruisdael.
The Norwich Society of Artists was founded in 1803 by John Crome and Robert Ladbrooke as a club where artists could meet to exchange ideas. Its aims were "an enquiry into the rise, progress and present state of painting, architecture, and sculpture, with a view to point out the best methods of study to attain the greater perfection in these arts." The society's first meeting was in "The Hole in the Wall" tavern; two years later it moved to premises which allowed it to offer members work and exhibition space. Its first exhibition opened in 1805, and was such a success that it became an annual event until 1825. The building was demolished but the society re-opened three years later, in 1828, as "The Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts" at a different venue and exhibitions continued until 1833.
The leading light of the movement was John Crome who attracted many friends and pupils until his death in 1821. The mantle of leadership then fell on John Sell Cotman, a member of the society since 1807, who continued to keep the society together until he left Norwich for London in 1834. The society effectively ceased to exist from that date.
The Norwich School's great achievement was that a small group of self-taught working class artists were able to paint with vitality the hinterland surrounding Norwich, assisted by meagre local patronage. Far from creating pastiches of the Dutch 17th century, Crome and Cotman, along with Joseph Stannard, established a school of landscape painting which deserves greater fame; the broad washes of J.S. Cotman's water-colours anticipate French impressionism.
One reason the Norwich School artists are not so well known as other painters of the period, notably Constable and Turner, is because the majority of their canvases were collected by the industrialist J. J. Colman (of Colman's mustard fame), and have been on permanent display in Norwich Castle Museum since the 1880s. This lack of wider exposure was remedied in 2001, when many of the school's major works were exhibited outside Norwich for the first time at the Tate Gallery, London in 2000.