Eyre Crowe spent his childhood in France and in 1839, at the age of fifteen, he entered the atelier of the artist Paul DeLaroche. DeLaroche was renowned for large-scale history and narrative paintings rendered in a highly finished and detailed manner in a style derived from neoclassicism. Crowe trained in the strict academic manner of the day and the five years he spent in Delaroche’s studio clearly had a lasting effect on his work.
Crowe painted with an intense realism and had a very fine technique, almost like that of a miniaturist; qualities that are clearly seen in A sheep shearing match, 1875. He also had remarkable powers of observation and related many subtle nuances which give a seductive impression of credibility and authenticity; even during Crowe’s lifetime, his paintings were likened to photographs. At the very time he was part of Delaroche’s atelier, the master was advocating that painters use daguerreotypes to accurately record their observations, although it is not known if Crowe followed Delaroche’s suggestion. After Crowe returned to England in 1844 he occasionally created social-realist illustrations in the popular press, but his paintings were predominantly based on historical and literary works, the themes favoured by Delaroche. However, in 1869 he exhibited The shinglers at the Royal Academy, a painting of a forge that is reputed to be the first depiction of modern, urban, industrial workers (J. Treheurz, Hard Times: Social Realism in Victorian Art, London, 1987, p. 105). The shinglers met with critical success and thereafter Crowe mainly produced contemporary genre works. He is recognised as part of a movement of Victorian artists which included Luke Fildes, William Powell Frith, Hubert von Herkomer and Frank Holl (all of whom are represented in the collections of the NGV) who were exploring modern life; however, Crowe did not imbue his work with the same degree of sentimentality.
A sheep shearing match was selected for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1875 and it exemplifies Crowe’s genre paintings of the 1870s. He has painted the scene with his typically beguiling realism which underscores a discreet socio-political theme. Unlike the approach often taken by many of his contemporaries, he has portrayed workers in a positive way that is not overly romanticised, clichéd or patronising. He explores the dynamic of a shearing contest at a country fair, a traditional setting for shearers to publicly demonstrate their abilities. The painting is a celebration of the immense skill of their labours carried out with relaxed confidence. Crowe has also included a degree of social commentary: at the back of the tent a group of men, most likely landowners, are conspicuously positioned, ignoring the physical labour behind them. This device was also used by Tom Roberts in his paintings of shearing sheds to reinforce the class distinctions between station owners and shearers.
Crowe exhibited at the Royal Academy every year from 1860 to 1904, and usually attracted the attention of the press. The critic who wrote in The Athenaeum: ‘The charm of the design of this picture lies in its spontaneity, and the carelessness which is expressed by the actions of the shearers, who cut away steadily, swiftly, and silently … there is passion in these grave men which is edifying to see’ (16 January 1875, p. 93) was clearly sensitive to Crowe’s desire to show the shearers in a dignified light, while also imparting the impression that we are witnessing actual events.
Laurie Benson, Assistant Curator of International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).