Cromek, Robert Hartley (DNB00)
CROMEK, ROBERT HARTLEY (1770–1812), engraver, was born at Hull in 1770. He abandoned law for literary and artistic pursuits. He lived for a time at Manchester and collected books. He afterwards went to London and studied engraving under Bartolozzi. He engraved some of Stothard's pictures, and made acquaintance with William Blake. He bought Blake's drawings in illustration of Blair's 'Grave' for twenty guineas (about the usual price according to Cunningham), and in 1808 published an edition of the poem with etchings after Blake by Schiavonetti. Blake expected to be employed upon the engraving himself, and was aggrieved by the transference of the work to Schiavonetti. Cromek obtained a large number of subscribers without any benefit to Blake. In 1808 Cromek visited Scotland to collect information about Burns. The result was his 'Reliques of Burns, consisting chiefly of Original Letters, Poems, and Critical Observations on Scottish Songs,' 1808. This was followed by 'Select Scottish Songs, Ancient and Modern, with Critical Observations and Biographical Notices by Robert Burns, edited by R. H. Cromek,' 1810. Cromek had made a second collecting tour in 1809, and then met Allan Cunningham [q. v.], who provided him with 'old songs' of his own manufacture. Cromek turned Cunningham's services to account, with very slight acknowledgment of their true nature, in 'Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, with Historical and Traditional Notices relative to the Manners and Customs of the Peasantry,' 1810. During one of these tours Cromek, according to his biographer, picked up a volume of Chaucer, and thereupon suggested to Stothard his famous picture of the 'Canterbury Pilgrims.' This statement was intended as an answer to the far more probable story that Cromek really took the hint from a sight of Blake's design for the same subject. Blake asserted that Cromek gave him a commission for the picture. Cromek replied that Blake must have received the commission 'in a vision.' It seems that on failing to get the design on the same terms as the designs for the 'Grave' he offered Stothard 60l. (afterwards raised to 100l.) to paint the picture without explaining the previous transaction with Blake. Cromek exhibited Stothard's picture in several towns, and sold it for 300l. He excused himself from paying Stothard in full on the ground of money difficulties. Schiavonetti's death (7 June 1810) delayed the engraving, and Cromek was much affected by the disappointment. He showed symptoms of consumption in the winter of 1810, and died of the disease 14 March 1812, leaving a widow and two children. The 'Grave' was reissued in 1813, with lives of Cromek and Schiavonetti. Cromek's widow finally made a large sum by publishing the print after Stothard, which was completed by other engravers. Cunningham tells a story of Cromek's appropriation of an autograph letter of Ben Jonson belonging to Scott. Cromek was a shifty speculator, who incurred the odium attaching to men of business who try to make money by the help of men of genius. The fact that he ruined himself in the attempt has not procured him pardon. Yet he seems to have been a man of some taste and kindly feeling, who might have behaved more liberally if he could have afforded to keep a conscience. Cunningham, whom he introduced to Chantrey, says: 'I always think of him, if not with gratitude, with affection and esteem.'
[Life in Blair's Grave, 1813; Nichols's Illustrations, vii. 213, 216; Gilchrist's Blake (2nd ed.), i. 246. 290; Bray's Life of Stothard (1851), 130-40; Gent. Mag. February 1852 (where a letter to Blake was first printed); Hogg's Life of Allan Cunningham, 49-74, 79, 80; Cunningham's Lives of the Painters, ii. 161-3; Smith's Nollekens, ii. 474-6; Preface by Peter Cunningham to A. Cunningham's Songs, 1847.]