On 24 April 1742 in Devon, Mary Crosse gave birth to her second son, Richard. Her husband was a lawyer and they were of landed gentry. The boy will take up the gentleman’s hobby of painting, but his art will become more than a pastime. He will become a respected miniature painter, will exhibit works in the Royal Academy, and will have the honour of the Prince of Wales as a client. This earns him a respectable reputation in Georgian society, but what strikes me most is that he was profoundly deaf.
There is no shortage of deaf artists in the 18th century: Joshua Reynolds, Francisco Goya. In lacking the sense of hearing, these men made use of their sight to produce renowned works of art. Deaf students were frequent attendees of the Royal Academy (founded in 1768 by 36 artists), as the arts were considered a good career path for people with disabilities in the 18th century. Yet unlike Reynolds and Goya, Crosse was born deaf and never learnt to talk. His sister was also deaf and mute. In a society where social connections and interactions was the way to climb up the reputation ladder, lacking the ability to speak due to deafness was seen as a great disadvantage. Previously, we learnt of Thomas Braidwood’s Academy (see my blog on John Goodricke) which aimed to educate the deaf and teach them speech, but Crosse does not appear to have had this education. This did not stop him from him from gaining a reputation as one of the most sought-after miniature artists, respected by his contemporaries.
Very little is known about Crosse’s life before he moved to London to learn in William Shipley’s drawing school. What is known is that he had a strong affection towards his cousin, Sarah Cobley. Already engaged, she rejected him, but he would never let that rejection go, never marrying and often resorting to short temper. Despite this disappointment, he devoted his life to his art.
Miniature paintings were painted using watercolour, ivory, and enamel (Crosse frequently used ivory). Being so small, they were rather difficult. They were used as souvenirs, gifts and tokens, often worn as lockets. With miniatures so high in demand, and fashionable, Crosse found no shortage of clients. Nor did he find shortage of success, for in 1789 he was appointed to the Court as Painter in Enamel to George III. Though he could not speak, he communicated through gestures and signs that his family could understand. With a deaf sister, he was not alone in the family, and his father recognised and supported his son’s talent. Even his brother was willing to support him during his success, playing a vital role in communicating with Crosse’s clients and acting as an interpreter. As mentioned before, Crosse had a short temper, and he was prone to frustration when not able to express himself fully to his clients. His financial situation was comfortable and he was able to live off his earnings for the rest of his life. He was a wealthy man when he died in May of 1810 (the date is not known).
Unfortunately, what little we know of Crosse is owed to the fact that his family papers are lost, and he was overshadowed by contemporary painters Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Zoffany, but what we do have are his miniatures. Below are some examples of Crosse’s work, the last being a miniature of Crosse’s Windsor patron, George III. Despite their small scale, Crosse captured likeness well, a skill which added to his reputation. He never signed his miniatures, but his style could be recognised through his frequent use of blue and green. Despite his deafness, he made a great contribution to British art during the peak in miniature paintings.
Cockayne, E. (2003). Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England. The Historical Journal. Vol. 46, no. 3, pp 493-510
Long, B. S. (1928). Richard Crosse, Miniaturist and Portrait-Painter. The Volume of the Walpole Society. Vol. 17, pp 62-94
Sloman, S. (2018). A Portrait of Thomas Gainsborough. British Art Journal. Vol. 19, No. 2, pp 54-9