Eyre Crowe painted with intense realism and used a delicate, meticulous technique, almost like that of a miniaturist. The rich detail of his works contributes to the impression that they are authentic representations of their subject matter. Crowe had remarkable powers of observation and conveyed many subtle nuances of a scene, imparting tremendous character and charm. He also occasionally engaged in political criticism or in a critique of social mores, creating social realist works as well as humorous caricatures. Notably, he portrayed workers in a positive way, not in a clichéd or patronizing manner. In A sheep-shearing match, he has not painted the shearers toiling in a shed; instead, he explores the dynamic of a contest at an English fair. The atmosphere in this luminous picture is relaxed, the cheerful informality emphasized by the bright, sunlit day, and by the colourful garments of the well-dressed spectators. Crowe’s social commentary is particularly evident in the portrayal of the group of men at the back of the tent – most likely landowners – whom the artist has pointedly positioned well distant from the physical labour taking place behind them.
Above all, A sheep-shearing match is a celebration of the immense skill of the shearers, which is apparent in the depiction of the closely clipped sheep in the pens. Although the shearers’ labour is obviously strenuous, there is a grace and relaxed confidence in the way they carry out their work, and Crowe has used their differing postures to create a rhythm across the composition. The level of concentration of the shearers is in stark contrast to that of the visitors, the majority of whom seem to ignore the spectacle of the competition. Despite this lack of attention, the shearers, old and young alike, take great pride in their performance. The way in which the artist has captured their inherent nobility was praised by many critics when A sheep-shearing match was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1875.
Text by Laurie Benson from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 90.