by Simon Court
Samuel Palmer’s contribution to Romanticism in painting lies in his highly distinctive portrayal of the English countryside. For Palmer’s interpretation of the ‘pastoral’ is not remotely conventional; rather, it is visionary and idealistic. As he wrote in 1871: “I was always imagining and trying to draw”. What his imagination created was a mystical and idyllic English landscape.
Although Palmer was a great admirer of the paintings of his English contemporary J.M.W. Turner (who concluded his own Romantic adventure in the pure abstraction of colour and light), it was William Blake who was his most formative influence. Blake exemplified the Romantic’s idea of an artist as a genius creating a unique vision of the world which transcends common experience. Palmer shared Blake’s view that the deepest perception of the world was achieved through the exercise of the imagination, rather than observation. His own visionary style was heavily influenced by seeing the wood engravings of Blake’s Illustrations to Robert Thornton’s Pastorals of Virgil (1821) and Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825-6). Palmer expressed his admiration for the Virgil woodcuts in one of his sketch-books of 1823-4:
“They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise: models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry….Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy….There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inner-most soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world.”
This quote could equally apply to Palmer himself because, although he didn’t share Blake’s radical politics or suspicion of organised religion, he did share with Blake a similar vision of rural life in magnified and distinct images, with the same vast monstrous moons, mushroom trees and figures cast in a low glimmering light.
It was on Palmer’s first visit to Blake in the autumn of 1824 that he saw the first plate of the Illustrations of the Book of Job, called ‘Thus did Job continually’, lying on a table where Blake had been working at it. Palmer recalled “How lovely it looked by the lamplight, strained through the tissue paper!” The imagery of Job and his family sitting under a tree, in devout prayer, with resting sheep before them, and sun and sickle moon behind them, left a lasting impression.
Palmer’s own idyllic portrayal of nature falls within a broader artistic tradition, which is the ‘pastoral’. It is a world of shepherds, sheep and rural communities, protected by enfolding hills. In Palmer’s hands nature is both wonderful and inviting: as Simon Schama observes in The Face of Britain, “everything is a state of maddened fecundity or drowsy fullness”. This contrasts with the starker paintings of his older contemporary Friedrich, which emphasise man’s separation in the world. For there is something deeply comforting and loving in Palmer’s celebration of nature: a richness, intensity and sensuality of experience, and an overwhelming sensation of well-being and contentment.
The vivid imagery of Palmer’s distinctive rural vision is most clearly seen in his early works, spanning the period 1825-32, when he started visiting the Kentish village of Shoreham and eventually lived there permanently. It was a period d of outstandingly original output, culminating in depictions of the Kent countryside in feverish and explosive colour (see In a Shoreham Garden (c.1829) and The Magic Apple Tree (c.1830).
While living in Shoreham Palmer was regularly visited in Shoreham by a group of like-minded artists called – in repudiation of debased modern life – ‘The Ancients’. What has become known as the ‘Oxford sepia series’ of 1825 (the originals of which are in the Ashmolean Museum) show Palmer at his very best, a precocious genius of just twenty years old. These six drawings were startlingly unfamiliar and revolutionary: the illumination of a dream world. They possess what Palmer describes in his 1824 notebook as a “mystical glimmer….like that which lights up our dreams.”
Tom Lubbock points out in Great Works that in Early Morning “each living organism has been individuated, defined with emphatic shape.” And the same applies to all six of the gum and sepia cuttlefish ink drawings of 1825. Technically Palmer appears to want to achieve the effect of an engraving, as each image is finely drawn and articulated in minute detail. This is intensified by the sense of enclosure: as Lubbock puts it, “Nature is rounded up within firm curves, gathered into a flock of mounds.” The rounded thatched cottages which nestle within the landscape are as much a swelling fact of nature as the hills. Unlike the landscapes of, say, Constable, there is little interest in spreading land, in the far horizons and open skies. Unlike Turner, there is no concern for violent storms or angry sunsets. Rather, Palmer’s vision is highly personal, and inward looking.
A deeply religious man, Palmer understood himself to be using his heightened perceptions to reveal (at least partially) a divine reality in nature. The Kent landscape becomes a little heaven on Earth. His imagination creates things in nature which are sharp focussed and strange, yet warm and glowing, which possess what he called “a curiousness in their beauty”. For Palmer greatly admired a remark made by Francis Bacon that “there is no excellent beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” That visionary observation, which transcends the drabness of everyday life, is emphatically Romantic.
Amongst an abundant and fruitful landscape a smocked man and beast are standing together. The position of the sickle moon shows that it is either dawn or dusk: the ploughman is yoking or unyoking his ox, to begin or end their day of labour. That ambiguity about time emphasises the continual cycle of agricultural life. The image of the peasant and the ox is both heroic and innocent, as it expresses the virtues of honest toil and good husbandry. The ox represents vast strength and serviceability, and there is a dignity, simplicity and nobility in the man and beast working in harmony, as integral parts of the landscape. This reflects the Romantic idea of the ‘child in nature’
In the stillness of dawn, it takes a moment to distinguish any figures, until we catch sight of a hare on the path, alert but unperturbed, casting its own shadow as the sun rises. We can be forgiven for thinking that this quiet rural scene in Early Morning is absent of humanity. Yet, on closer inspection, we are surprised to realise that there is, buried deep in a dell and, significantly, in the very centre of the composition, a gathering of men and bonneted women. They are sitting under a stylised, toadstool-like tree, which has the appearance of topiary and echoes the tree in Blake’s Job. Are they workers at breakfast, or perhaps a congregation in prayer? Their presence strikes us more as a symbolic, rather than an accurate, depiction of country life. It suggests that man can live peacefully in and with nature, sharing it with other creatures. And this sense of community in nature is heightened by the fearless hare whose presence introduces an animal consciousness to the woodland idyll. All is harmoniously framed: the distinctively curved cottage on the horizon echoes the shapes of the surrounding hills. All is innocent also, in that the picture constitutes what Schama describes as “the miraculous preservation of the innocently wide-eyed vision of the child.”
In The Valley Thick with Corn a man is lying nonchalantly against a hummock, propped up by his elbow and with an open book on his lap. The scene is one of glorious, almost overwhelming abundance, emphasised by the same vivid intensity of detail in the distance as much as in the foreground. Peculiarly, the dress and beard of the reclining figure appear to be Elizabethan, perhaps Shakespearian. He seems to be contented and peaceful: enveloped by heavy ears of corn, housed without a roof – exposed to, yet paradoxically, protected by, nature. The varnishing has aged the picture to produce a rich, yellowing brown, which suggests that it is daylight with kites or buzzards soaring across a setting golden sun, where below the man is absorbed in his reading and the bunched sheaves of wheat are toasted warm. Yet on further inspection we wonder whether the birds are in fact owls, or bats flitting across a distended orb of a harvest moon, and whether it is dark, and the man isn’t reading, but is sleeping instead. Then we notice the shepherd piping to his flock of sheep, and the figure with a crook looking at two hefty cows, and we conclude, albeit warily, that it is dusk. This shifting ambiguity about day or night contributes to the essentially unrepresentative nature of this mystical vision, whose central force, and only constant, is displayed in the quietude of the resting man. As Seamus Perry observes in ‘The Shoreham Gang’, London Review of Books April 2012, “Palmer was always moved by the mysterious privacy of such self-enclosed figures.”
In Coming from Evening Church a congregation of villagers weave their way back home from Evensong, seemingly mesmerised by prayer. For there is an entrancing, dream-like quality to this scene: a delightful and enchanting vision in the languid richness of the twilight colours. The congregation comprises all ages, revealing the continuity of life in a devoted religious community. These grave villagers – quiet children, bearded sages, statuesque women – grip our attention. Here we also find, as Schama puts it, “Palmer the child comforted by the steeple on the horizon.” The group leading the procession, trees, cottages and spire are elongated, slightly extended; stretching upwards, perhaps to heaven, to meet their Maker. Framed by curving tree trunks, whose boughs form a primitive Gothic archway, everything is locked within a hazy distortion. Palmer said: “Blessed thoughts and visions haunt the stillness and twilight of the soul”, and Coming from Evening Church captures fully the essence of that sentiment.
Coleridge believed that the Lyrical Ballads demonstrated that it is “passions, which alone give any value to extraordinary Incidents…..of Common Life”. We can say the same of Palmer’s early paintings, which reveal the hidden wonder to be found in ordinary rural life, what Simon Schama describes as “a dreamscape of poetic magic”
Vaughan, Barker and Harrison: Samuel Palmer, Vision and Landscape (The British Museum Press, 2005).
A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and Romanticism by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series and regularly contributes to this blog. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.