English Romantic painting: Samuel Palmer

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.

Samuel Palmer, Self Portrait, c 1825, Ashmolean Museum

Samuel Palmer, Self Portrait, c 1825, Ashmolean Museum

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.

William Blake, Four Illustrations to Virgil, 1821, Morgan Library

William Blake, Four Illustrations to Virgil, 1821, Morgan Library

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).
In a Shoreham Garden, Samuel Palmer, V&A

In a Shoreham Garden, Samuel Palmer, V&A

The Magic Apple Tree, Samuel Palmer, Fitzwilliam Museum

The Magic Apple Tree, Samuel Palmer, Fitzwilliam Museum

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.
A Rustic Scene, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Musuem

A Rustic Scene, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Musuem

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’
Early Morning, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Museum

Early Morning, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Museum

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.”
The Valley Thick with Corn, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Museum

The Valley Thick with Corn, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Museum

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.”
Coming from Evening Church, Samuel Palmer, Tate

Coming from Evening Church, Samuel Palmer, Tate

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”
Further reading:
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 Simon‘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.

Romanticism in painting

by Simon Court

What is it that distinguishes the Romantic view of the world from others? It is the importance which is placed on individuals who, inspired by the emotive power of imagination, perceive and order the world through their own senses. In doing so they reach an understanding of both nature and themselves. Whether it is manifested in the harmonies of the ‘child in nature’, the solitude in the mountains, or the destructive forces of a sea-storm, it is the Romantics’ feelings towards nature which determines their experience of it.
For the Romantic, the role of the artist is always active, never passive. As the German painter Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also omit to paint that which he sees before him.” It is not that the Romantic denies the existence of an independent, objective reality: rather, it is that such reality can only be described through the subjective experience of the individual.
Whether grounded in the philosophical arguments of British empiricism or Kantian idealism, the conclusion drawn by the Romantic is the same: the world is only known to us through our imaginative responses to it, and artists, with their heightened receptiveness to feelings, are best placed to reveal it. Such emotions, however, must always be tempered by reason. As the Spanish artist Goya puts it in the subtitle to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1798), “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origins of their marvels”.
In seeking to express the world through imagination the Romantics looked beyond the confined and ordered interiors of royal palaces and stately homes towards the wildness and wonder of the landscape. As the German painter Philipp Otto Runge exclaimed in 1802, it is the landscape as “romantic field…..where man and nature dominate equally, each giving meaning and interest to the other”. For it is in contemplation of nature that man achieves his most emotional experiences and profound instances of self-awareness. The empiricist Edmund Burke provided an analysis of (and a vocabulary to describe) this sensation, and the revelation of the ‘sublime’ in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757).
Burke’s contribution to the Romantic understanding is his observation that what constitutes the greatest experience of the sublime is that which most disturbs and horrifies us – that which is not within our control or comprehension, but is hidden and beyond us. Further, two attributes of the sublime in nature – vastness and infinity – can only be understood in obscurity. For, Burke says, nothing can obtain to greatness if we can “see an object distinctly” and “perceive its bounds”. As such, “a clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” This view is confirmed by Friedrich: “when a landscape is covered in fog, it appears larger more sublime, and heightens the strength of the imagination and excites expectation…..The eye and fantasy feel themselves more attracted to the hazy distance than to that which lies near and distinct before us”.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

Unsurprisingly, then, we find the vastness and excesses of landscapes and natural disasters (especially shipwrecks) are a common inspiration for Romantic painters such as Friedrich and Turner. It is in this world of space, scale and motion where the artistic imagination is most excited: a world where, as William Hazlitt puts it, objects “hover on the brink of nothingness”.
But before confronting the extreme terrors of the sublime, we should note that there is a gentler (although no less radical) ‘pastoral’ form of painting developed within the Romantic tradition, notably by the English painter Samuel Palmer, who will be the subject of a later post. This relates to the idea of the ‘child in nature’. As Simon Schama observes in The Face Of Britain, “it was an article of Romantic faith that childhood was unsullied nature, adulthood all contrivance, commerce and artifice”. This faith led Coleridge, in ‘Frost at Midnight ‘(1798) to address his sixteen-month-old son Hartley:

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,…
… so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God

For Philipp Otto Runge (as for Coleridge), this faith in the unspoilt innocence of childhood, where feelings remain spontaneous and unspoilt, was quite literal: Runge was deeply Christian and believed that nature was the manifestation of the Divine, and viewed his painting as communicating the “sensation of our kinship with the whole universe”, where “everything harmonises in one great chord”.

Philipp Otto Runge, The Child in the Meadow, 1809

Philipp Otto Runge, The Child in the Meadow, 1808, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

In The Child in the Meadow (1809) Runge has placed a naked infant alone in nature, on its back and staring boldly up to the sky. It is dawn and the child is illuminated in golden, warming light. It looks like Jesus in a Nativity scene, but this it is not a specifically Christian image. Rather, as Tom Lubbock says in Great Works, “it’s a universal symbol of the miracle of birth….a divine baby, taken out of Christian theology, and laid in nature”. As the infant basks in the glow of the morning light, it responds, like a flower, opening its arms in welcome, its fingers stretching up and out like the plants beside it. The baby has apparently sprung from nowhere (or fallen from the sky); and although it is alone it is fearless and at one with nature, emphatically part of its landscape. Mankind and nature are in perfect harmony through the divine miracle of life.
We look at The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Friedrich, and see a man with his back to us, standing alone amidst a mountainous landscape, looking across the foggy vastness below. His stance suggests confidence, or at least defiance in the face of the elements, but we cannot see his face, and are therefore unable to fully gauge his feelings. Is he exhilarated, triumphant and all- conquering, or hesitant, uncertain of his next step into the hazy unknown? We want to be able to analyse his feelings and thereby understand the meaning of the painting, but we cannot do so.
Friedrich often employed the ‘Rückenfigur’ – a person seen from behind – in his landscapes and, as Lubbock points out (when discussing in Great Works a similar composition Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise (1817)), this conceit is crucial. The figures in our way and impose their own consciousness on us, but their feelings are closed to us. As Lubbock says, “The landscape experience is blocked and trapped in these rival viewers with their unfathomable minds.”
So if a total explanation of the Wanderer is impossible, can we at least seek a partial one? We may think that it leaves a contradictory impression, suggesting that man has mastered the landscape whilst remaining insignificant within it. We may be bolder and think that it portrays a single moment of man’s yearning for the infinite, whilst remaining always separate from it. But we cannot know for sure.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

In The Sea of Ice (1823-4) there is no Ruckenfigur to interrupt our experience of what we see. We are witnessing directly a horrific site in a desolate world. A ship lies amongst the grinding slabs of sea-ice which has, in its relentless and powerful motion, ruined the ship and, presumably, all life on it is lost. The jagged ice-berg in the foreground is mimicked by another in the distance, both mountainous in shape. Are we seeing human aspiration crushed – like the frail bark of the ship – by a glacial indifference’? The impression is that whilst nature can destroy humanity, it remains permanent, and ultimately impenetrable to man.
In both the Wanderer and The Sea of Ice Friedrich is showing us an instant of sublimity as we contemplate nature, either directly or indirectly. But in doing so, have we understood, or do we realise that we can never fully understand, the world? That ambiguity is a Romantic achievement, and a Romantic condition of life.

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

We stare, confused, at this chaotic scene: then, refocussing, details rise up and objects become visible. We start to pick out hands flailing in the turbulent waters, see a leg being devoured by monster-fish. The scene remains incomprehensible, but the horror of it has caught up with us.  In The Slave Ship (originally entitled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon coming on) (1840), the English artist J.M.W. Turner depicts the moment in 1783 when the captain of the slave ship Zong had ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard so as to be ‘lost at sea’ and thereby be able to collect for their loss on insurance. Here, the tragic impact of human moral irresponsibility is central to this natural carnage, in that the evil actions of the captain has started the causal sequence of the hellish drama.
Turner’s use of colour, and the frenzied brushstrokes which deliberately obscure the distinctness of the shapes, enhance the sense of nature overwhelming, and condemning, man. The violent reds and oranges, with the gold of the declining sun, makes the sky angry and sets the sea aflame. As the art critic John Ruskin observed, the ‘fearful hue’ of the sea frames the ‘guilty ship…its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood’, tossing helpless in the sea. The painting betrays both a morbidity and an impression of futility.

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Tate, London

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Tate, London

In Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843) Turner extends the dimensions of a human disaster to Biblical proportions. The aftermath of the great flood is represented as a whirlpool of colour: a darker outer rim with blurred figures swimming in blinding yellows creating a swirling circle of energy in which the eye strains to form any clear image. This vortex expresses the forces of nature drawing man down into its mass. The human figures are encased in earth-bubbles, whose transitory fragility reflects man’s own predicament. As Turner makes clear in his own verse (taken from The Fallacies Of Hope and published in the Royal Academy catalogue entry for the picture), the scene shows:

Hope’s harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly,
Which rises, flits, expands, and dies.

Turner has taken the Romantic landscape beyond the mountains and the seas into a cosmic vision. In doing so he has stretched out the sublime into pure abstraction: a visual impression of the powerlessness and ultimate insignificance of man in an indifferent universe.
So where has the imagination of the Romantic painters taken us? Are we living in glorious harmony in God’s earth, as Runge’s ‘child in nature’? Or staring out at the world continually seeking answers, like Friedrich’s wanderer? Or are we resigned, fatalistically, to our own powerlessness in the face of Friedrich’s sea of ice or Turner’s swelling waters? That is the distinctly Romantic dilemma.

Further reading:
William Vaughan: Romanticism and Art (Thames & Hudson, 1978)

A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and SimonRomanticism 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