[This article originally appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]
Every now and then — probably no more than a handful of times in anyone’s life — one stumbles over the sort of art exhibition to which the proper response isn’t so much respect, or admiration, or polite enthusiasm even, as something far more intense, personal and profound. The British Museum’s Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape is, for me anyway, one such exhibition. As compact, satisfying, modest, original and brilliant as the artist’s own strongest works, the show is at once an absorbing survey of Palmer’s own career, and a window onto nineteenth century British landscape art more generally. But for some viewers, perhaps, it will be even more than that. Put bluntly, I turned up at this exhibition liking Palmer’s work, not least because of its importance for Neo-Romantic artists such as Nash, Sutherland, Ravilious, Piper, Minton and Craxton who already meant a great deal to me — but by the time I left it was Palmer himself who had swept me off my feet.
Life and death
The facts of Samuel Palmer’s life are straight-forward enough. He was born in Newington, South London, in 1805. His father was a bookseller and Baptist lay preacher. A happy childhood ended suddenly, first with a miserable six months at the Merchant Taylors’ School in 1817, and then the death of his mother early in 1818. It was around this time that Palmer decided to become an artist. His family encouraged him, his skill was precocious and at the age of 14 his picturesque landscapes had been shown at the British Institution and the Royal Academy.
By 1822 Palmer had met several of the artists who would play an important role in his development: John Linnell, William Blake, George Richmond. Together with Richmond and others, he formed a society known as The Ancients, which its combination of religious serious-mindedness, artistic endeavour and mutual affection followed the Nazarenes and anticipated the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group centred around Shoreham, a pretty village nestled in the Kent Downs, where Palmer lived, on and off, from 1826 until 1835. In 1837, having moved back to London, he married Linnell’s eldest daughter, Hannah, with whom he had three children, two of whom died young. In particular, the loss of Palmer’s son Thomas in 1861, aged 19, was a blow from which the artist never entirely recovered.
Prior to his son’s death, Palmer travelled extensively — to Rome and Naples, but also within England and Wales — in search of subject-matter for his paintings and drawings. Afterwards, however, he retreated to Redhill in Surrey where he became a virtual recluse, although he continued to work. He died in 1881, at the age of 76, with his old friend George Richmond at his bedside. He is buried next to his wife in St Mary’s churchyard, Reigate.
The success that Palmer achieved in his lifetime was real but in some ways modest. He was, first and foremost, a ‘painter’s painter’, which is to say, admired more energetically by fellow practitioners than by the market or the critics: in his own words,
designing what nobody would care for, and contracting, among good books, a fastidious and unpopular taste.
Ruskin, at least, wrote warmly about his studies of foliage, and Palmer was elected to the various societies of watercolour painters that flourished during his age.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, he was largely forgotten. Snobbery about the media in which he worked may have played a part, for instead of producing large oil paintings, Palmer focused on creating drawings, watercolours and etchings, occasionally even committing the terrible art-historical faux pas of engaging in commercial illustration. In any event, it was only in 1926, with a massive exhibition of his work at the Victoria & Albert Museum, that he came to be accepted as one of Britain’s pre-eminent Romantic artists, fit to be mentioned alongside Blake and Turner. In particular, his early landscape drawings, executed in brown ink and sepia, coupled with the few remaining gem-like painted panels from his Shoreham days and his moody late etchings, seemed to offer the young British artists of the 1920s — themselves keen watercolourists, graphic artists and illustrators — both a visual language near-magical in its freedom, very surprising but also very English, and perhaps even more importantly, the possibility of re-enchanting a threatened landscape with its cadences.
Not that Palmer’s gift to future generations was anything like a unitary, imitable style. Palmer’s own influences were diverse, the lessons he learned from them highly personal. Relatively unfamiliar figures such as Lucas van Leyden and Giulio di Antonia Bonasone mattered as much to him as did Titian, Durer, Rembrandt and Claude Lorraine — a point developed skilfully in the present exhibition. The collections of the British Museum, located round the corner from his home during his adolescent years, were another source of inspiration. And then there was the gravitational pull of his various contemporaries, including Blake, Linnell and Turner, the force of which can sometimes be seen in Palmer’s art, although never overshadowing his own highly personal line.
Perhaps inevitably, in a working life that spanned six decades, Palmer’s own working practice, subject-matter and mood changed considerably. A crude narrative of this progression might run as follows: precocious but unoriginal picturesque landscapes, followed swiftly by ‘primitive’, visionary and entirely original sepia drawings and small tempera panels, followed by larger, brighter, skilful yet once again more conventional watercolours of ‘romantic’ landscapes, foreign and domestic, followed finally by the late etchings which recaptured a measure of that early strangeness and utter distinctiveness. In other words, it’s a story of youthful inspiration ultimately recaptured in a moving late style infused with private loss. Given that Palmer did not succumb to the Romantic cliché of an early death, it is hard to see how his career could have run on more Romantically acceptable lines.
Yet what this sort of narrative never captures, with its tidy but false discontinuities, is the silver thread of individual sensibility running through all the phases, connecting them together with unmistakeable, sparkling coherence. Thus in bringing together such a large and varied collection of the artist’s work, the present exhibition, arranged by the British Museum in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not only provides a rare opportunity to experience the breadth and variety of Palmer’s achievement at first hand, but also to see his best-known work in the context of a long, fruitful career. Or to put it another way, if some of the more florid or cosy watercolours of the ‘Victorian’ Palmer have proved harder to love, either for us or for our grandparents, than either the early or late work, we can at least take pleasure in scanning them for sublimations of earlier obsessions, adumbrations of future concerns. Finally, the opportunity to see the works in the context of the life — for the exhibition is arranged along chronological, biographical lines — yields generous rewards. The Shoreham scenes start to mean more for what one can learn of Palmer’s idyllic early days there. The lonely tower — that haunting leitmotif of Palmer’s last work — means more when one understands its connection with the death of Palmer’s beloved son.
Doing justice to Palmer
The organisers of Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape, a event timed to coincide with the bicentenary of Palmer’s birth, deserve unbounded praise. It is, I imagine, harder than it looks to arrange an exhibition so that the subject stays in the foreground, with the organisers’ labours firmly in the background. Yet that is very much the case here. For while the exhibition provides a richly informative account of Palmer’s career — including, as we have seen, the artistic and literary sources that mattered to him, the media in which he worked and the reaction of his contemporaries — curatorial cleverness never gets in the way. The exhibition space — a curving, partitioned room suspended within the British Museum’s Great Court — works surprisingly well, both in terms of directing the flow of visitors, and in providing a warm, rich, sympathetic environment for the work. Perhaps basic professionalism should insist on both these things. But then there are lovely touches, too, like providing photos of Palmer’s various houses, or showing his old spectacles and engraving tools, which are so replete with sympathy for the subject as to transcend plain old competence altogether. The organisers have also secured some amazing loans from within Britain and from around the world, ensuring that the view of Palmer’s art is a comprehensive, virtually definitive one.
Meanwhile, the catalogue (William Vaughan, Elizabeth E. Barker and Colin Harrison, with additional contributions) is a model of its type, full of incisive essays addressing various facets of Palmer’s achievements, followed by full descriptions and illustrations of all the works on show. For those who come to Palmer knowing virtually nothing, it should provide an excellent introduction, while have much to offer even long-time Palmer enthusiasts. The bibliography is helpful, too. It is also a great relief to handle a catalogue that is so thoroughly practical, informative and illuminating, rather than bulked up with pointless theoretical padding and huge empty margins. It’s hardly surprising that the British Museum seem to have sold out of their first printing within a few weeks of the show’s opening.
I started this review by writing that the effect of the exhibition had been not simply to make me appreciate Palmer’s art and his ongoing influence — which, to some extent, I did already — but rather, to make me feel drawn to Palmer himself. But although this may sound odd, is it really so unusual to think about artists in such terms? I once knew, for instance, an intelligent woman who couldn’t stand Picasso’s work because, as she told me more than once, she considered him an evil misogynist, and indeed I have to admit, oddly or not, that I disagree more with her account of Picasso, and perhaps with her intolerance of misogyny, than I do with the underlying logic of her position. From Vasari to the makers of every silly High Art biopic, the impulse expressed in such judgements is, if nothing else, a very human one. Ultimately, few of us are formalists of sufficiently robust and icy austerity to ignore the artist himself entirely when sizing up his work. And when the work is as intensely personal — informed by personal vision and personal experience, as well as by more public concerns — as is much of Palmer’s, ignoring the man behind the vision runs a real risk of ignoring the vision itself.
Practical difficulties, needless to say, often intrude here. Especially as one goes further and further back in time, it’s hard to get a very accurate sense of what an artist was actually like as a person. In the case of someone like, say, Uccello or Bosch, there’s not much to go on besides a trickle of stories, accurate or otherwise, heard inevitably in the shadow of the work itself, from which we are left — for such is the rather circular nature of this project — to conjure up a three-dimensional living human being. For more recent artists, in contrast, there’s much more biographical material to provide evidence, more divergent points of view, more exposure to present-day controversies. But then there are clearly fine critics out there who claim to be able to consider, say, Diego Rivera’s art without reference to his politics. At some level I admire the amount of rigid mental and emotional categorisation it must take to make this sort of self-denying ordinance work in practice. Oh, I know — there’s nothing very grownup or clever or elegant about what is, in effect, ad hominem art criticism. Needless to say, though, I couldn’t begin to stand back from it myself.
As it happens, it is possible to know quite a lot about Samuel Palmer — and not just the subjective impressions one can glean from his magnificently luminous Ashmolean Self Portrait, either, with which the exhibition begins — although, having said that, there is nothing intrinsically offputting in the discovery that Palmer may have had tousled hair, lean yet handsome features, thoughtful, kind, slightly sad dark eyes and a rather lovely mouth. No, the real treasure as far as knowing Palmer is concerned lies in the letters that survive from him. They allow us to come very close indeed to hearing the artist’s voice, almost as one can in the letters of that other Christian artist with mystical inclinations, Vincent Van Gogh. As well as appearing elsewhere, including in at least one full collection, Palmer’s letters make up the heart of Geoffrey Grigson’s important biography, Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years (1947), a fascinating book not just for what it tells us about Palmer, but for the degree of distance its various obsessions, prejudices and elisions demarcate between Palmer’s times and those of Grigson himself — the Romantics versus the Neo-Romantics, as it were — as well, now, as the distance between Grigson’s times and our own.
What, then, do we know about Palmer? His Dissenting background and a long-term obsession with Sir Thomas Moore notwithstanding, his religion was Anglican, serious and more insistently orthodox as the years passed. His politics were High Tory. He distrusted ‘innovation’ and ‘progress’. He was capable of being earthy, playful, funny and downright silly. He was also capable of enthusiasms, evasions, irony, kindness, conviviality, loneliness and real sadness. He was, to all appearances, an affectionate husband and father. He was neither particularly desperate for worldly success, nor in any way dismissive of it. He enjoyed music and poetry. He loved cats. ‘Nature’ per se didn’t interest him so much as did landscapes that were tilled, grazed, built upon and peopled — a prejudice he would bequeath to his Neo-Romantic heirs and epigones. Warm-hearted good sense shines out everywhere from his letters. In short, as far as I can see, he was a very likeable man.
Reading backwards from this knowledge, our understanding of Palmer’s art alters slightly — but in all honesty, I do think it is possible to intuit a fair amount about Palmer from his pictures, too. Of the Shoreham period, we should know more, perhaps, had Palmer’s surviving son Herbert — the person, I should add right away, who probably did more than any other to conserve Palmer’s legacy and to make the 1926 exhibition possible — not chosen to burn so many of his father’s works in 1909, ‘knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt; I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate’. Possibly the dreams of a young Romantic were too challenging for an ageing Victorian to decode; alternatively — and with an eye, for instance, on the overt eroticism of fellow Ancient Edward Calvert’s drawings — perhaps decoding the work was all too easy. It’s a shame, though, not only because the panels that survive are, with their golden-honey surface and half-familiar, half-mysterious imagery, amongst the most arresting works of their period, but in particular, for the window they appear to offer into Palmer’s inner world.
And yet, as both the exhibition and the catalogue make clear, Palmer’s Shoreham paintings and drawings may speak as much about the public affairs of Britain in the 1820s and 30s as they do about Palmer’s private universe. Indeed, at some level the two are impossible to distinguish. Coming from Evening Church (1830) sums this up. The little painting shows a pastor and his flock of parishioners leaving their tall-spired parish church and stepping out into a landscape of cosy cottages, trees forming Gothic arches and an enfolding circle of curving hills, all awash with golden moonlight. The figures, many of them bearded, are dressed in timeless flowing robes, as if they had just come from one of Blake’s drawings. Yet the meaning could hardly be more alien to that other visionary painter’s enterprise, for what Palmer evokes here is not some abstract cosmic saga known only to a inspired Dissenter, but rather an ideal of Anglican community created at a time when both parish and community were seen to be under threat.
We know, too, that these threats mattered to Palmer. The concerns are present in his letters, but perhaps most spectacularly manifest in the pamphlet he wrote during the general election of 1832, in which he endorsed his local Tory candidate and denounced the recent Reform Act, ‘the importation of Yesterday, from poor, degraded, dishonoured, Atheistical France,’ whose supporters were, as Palmer put it, ‘Jacobinical hyenas’. There were more observations in a similar vein condemning the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and defending the preservation of the tithe system. Palmer had held these views, as far as we can tell, consistently, but the immediate circumstances of life in rural Kent in the late 1820s and early 1830s brought them to the very much to the fore. These were, after all, the days of the ‘Captain Swing’ riots, the burning of barns and hayricks, the destruction of threshing machines and genuine fears of widespread, French Revolution type insurrection. Palmer’s criticisms, incidentally, are never levelled against the agricultural labourers themselves, but rather, against the Radicals who were manipulating them into calling for ‘reforms’ that would, as Palmer correctly intuited, do little or nothing to ameliorate their circumstances.
It is against this background, then, that a work like Coming from Evening Church starts to make sense as what it must have seemed to contemporary viewers, which is a combination of personal revelation and public exhortation. My companion at the exhibition has compared this little painting to an icon. The comparison works, I think, on several levels, for while there is something very icon-like about the intimate scale and the golden glossiness of the surface, there’s also a strong sense that the work condenses into simplified visual form a whole universe of belief, hope and faith, and that at some level what one is being asked to do is less to admire the skill and imagination behind the creation of the little image, than to respond directly to what the image instantiates. And to do this latter thing, I suppose, requires both a little knowledge of the world within and against which Palmer was painting, and also a little sympathy with Palmer himself. In that sense, of course, Coming from Evening Church is a very English icon indeed, insisting as it does on its own particularism and localism and unwilling to disentangle itself entirely from issues of personality, of politics, even private eccentricity. Yet if the Anglican tradition had ever encompassed the making of icons, might they have been so very different from Palmer’s mysterious, hieratic yet generous Shoreham works?
Palmer past and present
Even today, set against the towering reputations of Blake, Constable and Turner, Palmer’s name is still too little known even in his own country, let alone further afield. Maybe the present exhibition will change this, although it seems quite possible to me that it will not. Perhaps there will always remain something of a beautiful, precious secret about Palmer’s finest work. Perhaps the secrecy resides in the intimate scale of the sheets and panels, the necessity of drawing very near in order to see what’s going on in those strange, dark landscapes, the fields and folds lit only by the light of a low-hanging crescent moon. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.
Alternatively, though, perhaps this sense of a shared secret is somehow tied up with the nature of Palmer’s vision. His world is at once safe and weird, domestic and haunted, comforting and uncanny. Disregarded details — the moss on the roof of a rotting byre, the bark of an old oak — suddenly assume that stark lucidity only possible in dreams, while whole hills and forests drop away into black-shaded nothingness. Who else in this country has ever painted darkness so well? Palmer’s is an England of deep lanes and soaring church-spires, sheep in full fleece clustered together for company, tall corn the colour of gold or flames and hares casting shadows like sickles. It’s timeless, which is to say, it was perhaps no easier a fit with the age in which it was created than it is with our own.
Yet for all its peculiarity, Palmer’s vision has a way of seeping out into our world, as it did into world of the 1920s and 30s where its influence upon the Neo-Romantics was so formidable and important. Palmer’s ability to work on the viewer’s eye and heart is still very real. Emerging from the British Museum, having submerged oneself in the exhibition then surfaced again into the ordinary world, suddenly, at least for a little while, spires and skies and shadows really do all look different — richer in meaning, both more magical yet at the same time more real.
And that is, I suppose, why I ended up warming not simply to Palmer’s work, but to Palmer himself — or at least to the Palmer I think I met amongst the pictures, the biographical facts and the old correspondence. So much more than that of many artists, his work makes sense to me. I don’t think Palmer ever saw in art a substitute for religion, nor a way of changing the world, but rather, a talisman to be held up in the face of a life where change too often meant the end of something that mattered to him followed by the long slow adjustment to the fact of its unrecoverability. People he loved fell prey to death and disagreements, the England he loved was vanishing under the heavy-shod advance of industrialisation and commercialisation, and few seemed to understand the desperation these changes aroused in him. The religious faith, the friendships and family bonds that sustained him seem, for all the good they did, never entirely to have reconciled him to any of these things.
Art, though, may have helped a little. In his art — not just the Shoreham work either, but the caliginous ink drawings and late etchings, even the sweet-coloured watercolours – he conjured up a land beyond of all such deterioration. It wasn’t quite Heaven, because it was too much like England for that. All the same, it was a place exempt from the everyday tragedies of change and decay, bathed in a light that was kindly as well as strange — a landscape enchanted by Scripture, poetry and remembered happiness, peopled with timeless beings as much at home in the world of Virgil or Milton as in the Shoreham of the 1830s, their faces usually averted, as indeed the faces of the dead so often are in dreams.
This is, I suppose, precisely the sort of project that will bore, confuse or annoy at least as many viewers as it comforts or delights. Of course, people who wish their art to be ‘about’ light, or colour, or form, or meticulously literal verisimilitude, or a dozen other things along those lines may well find something that draws them to Palmer’s work. Palmer was, after all, an artist of considerable breadth, whereas in framing one particular view of an artist, as I have done here, with an emphasis on one particular period of a long working life, breadth is the first casualty. This account also suffers from something approaching a failure of tone, always threatening to impose on Palmer a nostalgic, faintly depressive seriousness which was really only one strand of a complex, dynamic, resilient, often endearingly playful personality. To that extent it’s inadequate. But then it’s never really easy to explain why one set of drawings and paintings and etchings strikes right at one’s heart, while another leaves one cold, any more than it is easy to explain the equivalent attraction when it happens with places or people. The only easy part is knowing that it’s happened. So in a world where it’s all too possible to feel a bit jaded about visual culture, a bit impatient with the claims that are made for it and the tiresome ritual trappings that surrounding it, the organisers of Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape are to be congratulated for reminding me, and perhaps others too, of what drew us to art in the first place.
Dr Bunny Smedley lives in London with her husband and young son.