Jacobinical hyenas, we’re watching you

Samuel Palmer, 'The Herdsman's Cottage' (1850)

Samuel Palmer, 'The Herdsman's Cottage' (1850)

“The ricks burnt around Shoreham, within sight of Palmer‘s house, under the moons that he had painted broad and full. The moons charmed away neither fire nor reform, and on June 4th, 1832, the Reform Bill was passed the House of Lords. The anti-Reformers still saw some last hope in the General Election which followed in December, and while purple banners were being stitched for the Tory candidate in West Kent with the arms of the county, St. George and the Dragon and ‘King and Constitution’, Palmer left painting to gesticulate in print against the change and the future.

“He wrote a violent anonymous pamphlet, printed at Sevenoaks. His son mentions the pamphlet in the ‘Life and Letters’, but does not quote from it, and I have not found a copy in any public library. But Palmer sent it for review to the Kentish papers, the Kentish Observer, the Tory paper, which promised to notice it, and never did, and the Reform paper, the Kentish Gazette, which gave it a column of quotation and abuse. The pamphlet was called ‘An Address to the Electors of West Kent’ — by ‘An Elector’, and it was extraordinary enough. ‘The ravings of this maniac’, the Gazette called it, believing him at the same time to be a Kentish clergyman. But the ravings are authentic Palmer. Here are some of them:

‘It is true we vastly, and beyond comparison outnumber the enemy: but then we are men of peace; and they are beasts of prey. We are strongest by day: they ravine in the night; for their optics are adapted to darkness. And it is now a very dark night for Europe …’

‘You will NOT suffer those temples where you received the Christian name to fall an easy prey to sacreligious plunderers! You will NOT let that dust which covers the ashes of your parents to be made the filthy track of Jacobinical hyenas!’

‘Landholders, who have estates confiscated, or laid in ashes: Farmers who have free trade and anhiliation impending over you: Manufacturers who must be beggared in the bankruptcy of your country: Fundholders, who desire not the wet sponge: Britons who have liberty to lose: Christians who have a religion to be blasphemed: now is the time for your last struggle!’

“He appealed, it is true, for effectual reform ‘in God’s name’, and the strangling of corruption, ‘but leave not your hearths and altars a prey to the most heartless, the most bloody, the most obscene, profane, and atrocious faction which ever defied God and insulted humanity’.

“The election was not party politics, ‘but Existence, or Anhiliation, to good old England!’

“It would be too much to say existence or anhiliation to Samuel Palmer. But the Tory candidate for West Kent was at the bottom of the poll. The Jacobinical hyenas were in, by their own charter; and now began the gradual change and decline of Palmer’s art […]”

Geoffrey Grigson, ‘Samuel Palmer: The Politics of an Artist’, Horizon, vol. IV no. 23, November 1941, pp. 321-2.

For what it’s worth, the spiky magnificence of Grigson’s article notwithstanding — and it must be said that this presently under-appreciated critic was more than able to hold his own in few dozen pages that also included offerings by Evelyn Waugh, Stephen Spender and Osbert Lancaster — he was wrong about the decline in Palmer’s art in the wake of the Reform Act, if clearly correct about the extent of the change in its modes of expression.

Perhaps, in punctuating Palmer’s career this way, Grigson was simply rationalising his own subjective preferences for the Shoreham work over everything that followed. Or perhaps, in positing the sort of political crisis that calls last orders on youthful brilliance and ushers in the dreary time-keeping of middle age, Grigson was working out some sort of autobiographical fantasy.

In the event, Grigson went on to enjoy (one hopes) a richly productive later life, writing poetry, gardening, anthologising, and of course keeping company with perhaps the greatest British cookery writer of recent memory, just as Palmer went on to discover in printmaking a new medium through which he could say all the things which increasing sounded hackneyed and unremarkable when he tried to say them in paint.

But at the same time — well, one hears too little about Jacobinical hyenas these days. Yet as much as ever, all Tories ought to be on our guard against them.

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