Andrew Lambirth

Beguiling visionary

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This year is the bicentenary of Samuel Palmer’s birth, and the British Museum, in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum in New York (where the exhibition can be viewed 7 March–29 May 2006), have pulled out all the stops in mounting this glorious show. Palmer is close to the art-lover’s heart for two main reasons besides his intrinsic aesthetic appeal: for being the subject of unworthy forgery by that old rogue Tom Keating, and for his benign influence on a generation of interwar British artists and poets. Notable among those Neo-Romantics are Graham Sutherland (whose work was shown to such good effect earlier in the year at Dulwich Picture Gallery), John Minton and John Craxton. Craxton, as the youngest of this group, and thankfully still very much with us, would have made the perfect subject of a comparative museum show, to demonstrate how Palmer’s influence was absorbed in the 1930s and 40s, and what it could inspire. I don’t expect the BM to mount that kind of show, but surely it’s the Tate’s job to seize such an opportunity and synchronise a Craxton display with the Palmer. We patiently await evidence of the Tate’s capabilities in this area.

The BM’s show is located in one of those shell-rooms built around the outside of the old Reading Room, and subdivided for this show into smallish compartments. These are painted in different colours — Indian red, green grey, baby blue — in a rather unsettling manner, but the exhibition begins predictably enough with the moody but appealing early self-portrait from the Ashmolean. Also in this first room are a sweet little drawing of a house and a windmill, done when Palmer was seven, and the dramatic light of an approaching storm, very expertly handled for a 16-year-old, in a watercolour landscape ‘At Hailsham, Sussex’. Already he was skilled in the close observation of nature and atmospheric effects, and was looking at the best ways of realising and presenting his pictorial interests. And of course this is what an artist uses a sketchbook for — to try out ideas.

God preserve us from the families of artists! Whether well intentioned or ill, they invariably put their foot in it one way or another. Palmer’s youngest son decided to tidy the place up (principally because he rather stuffily disapproved of the tone of some of his father’s written observations) and burn what he could of his father’s early work before he himself emigrated to Vancouver. Apparently, the bonfire lasted for days. Two sketchbooks were saved from this conflagration, but only one is of real interest, done when Palmer was 19, in 1824. Several single sheets from it (although the son preserved it, he didn’t treat it with much respect and ripped pages out of it) are on show in the exhibition, but the William Blake Trust has now collaborated with Thames & Hudson to produce a beautiful facsimile edition at an affordable price (£35). It would make an excellent Christmas present, being easy to handle, a joy to look at, and containing perceptive and readable essays by the Palmer experts Martin Butlin and William Vaughan. The BM’s catalogue is also a good purchase at £25 for a substantial paperback, but the 1824 sketchbook is truly something special.

It was in that year that Palmer first encountered Blake, whose inspiration was so crucial for his development. Palmer had already met and been befriended by John Linnell, whose daughter he was to marry, and whose highly developed powers of naturalistic observation were a beneficial influence on him. But nature was not enough for Palmer, who was obsessed with ‘visions of the soul’ and wanted an art that had access to a higher reality. He would have known Blake’s observation, ‘Nature has no outline, but imagination has,’ and taken it to heart. Palmer had already identified Linnell as the ‘good angel’ sent by God to pluck him from ‘the pit of modern art’. (It was the contemporary vogue for the Picturesque that Palmer so abominated.) But it was Blake who gave him the confidence to trust to his imagination, and enabled him to lift his art so far above the merely talented.

In his efforts to revive an earlier purity of art — a more spiritual version of what the Pre-Raphaelites were to attempt — Palmer inadvertently created something entirely new. Instead of mock-mediaevalism, his work effortlessly encapsulated a poetic vision of such truthfulness as to be utterly beguiling. The quality of Palmer’s vision can be seen in that 1824 sketchbook, and in the surprisingly moving series of six brown ink and sepia drawings, all borrowed from the Ashmolean, and dating to the following year. Palmer mixes gum Arabic with his ink to augment the shadows and add depth and richness. These superb pastorals are both compositionally inventive and emotionally compelling. The landscape is based upon how Dulwich used to look, and on the Kentish village of Shoreham, where he was to live and which will ever be associated with his name.

A further wall of dark black-and-white drawings from around 1830, and including such subjects as ‘A Village Church Among Trees’ and ‘Cornfield and Church by Moonlight’, offer another gorgeously romantic sequence of images. They depict a lost Golden Age, but the vision is optimistic, not melancholy. When Palmer uses colour, it is rich mellow tints he employs: fruitful reds and golds, or wildly burgeoning white blossom sprays, as in the ravishing watercolour ‘In a Shoreham Garden’. Two versions of a panoramic view of the Weald of Kent, with the distant landscape plotted and pieced together like a coverlet, culminate in the ideal vision of ‘The Golden Valley’ (c.1833–4). This is Palmer at the height of his considerable powers: an image less well-known than ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ or ‘The Sleeping Shepherd’, but perhaps rendered more effective through understatement. It doesn’t get better than this.

The remainder of the exhibition is interesting, and a handful of works are sufficiently arresting to hold the attention for more than a moment or two, but the visionary intensity has gone. What happened? Increasing social unrest perhaps made Palmer abandon his notions of an earthly paradise — though you might have thought it would make him more determined to hold on to his visions — and undoubtedly the need to earn a living and support a wife influenced his decision to paint what was saleable. His views of Wales, Devon or Italy are not without charm, but they lack the early magic and madness. There’s rather a fine 1835 drawing of Tintern Abbey here, and a formidable study of cypress trees at the Villa d’Este. They’re good, but they simply don’t have the same level of feeling as the earlier work; they’ve become ordinary. The swirling forms of ‘King Arthur’s Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall’ (1848–9) are impressive, even fascinating, but they could be by another artist. Palmer recaptures some of his intensity in his last series of watercolours based on Milton’s poems ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. Particularly fine are the drawings — I loved the brown wash study for ‘A Towered City’ or ‘The Haunted Stream’ — since the paintings can approach the Pre-Raphaelites at their most lurid. Before you leave, go back to the middle of the exhibition, and take away a memory of the visionary Palmer at his exalted peak.