Andrew Lambirth

Beguiling visionary

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’.

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