Arts: Let there be half-light: Samuel Palmer was always old-fashioned. It doesn't mean he wasn't good

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SAMUEL PALMER counts as a remarkable artist, but what a reactionary he was] From his early twenties he was proud to be out of step with his times, rejoicing in a personal conservatism - political, religious and artistic - that has no parallel in other Romantic art. Obscurantist attitudes helped him to create works of great beauty. Everyone loves the paintings and drawings he made at Shoreham in Kent in the early 1820s, and it is not surprising that they are so often called 'visions', for here was a view of country life quite at odds with contemporary reality.

The small but telling exhibition at the British Museum reminds us that the Shoreham formula served Palmer for years after he had left the supposedly idyllic village. It is said that his 'vision faded' after about 1830. Well, here are later works, all from the museum's own collection, and if they do not match the early drawings, they are still poignant. The show is a tribute to the longevity of Palmer's original rustic inspiration. It also demonstrates how well he used his chosen medium.

By nature, Palmer was neither a painter nor a watercolourist. The Shoreham drawings were experimental combinations of sepia wash, ink, body colour, gum arabic and varnish. The works at the BM are all etchings, a method he took up in 1850. The new and awkward technique seems to have revitalised Palmer, and it is possible that he deliberately made the etching processes more difficult for himself just to have something to overcome. The results are often superb.

As soon as he adopted the medium, Palmer got himself elected to a society called The Etching Club, a professional organisation interested in the publication of fine editions of, for instance, Milton and Goldsmith, with appropriate illustrations. This was somewhat old-fashioned, given that Pre-Raphaelitism had already turned attention towards more recent poetry and the social novel. But it suited Palmer well, for he still longed for a pre-Victorian England undisturbed by progress, or by what he called 'the pit of modern art'. We tend to assume that Palmer, because of his friendship with Blake, was a radical, and that his association with other young idealists had a cheerful and leftish flavour. Not at all. He opposed both Catholic emancipation and the Reform Bill. All his literary tastes were incantatory. He left his father's Baptism to espouse a mystical Anglicanism, symbolised by that unbelievable Shoreham painting Coming from Evening Church, in which peasants and their children file obediently from worship to bower and cot.

The discovery of etching gave Palmer renewed access to such a melange of reactionary attitudes. At the museum, one peers into the etchings as though to find a glimpse of an era that had been lost for ever. In part this is because of their pastoral subject matter. More important, though, we feel ourselves out of time, because Palmer so carefully limits his lights and shades. What artist of rural life was ever so averse to noon? In Palmer's world we find only sunset and sunrise, both dawn and the gloaming are suggested in exaggeratedly lowered tones. Though he had no natural respect for the greatest of etchers, Rembrandt, Palmer may have realised how to impose the master's dramatic chiaroscuro on English landscape. These are very dark little plates, shot through with strange highlights. The Herdsman's Cottage (Sunset), for instance, combines nice sootiness with illumination that might come from some especially lambent star.

Interesting to find that Palmer the English ruralist also picked up material from the British Museum, where his brother was an attendant. The figure in The Sleeping Shepherd derives from one of the museum's Graeco-Roman sculptures. Perhaps something else in the Bloomsbury collections might lie behind the weird and certainly non- Christian atmosphere of The Vine, also known as Plumpy Bacchus, published with the assistance of The Etching Club as an illustration to Shakespeare. Palmer as bucolic classicist provides an example of his desire to unite art with poetry. Opening the Fold is one of a projected series of 14 etchings that were to accompany his own translation of Virgil's Eclogues, published posthumously in 1883. He loved previous interpretations of life, art and literature. Nature as such meant little to him, unless the landscape had already been visited by Italian and German primitives, Claude and Turner. These people provided him with his own art.

The 'vision' of the Shoreham years was not so much a revelation as a synthesis. This is not to deny that Palmer made a lovely mixture from them. In his later years there is much to admire, despite this ridiculous pretence that the world around him did not exist. I especially wonder about Palmer's devotion to Virgil. Here's this poor, scantily educated artist applying himself to a high classical ideal. No one else did, in these years. The 19th-century English upper classes were the last society to have had, as it were, a natural knowledge of the Latin poet. But could they have produced anyone to illustrate him? No: these classes did not produce artists. Palmer would not have been so good if he had been a more learned or a more worldly man.

Continues till 24 Jan (071-636 1555).

(Photograph omitted)