Bloomsbury, £25, 382pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer, By Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Friday 08 July 2011
Some readers of biography turn first to check the index; others to the author's acknowledgements. In this volume the latter ends with thanks to "Flea" and "Bear", who kept her company throughout the writing. Though "cats" receive ten entries in the index, such whimsy is thankfully absent from the rest of an energetic and lively re-telling of the artist Samuel Palmer's life. Born in 1805, Palmer grew up like Tennyson and Ruskin in a culture imbued with nature worship and fervent religion in overlapping measure. Ending in 1881, his life witnessed great economic, demographic, technological and political change, against most of which young fogey Palmer set his face, preferring to emulate "crinkle-crankle goths". Responding to ancient churches, he was set to drawing, and at age 14 sold his first landscape, for seven guineas.
It was not a foretaste of the future. For the rest of his life Palmer struggled both to realise his highly-wrought rural scenes, inspired by Turner, John Linnell and Blake, and to make money from them. He teamed up with companions in a social group called the Ancients, who revered Blake (his works then regarded as those of a harmless crackpot), and moved to Shoreham, now just beyond the M25 in Kent, where he bought a dilapidated cottage nicknamed Rat Alley and lived off apples and cider.
The watercolours In "A Shoreham Garden", its tree freighted with big blobs of pink and white blossom, and "The Magic Apple Tree", with fire-red fruit, pay evident homage to this sustenance. Here Palmer crafted his intense, original pastoral visions, often set at twilight, with setting sun or rising moon, arching trees, thatch, shepherds and woolly sheep. Conveying a highly politicised sacramental nationalism, according to David Bindman, this version of the English countryside was perhaps prompted by the long fear of foreign invasion. Palmer's work re-inspired the neo-Romantic artists of the 1940s – but seemed merely quaint to most contemporaries. And Palmer lacked the social skills and indeed the desire to cultivate a clientele, make a name or join the clubs.
Following marriage to Linnell's daughter, he travelled in Italy and Wales, seeking the landscape subjects that pleased the market for romantic topography. Despite successes, such as King Arthur's Castle at Tintagel, the competition was tough and Palmer's efforts too conventional to prevail. In the 1850s, he took up the new craft of etching, which perfectly suited his crepuscular scenes illuminated by heavenly rays, but remained a specialist taste and a laborious process.
Though limited in reach and range, Palmer's works repay attention, as the exhibition curated by Will Vaughan in 2005 showed. But his life is unrewarding for a biographer. There are no unexplored topics, no gaps to fill, puzzles to solve, interpretations to challenge. This empathetic and readable account of a rather uneventful existence in London and Surrey can offer little new information or insight, relying largely on Palmer's vivid, garrulous, stream-of-thought letters, together with wryer comments from old friends and his younger son.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston takes her title from WB Yeats's poetic response to Palmer's late great watercolour "The Lonely Tower" (itself responding to Milton's Il Penseroso) as "an image of mysterious wisdom won through toil". True of the art, less so of the artist, who comes across as neither mysterious nor wise, albeit conscientious, frugal and kindly. His unrelenting admonitions to his elder son were the progressive sentiments of the age, not child abuse. That son's death at 19 was a grievous blow, seemingly unconsoled by religion.
A lifelong believer in daily baths, at the same time - year in, year out - Palmer wore the same clothes and even the same shoes. Short and stout, with an old long-skirted coat to carry sketch books, brushes and snuff-box, he cut a comic figure in city streets and country lanes. It's no surprise to learn, quite late in the narrative, that he carried on conversations with the imaginary Messrs Jackson, Jinks and Jick; nor that like his present biographer he loved the "furry orchestra" of purring cats as he worked.
Palmer's luminous vision of trees, cornfields and husbandmen under bright clouds or starry skies hardly developed. In debased form it persists in tourist literature and Heart of England calendars. But it also forms a persistent strand in British art. To him, as to Blake, visual imagery was a portal to a world beyond or rather within – a gravely mystic glimpse of paradise as an English Eden, leading along a path also followed by artists like Stanley Spencer, Cecil Collins, David Jones, Robin Tanner and the Brotherhood of Ruralists. Think of that when next driving the M25.
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