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June 11, 2011 12:21 am

Mysterious Wisdom

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Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Works of Samuel Palmer, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 400 pages

 

Samuel Palmer’s life was relentlessly sad. A visionary disciple of William Blake, he produced his best work in his youth, in the Kent village of Shoreham. Here he painted such masterpieces as “The Harvest Moon”, now at Tate Britain, and “The Magic Apple Tree” in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Later, however, Palmer descended into a disappointed petty-bourgeois bigot, unable to sell his work and imprisoned in the suburban hell of Redhill, Surrey, where he died in 1881. It was as if Keats’s nightingale had been caged in a cluttered Victorian parlour.

His early work belonged to the time when Palmer was associated with the group of young painters who called themselves the Ancients and, like the slightly later pre-Raphaelites, wanted to get back to earlier traditions of painting and to slough off the stultifying influence of the Academy.

Together, the Ancients bathed naked in Shoreham’s rivers and sketched from pre-dawn to golden sunset, fed on nothing but apples. They looked to Blake as their master, and cultivated the print-making visionary in his old age.

Palmer was never a very successful painter in his lifetime. Although he found his distinctive style remarkably early, he lacked the self-confidence of Blake, hid his best work, and sold the jobbing stuff in order to finance a not very happy bourgeois marriage.

To capture the flavour of what happened to Palmer, and what did not happen; to trace his share of bad luck, and worse than bad luck, tragedy; to chronicle his strange childhood, his larky friendship with the Ancients and the glory of the Shoreham years (1827-1837) as well as the Betjemanic nightmare of the Redhill end – all of this requires a variety of gifts that no previous writer on Palmer has quite possessed.

Step forward journalist Rachel Campbell-Johnston. Her Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Works of Samuel Palmer is not just a good book, it is a perfect book. Its sentences sing like poems. When evoking the village of Shoreham as found by Palmer – he allegedly walked down the Old Kent Road to escape the smoke and noise of London until he came to old rural England – Campbell-Johnston describes how “there was no train to startle the hares from their nibbling”. On his watercolours, she writes of “the surging enthusiasms of spring, when the orchards are a frothing profusion of blossom, and the pale pink of the dog roses drape every hedge”. This is Palmer’s 1829 watercolour masterpiece “In a Shoreham Garden” in verbal form. Palmer kept this painting locked away in his “Curiosity Portfolio”. None of the Victorians who failed to buy his more conventional watercolours knew of the visionary Shoreham pictures that we now regard as pure Palmer.

Campbell-Johnston has the perfect eye for a detail, noting that Palmer’s bulldog was called Trimmer, and that the Ancients, in their young fogey desire to be “olde tyme”, accented the past tense of words and spoke of “mincéd” pies. She tells how the socially maladroit Palmer picked up asparagus sticks from the wrong end. The wasps in Subiaco swarmed round his paintbox, because he kept his colours moist with honey. When the Palmers returned from their extended visit to Rome, his wife Hannah’s younger siblings “capered like savages round the frosty London lawn”. “Redhill,” as she puts it, “leaks down the A25.”

This is not just a poem to Palmer, however – it is also a serious work of art history. Campbell-Johnston movingly evokes the old power flickering to life when a gloomy Lincoln’s Inn solicitor commissioned Palmer in old age to illustrate Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso”. In his work “Lonely Tower” (the title was inspired by a quote from “Il Penseroso”: “Let my lamp at midnight hour/Be seen in some high lonely tower”), we see how he painted his own cruel isolation from the world, but how in its sheep, and its moon and its starlit sky the old man is back in the Shoreham of his younger days.

There was an appreciative retrospective exhibition of Palmer’s work at the Fine Art Society in 1881, but when his son Herbert emigrated to Canada in 1909, he kept only a few pictures, sent the better ones to auction rooms, and then had a garden bonfire of 20 clasped sketchbooks and much other work. “Knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt, I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate,” he justified.

It was really only in the 20th century that Palmer’s worth was appreciated, with valuable rehabilitation by among others Kenneth Clark and Geoffrey Grigson. The full implications of Palmer’s life and work, however, have never been so well teased out as in this tragic masterpiece. It is a book to read, and, rapturously, tearfully, read again. Its subject is not just one neglected 19th-century genius, so much as the much deeper, Blakean story: the worthlessness of good taste, or fashion, or the pursuit of success; the truth of the visionary eye. The book is itself a vision.

AN Wilson is author of ‘Dante in Love’ (Atlantic)

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