Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the wall
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IN HIS 1942 survey of British Romantic artists, the celebrated painter John Piper began his assessment of Samuel Palmer (1805-81) by commenting that he was “ruminative and incomplete”, and pointing out that Palmer slyly referred to himself as a “pure, quaint, crinkle-crankle Goth”.
Professor William Vaughan staged a retrospective of this uncommonly elusive and beguiling artist at the British Museum ten years ago, with Elizabeth E. Barker and Colin Harrison. It was seen in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the spring of 2006. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen that exhibition will recognise how scholarly Vaughan is, and how much in love with his subject he can make his audience feel.
Palmer has been well served by his biographers, including Geoffrey Grigson in 1947 and, much more recently, Rachel Campbell-Johnston (Books, 18 November 2011). This is partly because so many of his letters survive, having been published alongside his life in 1892 by his son Herbert, a decade after his death.
The present magisterial volume is beautifully illustrated. Vaughan has continued researching the early life of his subject who first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 13, in the year that his mother died. With many of his generation, Palmer became one of William Blake’s acolytes. He freed himself from this artistic embrace when moved to Shoreham in Kent and established himself at the heart of a drawing and painting group calling themselves the Ancients.
He had been introduced to Blake in 1824 by the painter John Linnell, later his (unhappy) father-in-law; and the Ancients in turn became a half-mystical, half-religious group. One is reminded of Eric Gill’s later attempts at communal living at Ditchling. This offers an understanding of the transcendental, which was common in European Romanticism at the time, and is the key to Palmer’s continuing appeal.
Vaughan’s research allows a fuller (and now much more complex) view of Palmer’s childhood and Baptist adolescence to emerge; and he makes a strong case for the artist’s later career as being at the centre of the Victorian idealist artistic movement, rather than on the margins of fantasy and of imagination. He also makes clear the significant shift in Palmer’s artistic life which came after his exposure to Italy on his honeymoon in 1837.
The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.