Moonlight and magic

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Less well known than many of his contemporaries, Samuel Palmer's best work was inspired by the Kent countryside. Hilary Williams examines one of his poetic landscapes.

This is one of several so-called "moonlights" which Samuel Palmer produced while he was living in the village of Shoreham, in the Darenth Valley in north-west Kent. The image represents a man and his dog walking through a harvested cornfield, as could have been seen at the time in the undulating North Downs. The cornfield is stacked with the wheat sheaves standing almost as high as the human visitor. Illuminating the scene and the sky are a large, waxing sickle Moon and the Evening Star. The ethereal quality of the scene owes much to the character of moonlight. It helps to create the mood of the landscape, which could be described as poetic.

Palmer was an avid reader of poetry and classical texts. This picture reflects the opening passage of Virgil's "Georgics" (a Latin poem about the delights of the countryside), as it appeared in Joseph Davidson's translation of 1790: "What makes the fields of corn joyous; under what sign, Maecenas, it is proper to turn to Earth and join the Vines to Elms...

Ye brightest Luminaries of the World, that lead the Year sliding along the sky... your bounteous gifts I sing." Like many contemporaries, including John "Mad" Martin (1789-1854) and the German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) or William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Palmer may well have attached religious or mystical associations to scenes of figures contemplating the wondrous Moon and its apparent powers.

This drawing is made from a hybrid mixture of media: watercolour, bodycolour or gouache, with brown ink, all of which has then been varnished. Palmer was very experimental with the materials he used. The varnish over and even in the watercolour often gives his works a shimmering, lustrous, almost enamel-like look. Although he also painted in oil, his watercolours are his most idiosyncratic in technique.

The British Museum acquired this drawing after a public appeal in 1985. It has an interesting provenance as it was once owned by Lord Clark, the famous art historian, director of the National Gallery and authorpresenter of the pioneering television series "Civilisation". The fact that he owned this image and was interested in Palmer helped to inspire other artists whom he knew, especially Graham Sutherland and John Piper, to turn their minds and way of vision to the concept of the poetic landscape.

In 1827, for reasons of ill health, Palmer had moved with his father and nurse to "his valley of vision," Shoreham (near Sevenoaks, Kent), and entered a long period of sustained inspiration and artistic discovery. He became the central figure in a group of artists, including Edward Calvert (1799-1883), John Varley, John Linnell and others, who called themselves "the Ancients" (c1825-35) because their talk and aspirations focused on ancient poets and painters. His most famous work, including "The Magic Apple Tree", dates from this time.

Though he later moved to London, having married the daughter of his patron Linnell in 1837, and also travelled in the West Country and Italy, his best work is considered to have been inspired by the Kent countryside, which he moved back to in 1848. He was never very successful, despite being recognised as a watercolourist by those in the know, and worked as a drawing-master. After his eldest son died in 1861, Palmer's mood darkened, exacerbated by money worries. Some of his last works are powerful and exquisite, including an ambitious series of etchings made to accompany his own translation from the Latin of Virgil's "Eclogues". Unfinished at his death, the etchings were completed and published by his son in 1883.

Despite his gifts and accomplishments, Palmer had the misfortune to be part-contemporary with some of the most vibrant self-publicists among artists - JMW Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837). Unlike Turner, who was lucky enough to court and sustain the support in the press of the highly influential critic John Ruskin, Palmer almost seems to have had a self-destruct button. He seemed more comfortable inhabiting a smaller, cosy world which rarely hit the big time in a sense of being on the public stage. He had one chance when Ruskin showed an interest in him and, although Ruskin wrote about Palmer and even included him initially in his major work on "Modern Painters", which helped establish Turner as an accepted great modern artist, Palmer fluffed this chance and was not included in subsequent editions of that seminal work. This is why we have all heard of Turner and few now remember Palmer.

Hilary Williams is senior art education officer at the British Museuml Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape by W Vaughan, EE Barker and C Harrison, British Museum Press, 2005, pound;25 (paperback) Catalogue Raisonne of the works of Samuel Palmer by R Lister, Cambridge, 1988

* The exhibition "Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape", runs at the British Museum, until January 22, open daily 10am-5.30pm and until 8.30pm on Thursday and Friday. To book tickets, visit Tel: 020 7323 8181 (booking fees apply)

Samuel Palmer. 1805-1881

Child prodigy, Samuel Palmer, first exhibited his paintings in 1819 at the Royal Academy and the British Institution. He began studying under John Linnell who introduced him to the work of William Blake whose visionary poetry and art shaped the mystical themes of Palmer's art. From 1824, he painted pastoral scenes in Shoreham, Kent, where he had settled in 1826, heading a group called "the Ancients". In 1837 he married Linnell's daughter Hannah and spent the following two years in Italy. He was little recognised in his lifetime.

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