This is one of 'three watercolours of great loveliness' (Grigson, op. cit., p. 111) painted by Samuel Palmer towards the end of his Shoreham period. Grigson dates them to 1831-2 in his main text (p. 111) but circa 1833-4 in his catalogue (pp. 186-7, nos. 132-4), the later dating being followed by Raymond Lister (1988, pp. 93-4, nos. 172-4). Palmer did not leave Shoreham altogether until 1834, but had already bought a house back in London in 1832.
John Commander (loc. cit.) has suggested that the three watercolours were done in the company of Palmer's future father-in-law, John Linnell (1792-1882). Of two landscape drawings by Linnell, that entitled The Weald of Kent is dated 1833 (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum; K. Crouan, John Linnell, exhibition catalogue, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 1982, no. 63, illustrated), while the other, (fig. 1) identified by L.G. Duke as a view from Poll Hill, near Shoreham, shows, as was pointed out by its former owner Sir John Witt, almost the same view as the present watercolour (K. Crouan, op. cit., no. 64, illustrated, as Underriver). It is fascinating that two Linnell drawings of the subject exist, even if they lack the visionary magic of Palmer.
Of the three related watercolours by Palmer, The Weald of Kent (fig. 2) is larger than the other two (7 3/8 x 10¾ in.; New Haven, Yale Center for British Art; Grigson, no. 132, pl. 60; Lister, 1988, no. 172, illustrated) while the second, The Timber Waggon, (fig. 3) is approximately the same size as the present example (5 x 6 1/8 in.; Yale Center; Grigson, no. 133; Lister 1988, no. 173, illustrated). In addition, it was also inscribed on the old mount (now lost), again probably by A.H. Palmer, with lines from Milton's Paradise Lost:
As when from mountain tops the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the north wind sleeps, o'erspread
Heaven's cheerful face, the lowring element
Scowls o'er the darken'd landskip snow or shower
(Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 488-91)
The lines written on the mount of the present watercolour follow on immediately (Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 492-5).
The Golden Valley and The Timber Waggon thus depict, with poetic overtones, the contrasting and succeeding aspects of the weather, the 'radiant sun' of evening following the earlier lowering clouds. All three of the companion watercolours are at a considerable remove from Palmer's earlier preference for twilight scenes, with the majority of the earlier works on paper being in richly worked monochromatic sepia.
More in common with Palmer's earlier work is the raised viewpoint. Palmer had already, in a letter of September 1828 to George Richmond, asserted that the 'most beautiful' viewpoint was 'always that running on, or close by a hilly ridge' (fig. 4)(Grigson, p. 74; Lister, 1974, p. 36), and in a memorandum placed by Palmer's son at the close of the Shoreham period, Palmer emphasises the words ''Ridges of mountain along open country'' (A.H. Palmer, pp. 54-5; Grigson, p. 112). Significantly for the later phase of Palmer's Shoreham years Palmer added, as number five of six suggestions for further practice, 'let everything be colour, and not sullied with blackness. Think of some of Titian's things, as The Entombment' (the picture in the Louvre already singled out for detailed colour notes and a copy by J.M.W. Turner during his visit to Paris in 1802)(fig. 5).
There was a further element in Palmer's Shoreham landscapes. In a letter to John Linnell of 21 December 1828 he wrote of the created world that he 'cannot think of it other than the veil of heaven' (A.H. Palmer, p. 176; Lister, 1974, p. 50), and in his sketchbook of 1824 (before he settled in Shoreham) he wrote more specifically that 'on considering Dulwich as the gate into the world of vision one must try behind the hills to bring up a mystic glimmer like that which lights our dreams. And those same hills ... should give us promise that the country beyond them is Paradise' (M. Butlin, ed. Samuel Palmer's Sketch-Book, 1824, 1962, facsimile, p. 81). In the works of the 1830s unlike the earlier works, Palmer's panoramic landscapes led uninterrupted into the visionary future: as Palmer wrote to Richmond in June 1838, 'landscape should be the symbol of prospects brightening in futurity' (A.H. Palmer, p. 190; Lister, 1974, p. 137). In his realizing that landscape could embody not only literary allusions but deep religious experience Palmer had much in common with Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), though the two artists could not have known each other's work. In The Weald of Kent and The Timber Waggon this vision of futurity - of paradise - can only be seen with some difficulty through a foreground partly obscured by framing trees and foreground detail; in The Golden Valley the view is more openly accessible, as in a landscape by Claude.
In The Golden Valley Palmer also introduces one of his favourite motifs from his earlier works, the 'primitive cottage' (fig. 6) nestling in a dell in the landscape, found in a number of drawings in pen and wash dated by Grigson and Lister to circa 1827-9 (Grigson, nos. 73-5, one illustrated pl. 31; Lister, 1988, nos. 74, 98, 99; see also G. Grigson, Samuel Palmer's Valley of Vision, London, 1960, nos. 32, 35 and 38, all illustrated). The motif also occurs in a fuller landscape setting in the painting The White Cloud (see p. 15, fig. 9) of circa 1833-4 and its somewhat earlier preliminary drawing (Grigson 1947, nos. 135 and 120, illustrated pls. 61 and 57 respectively; Lister 1988, nos. 175 and 144, illustrated). As Palmer wrote in his 1824 sketchbook, 'whatever you do, guard against bleakness & grandeur and try for the primitive cottage feeling - gospel instead of law ...' (Butlin, p. 37, facsimile, p. 111).
The growing appreciation of Palmer's visionary landscapes can be seen in the contrasting descriptions of the three Weald of Kent watercolours by A.H. Palmer and Geoffrey Grigson. A.H. Palmer, in his entry on the present watercolour in the 1926 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition catalogue, groups it with The Timber Waggon and writes, 'this pair of little watercolours reveals, in a modified way, his [Palmer's] passion for great fertility and the country occupations of long ago, the touches of "ancient habitation" without which he said that "a prospect may be very extensive and very depressing"' (p. 34, no. 54). Grigson, writing primarily of The Weald of Kent, goes further: 'As in some drawings by Alexander Cozens, the spectator ... looks out through a frame of ground and tree trunk and foliage lapped with heavy blue into the easy light and depth of the wide landscape down below. The colours are cool and harmonious and unexpected, the effect is rich and strong, the recession into the far distance immediately arresting (fig. 7). It ranks high, in its visionary sense of a double image of this world and the next' (1947, p. 111).
Palmer the Visionary
by Colin Harrison, Curator of British Art, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
The visions of the soul, being perfect, are the only true standard by which nature must be tried. (A.H. Palmer, The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, Painter and Etcher, London, 1972, p. 16.)
The young man in his mid twenties who painted The Golden Valley was no ordinary artist, no product of the Royal Academy Schools trained in anatomical drawing and destined for a career in history painting. He was an individualist, deeply religious, introspective, and devoted to the ideal in art. His peculiar intensity as an artist came from his ability, which was at its most refined during the Shoreham years, to translate the visions of his imagination into the reality of a drawing or painting. These visions reflect the intellectual and spiritual development of a young man in search of the ideal. For, unlike his contemporaries, Palmer drew and painted not according to long-established formulae, in conventional techniques, and for a largely unadventurous public, but in experimental media, following the methods he had largely evolved himself, striving to express the vision he saw in his mind's eye. If some of these experiments appeared highly eccentric, they nonetheless embodied a sincerity that revealed a wholly original artist. As Palmer himself recognised, the fundamental conflict in his art was that between nature and imagination, between his visions and the reality perceived by others, and his early career largely constituted a struggle to reconcile the two strains. The Golden Valley comes at the point when vision and reality were held in a delicate balance.
Samuel Palmer might never have become an artist. Although he indulged in drawing from an early age, it was literature that formed his mind, and his parents might have expected him to follow a career as a writer, or, failing that, as a bookseller like his father. The young Palmer's earliest memories were of reading and of being read to, especially by his nurse. He later remembered that his nurse quoted to him lines from Young's Night Thoughts: 'Fond man, the vision of a moment made, Dream of a dream, shadow of a shade'. Apart from the Bible, which was the daily reading of any child in Georgian England, there were several texts he particularly cherished which were to prove formative influences on his art: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, tracing the journey of Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, much of which he knew by heart; and the poetical works of John Milton, both the epic poems including Paradise Lost and the minor poems which he was to illustrate at the end of his life. He had a particular fondness for Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess, in which he found all his 'dearest landscape longings embodied'. And, of course, he was schooled in the classics of Latin and Greek literature, especially the poetry of Virgil. From these readings Palmer, who was a solitary and sickly child, created a dream world of pastoral contentment, in which man and nature were at one, and hateful materialistic modern life was excluded.
The few surviving works from Palmer's earliest years give little idea of his future. He destroyed many himself, and his son continued the process.
The character of Palmer's art seems to have changed little even after he had met the man whose influence he claimed as formative - John Linnell. In 1822 Linnell was twelve years older than Palmer, already celebrated as a portrait painter and an accomplished landscape artist. Linnell exhorted him to draw from nature, to look at the work of the Old Masters, among them Dürer and Lucas Van Leyden, and no doubt gave him technical advice too. But while Linnell's methods undoubtedly opened Palmer's mind to new ways of seeing nature, it was his introductions to other artists and collectors that was paramount. Above all, he introduced Palmer to the elderly William Blake in 1824.
Palmer later recalled his first sight of Blake, sitting up in bed drawing in a huge folio volume the 'vision of his soul', the illustrations to Dante that Linnell had commissioned. The two - the strange and intense young man, and the impoverished, ailing artist - struck up a friendship, Blake accompanied Palmer on his journeys from Hampstead to London, and even visited him at Shoreham. Among Blake's works it was not the concept of an imaginary universe depicted in the prophetic books that Palmer was drawn to, but his recent woodcut illustrations to Virgil's Eclogues, done for Dr Thornton's cheap translation published in 1821 (fig. 2).
'I sat down with Mr Blake's Thornton's 'Virgil' woodcuts before me, thinking to give to their merits my feeble testimony. I happened first to think of their sentiment. They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them, I found no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world. They are like all that wonderful artist's works the drawing aside of the fleshly curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed, of that rest which remaineth to the people of God. The figures of Mr Blake have that intense, soul-evidencing attitude and action, and that elastic, nervous spring which belongs to uncaged immortal spirits.'
His momentous meeting with William Blake in 1824 dramatically increased his self-confidence as an artist. Now Palmer began to project onto paper the visions he had previously allowed to foment in his imagination, 'those delicious visions which are the only joys of my life - such as Christ at Emmaus; the repenting thief on the cross; the promise to Abraham'. He had already begun to draw figures in the previous year - a study of Saint Christopher is inscribed 'My first attempt at figure-drawing, 1823' - and he quickly mastered the human form. The earliest results of this new-found confidence are the leaves of the sketchbook begun in 1824 (British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum) and the six sepia drawings of 1825 (Ashmolean Museum). The sketchbook contains the kernels for innumerable ideas, most never worked up into finished compositions, and includes much that is exceedingly strange. Nor had Palmer forsaken literature, for it also contains pages of what his son called 'lugubrious poetry and morbid prose', all that survives since A.H. Palmer destroyed 'more than twenty' notebooks from this period.
Palmer's earliest surviving oil painting and first completed visionary work, The Repose of the Holy Family (fig. 3), also dates from this period, and introduces the third element into Palmer's artistic make-up - Shoreham. Palmer first visited the little Kentish village in 1824, probably even before he had met Blake, when he went there to convalesce after an illness. He settled there in 1826 and remained for nearly ten years until he finally left in 1835. The art he produced in those years marks one of the high points of British Romantic art, as intense and as original as any produced before or since. For the first time Palmer found a landscape commensurate with the visions of pastoral life he had imagined from his reading. The village itself, one of the many points of crossing of the River Darent as it meanders its way gently from Westerham to the mighty Thames at Dartford, was a hamlet of houses, farms and a church. The valley was one of abundance, with orchards, hop gardens, and fields of corn, while nearby passed the Pilgrims' Way from Winchester to the tomb of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. The village still had the age-old characters of 'wise-woman', shoemaker, rumbling mill and haunted mansion, and the rhythm of life there was still dominated by the bells in the mediaeval church. Palmer was quickly joined by several friends, who formed themselves into a loose group calling themselves The Ancients, devoted to the Old Masters in art and the old ways of life. Among them were the artists George Richmond and Edward Calvert, whose admiration for Blake equalled Palmer's, and who, in a few surviving works, shared his vision of pastoral and bucolic happiness. They were regarded by the locals as strange and wild young men, and were always, in a sense, visitors, preferring to recite poetry and go on nocturnal expeditions than try their hand at the hard labour of husbandry or harvesting.
While at Shoreham, Palmer looked long and hard at his surroundings, trying to penetrate the secrets of nature, the structures, and especially the associations with his imaginary landscapes. He felt that, fine as was the work of an artist such as David Cox in a descriptive sense, it was
'not grand, not profound ... Nature has properties which lie still deeper, and when they are brought out the picture must be most elaborate and full of matter even if only one object be represented, yet it will be most simple of style, and be what would have pleased men in the early ages, when poetry was at its acme, and yet men lived in a simple pastoral way'.
Even when drawing directly from nature, as in the remarkable series of studies of oak trees at Lullingstone Park (fig. 4), Palmer was conscious of trying to emulate the power of verbal description - 'Milton, by one epithet, draws an oak of the largest girth I ever saw, 'Pine and monumental oak' - and of his need as an artist to convey such hyperbole in visual terms. Occasionally, the abundance of nature was overwhelming, and the brilliant colours of ripe apples dwarfed the tree that bore them, or the corner of a kitchen garden is dominated by pear blossom almost abstract in its decorative patterns and feeling of plenitude. Topographical accuracy was never paramount, for Shoreham and its surroundings were readily incorporated into Palmer's visions. Some years after The Repose of the Holy Family, Palmer made another drawing which he described as 'Shoreham paddock; The Background to Mr Giles's Holy Family': the literal landscape had been amalgamated with the visions of the Holy Family, and a palm tree found in an engraving by Dürer added for verisimilitude. The same might be said of his depiction of Ruth Returned from Gleaning (fig. 5). The subject must have been close to Palmer's heart, for Ruth too had left the land of her forefathers and gone into a new land. He apparently made a special journey to Shoreham to paint this work, which evokes the muscular figure of Ruth striding home. Palmer himself was conscious of what he described as the 'unwonted outrageousness' of such works, and few survive.
The Golden Valley comes more than half way through the Shoreham Period, and is related to three other works. The earliest, entitled simply Shoreham, Kent (fig. 6), is in Palmer's miniaturist technique, using his finest pen to record details of the vegetation and habitations of the river valley. The other two show the valley glimpsed beneath the arching boughs of a great tree: The Weald of Kent and The Timber Waggon (see p. ). In both the pigments are applied in fluid brush strokes, the drama of the composition compounded by brilliant lighting.
The Golden Valley is the most accomplished and beautiful of the four, the consummate expression of Palmer's vision of pastoral poetry at Shoreham. It shows a long vista down a hillside into a gently undulating valley, under a clear sky of late summer. In the foreground, a heavily laden harvest waggon drawn by six oxen and guided by a herdsman in a white smock return to the farm nestling in the fold of the valley. Behind him, two women carrying bundles on their heads add movement and a note of graceful colour. In the valley, fields of irregular shapes are divided by stone walls and hedges, with trees with green or golden foliage. In the distance the hills gently roll away towards a distant range of mountains, pale blue-grey on the horizon. In the foreground two tall trees frame the view: on the left, light seems almost to pass through the green leaves; while on the right, the golden foliage is painted in the extraordinary egg-yolk yellow pigment Palmer had used for his drawings of the Lullingstone oaks. Even in so carefully conceived a watercolour there is evidence of alterations in the execution - the tree on the left, for example, had a much more upright trunk, but this was replaced by the slightly bending trunk elegantly leading the eye into the composition. To the left of this tree a dark area of rock may conceal another pentimento. The inscription on the old mount, probably in the hand of A.H. Palmer rather than the artist himself, is a transcription of lines from Paradise Lost. It might equally have been lines from Virgil's Georgics, or from one of Palmer's own poems -
Low lies their home 'mongst many a hill,
In fruitful and deep delved womb;
A little village, safe, and still,
Where pain and vice full seldom come,
Nor horrid noise of warlike drum.
For although the watercolour was never intended to be a literal illustration of any of these lines, Palmer's imagination at this period was so imbued with literary landscapes that he could not help project onto the real landscape his conceptions derived from literature. Moreover it contains all the elements of what Palmer described as 'pastoral essence': the primitive cottage, the harmonious interaction of man and nature, and the abundance of nature. Although Lister followed Grigson in dating the work to c. 1833-4, just before Palmer set off on his travels to Cornwall, Grigson was surely right in his first thoughts, in dating it a year or two earlier, to 1831-2. For the vision of ritualistic poses and rhythmic movement of the figures was later used in other adaptations of this view, most notably The White Cloud (fig. 7), which shares the essential lines of the composition, but is dominated by a huge cloud.
After leaving Shoreham Palmer travelled in Wales and the South-West of England, and in Italy and France on his honeymoon. During his middle years he lived in London, but made frequent journeys to the Southern Counties and occasionally further afield. He spent the last twenty years of his life on the Surrey Downs at Redhill.
In 1863, he was commissioned by the solicitor Leonard Rowe Valpy to illustrate the minor works of Milton, and worked on a series of etchings for his own translation of Virgil's Eclogues. Palmer described The Bellman (fig. 8), one of the Milton plates, as 'a dream of that genuine village where I mused away some of my best years, designing what nobody would care for, and contracting among good books, a fastidious and unpopular taste'. As with The Golden Valley, poetry and images of Shoreham combined to produce a uniquely personal vision, perfectly suited to Milton's words.
The paintings and drawings of Palmer's Shoreham period were to remain unpopular, or at least unknown, for another generation. At the end of his life, Palmer had enjoyed looking over the portfolios of his Shoreham work with a few close friends, notably his fellow Ancients, George Richmond and John Giles, but few of these works had been exhibited in public. Even at the posthumous retrospective at the Fine Art Society in 1882, it was the watercolours of the middle and later years that were most prominent, and the handful of early works was not representative and did not include the most intensely personal. It was not until 1926 that the full range of Palmer's achievement came to be recognised, with the exhibition of the Victoria and Albert Museum which can truly be said to have changed the course of British art forever. Among the exhibits seen in public for the first time was The Golden Valley, which had been jealously kept by A.H. Palmer together with many other masterpieces of the Shoreham period. Some of these were sold in Palmer's sale at Christie's in 1928, when The Golden Valley made the record price of 135 gns., the highest price for a watercolour in the sale, the second highest price of 72 gns. was achieved by The Timber Waggon (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, see p. ). Since then, it has been widely exhibited and is now the most celebrated watercolour by Samuel Palmer remaining in private hands.
'Everywhere curious, articulate, perfect and inimitable of structure, like her own entomology, nature does yet leave a space for the soul to climb above her steepest summits. As, in her own dominion, she swells from the herring to leviathon, from the hodmandod to the elephant, so divine. Art piles mountains on her hills, and continents upon those mountains.
However, creation sometimes pours into the spiritual eye the radiance of Heaven: the green mountains that glimmer in a summer gloaming from the dusky yet blooming east; the moon opening her golden eye, or walking in brightness among innumerate islands of light, not only thrill the optic nerve, but shed a mild, a grateful, an unearthly lustre into the inmost spirits, and seem the interchanging twilight of that peaceful country, where there is no sorrow and no night.
After all, I doubt not but there must be the study of this creation, as well as art and vision; tho' I cannot think it other than the veil of Heaven, through which her divine features are dimly smiling; the setting of the table before the feast; the symphony before the tune; the prologue of the drama, a dream, and antepast, and proscenium of eternity'
(letter from Samuel Palmer to John Linnell, 21 December 1828).
Samuel Palmer: The Golden Valley
by Andrew Wilton, formerly Keeper and Senior Research Fellow at the Tate Gallery
At the beginning of his career Palmer was famously impressed by William Blake's little woodcut illustrations to Dr Robert Thornton's edition of Virgil's Eclogues. The poems, from the time of the Emperor Augustus in the first century B.C., provide one of the greatest of all statements in art of the relationship beween man and nature through husbandry. Dr Thornton asked Blake to add some designs for a reprint that included the eighteenth-century poet Ambrose Philip's 'Imitation' of Virgil's first Eclogue, and it was this modern variation on the Classical theme that Blake illustrated. The book came out in 1821 when Palmer was an impressionable sixteen-year-old. The 'visions of little dells, and nooks, and corner's of Paradise' that he found in those tiny black-and-white designs remained vividly with him, and his life's work became an extended meditation on the insight they had offered.
The Golden Valley is one of the most perfect of his extensions of the theme, an example of just that 'exquisitest pitch of intense poetry' which Blake's designs embodied for him. When he made the watercolour in about 1832, he had had a decade in which to mull over Blake's vision. In the vale of Dulwich, as he reached adulthood, he worked on a succession of mystically 'intense' crystallisations of rural landscape, expressing with extraordinary, idiosyncratic boldness his sense of the deep spiritual significance of nature as he found it in thick-foliaged trees, ripe cornfields and dedicated country people. In 1826 he moved to Shoreham in Kent, in the wooded and pastoral valley of the little river Darent, where the spikey concentration of his early vision mellowed into something warmer, more harmonious and resolved. The landscape and its inhabitants dwell together in the glow of God's blessing, radiant, and bursting with the specific detail of His overarching goodness.
The Golden Valley, coming towards the end of Palmer's Shoreham sojourn, encapsulates all this in a remarkably broad, open panorama in full sunlight. It is described in an intricate web of finely drawn lines, sometimes in pen and ink, often in bright colour, over rich, dense applications of pigment, both watercolour and gouache, enhanced with gum. Throughout his career, Palmer took pains to achieve the concentrated effects he sought by the manipulation of a range of media. His methods were often experimental, and in the use of mixed media for this sort of drawing he was a pioneer, anticipating developments of a quarter-century later.
In its expansive brilliance The Golden Valley perhaps reflects the first glimmerings of Palmer's long-standing passion for another influential visionary, very different from Blake: J.M.W. Turner. The serene balance of the composition seems to acknowledge that master too, and perhaps Turner's own hero Claude Lorrain, whose ecstatic dreams of the Roman Campagna had long been the archetypes of idyllic landscape painting.
But in addition to a Keatsian 'beaker full of the warm south' (and we know Palmer admired Keats's Ode to a Nightingale) there is a more northern quality in the execution of this jewel-like work. The interlocking succession of cultivated fields, the full-leafed woods, the rolling downs heaped one on another, all speak of Palmer's love of the German and Netherlandish masters of the renaissance, especially of Albrecht Dürer, whom Blake too greatly admired. Northern particularity is as important as southern idealisation here, and we can trace the husbandry of the place in delicately executed hedgerows, copses and herds of cattle. This is not simply a heavenly vision, a 'Paradise': it is a working landscape where labourers wend their way through the golden corn, a team of oxen draws the waggon weighted down with the harvest, and the harvesters themselves portray the fruits of nature's abundence.
Palmer was not blind to the realities of rural poverty. Indeed he himself in these years was far from affluent, and his first abode in Shoreham was so squalid that he called it 'Rat Abbey'. But the intensity of his emotion when confronted with nature needed to be expressed in the most positive terms. In this he is close in thought, if not in style, to his great contemporary John Constable, and epitomises the passionate engagement with nature that was a driving force behind so much Romantic art, music and literature.
His drawings are not an exercise in escapism; rather, they involve the viewer in a profound exploration of the relationship between the individual spirit and the English rural scene conceived as a universal paradigm of divine love and the potential of all human beings to comprehend and benefit from it.
The Rediscovery of Palmer in the Twentieth Century
Dr. Jerrold Northrop Moore
Today, Samuel Palmer is recognised as one of Britain's great progenerative artists. The pictures of Palmer's early maturity, culminating in the years of his Kentish residence at Shoreham, can now be seen as founding an English tradition of pastoral vision in art.
This tradition still invigorates British art. The growth of its
recognition can be measured in the fact that The Golden Valley
emerges now as probably the very last great Palmer of the 'Shoreham
period' that can be offered for sale in the twenty-first century.
The recognition of Palmer was hindered by an old fashion of seeing him as a mere disciple of Blake. The fateful meeting with Blake (as Colin Harrision says in his essay) inspired Palmer by suggesting an enhanced role for vision in his art. Blake was a comet that passed across Palmer's sky. But that sky, and much of the land under it, was already Palmer's own. Blake, by contrast, was never much of a landscapist. Only in his little wood engravings commissioned late for a schools' edition of Virgil's Eclogues and in one or two images for Job, did Blake really turn his eye on the land. It was a side-light in Blake's vision that Palmer seized and ran with.
After Palmer's death in 1881, his surviving son Alfred Herbert Palmer sought to preserve his father's memory in a series of books published over the next decade. But the real revival, as A.H. Palmer himself recognised, had to wait on an artist of another generation. Frederick Landseer Griggs (1876-1938), one of the great graphic artists of the early twentieth century, first recognised Palmer as his inspiration when one of A.H. Palmer's books came into his hands as a schoolboy. In his maturity, Griggs would write:
'My love for the things Samuel Palmer loved is my first and last love, and I know no other artist who loved them so well, and whose love so showed forth in his work.'
The modern understanding of Palmer began with Griggs's schoolboy recognition around 1890. Thirty-five years later Griggs was a driving force behind the first comprehensive showing of Palmer's work, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1926. Its catalogue was compiled by Griggs's friend, the etcher Martin Hardie, with help from Sir Frank Short and vital guidance from old A.H. Palmer himself.
Palmer's son had long recognised Griggs as his father's spiritual heir. A.H. Palmer wrote to Griggs:
'All your yearnings and all your hatreds are absolutely in accord with S.P.'s own. How many, I wonder, of your own disciples see beyond and beneath your exquisite work into all your daily torture, your terror on account of the little beauty which is left...?'
In the end A.H. Palmer gave his father's surviving etching plates to Griggs. That act made possible a new edition of five Palmer etchings, superbly printed under the guidance of Griggs, just before the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition.
Griggs's art, honouring the things Palmer had envisioned, became more and more elegiac. Griggs found his metaphors among the vernacular and gothic survivals of English building. His late landscape etching The Cross Hands (fig. 1)(named for the old finger-posts which used to point the four ways at English crossroads) turns Palmer's vision to evanescence. The deer at the edge witnesses the fragility of this beautiful place in each direction the Cross Hands point.
Griggs was just too old to serve in the First World War. That War put paid to many of his generation's hopes and dreams. But it changed the lives of the next generation. Paul Nash (1889-1946) had begun a pre-war career searching out his own pastorals. His experience of the War turned Nash's pastoral to bitter parody, in which Palmerian vision emerges as 'murdered nature' (fig. 2).
Nash spent the rest of his life making successive attempts to recover pastoral vision. At the very end, side by side with work as an official artist in the Second World War, he found his own way to fill Palmeresque prospects with shapes and lights of Surrealism.
Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) and John Piper (1903-1992) were too young to serve in the First War, but its results shadowed their lives. Sutherland at first tried to turn the tide in a series of etchings reaching back through Griggsian elegy to touch Palmer's rural vision. In Sutherland's early etchings, the robust line of Palmer gathers in terraced shadows of rural vision persisting into the twentieth century (fig. 3).
Ten years later, Sutherland found his own equivalent of Palmer's Shoreham on the Pembrokeshire coast of western Wales. There he became the first of Palmer's inheritors to revive the older man's glowing colours (as seen in The Golden Valley). Palmer once described his best watercolours, applied in multiple glazes of pure unmixed colours, as allowing the white or ivory paper to show through so as to enkindle the effect of light behind them. The effect, he said, was painting's closest approach to stained glass.
Sutherland's Pembrokeshire pictures enkindle Palmer's glowing colours even in oils - a medium Palmer seldom used. Sutherland's Pembrokeshire pictures approach abstraction, yet the Palmerian pastoral keeps an astonishing strength in them. Sutherland's painting reduces its scrutiny of nature to elemental rocks and shards of wood (fig. 4). It is as if Sutherland found himself a modern Noah, touching once more a land from which the destroying flood was only starting to recede.
Both Sutherland and his contemporary John Piper had begun their schoolboy studies with Griggs's illustrations to the Highways and Byways County guidebooks. Some of Piper's earliest drawings revisit the places Griggs had drawn, to redraw them from new angles. But Piper's art had also to find its way among the maze of currents running through British art between the wars. What Piper came to at last was a rougher vision of English country south and north (fig. 5). Piper's vision, annealed in the abstractions of the 1930s and the furnace of the Second World War, touched the widest public throughout the latter half of the century.
Piper's art took the Palmerian pastoral to new graphic media - to pottery designs with brightest colours under richest glazes - and finally to a great output of stained glass. Thus Piper took the luminosity Palmer found at Shoreham and used it to revive an art whose illumination Palmer had felt a century and a half earlier glowing at the back of The Golden Valley.
Half a generation beyond Piper and Sutherland came a new group of 'Neo-Romantic' artists, whose pastoral visions rose as counterpoints to the Second War in which several of them served. Towards the War's end they gathered paradoxically in London. The best of their work kept its country vision. But the resulting tensions filled the colours of Keith Vaughan (whose illustrations to Rimbaud's Season in Hell showed a pastoral more perverse than Nash's 'murdered nature') and the nervous brilliant line of John Minton (1917-1957).
By the later 1950s English pastoral vision seemed in danger of extinction. One of Minton's students at the Royal College of Art was Graham Arnold (born 1932). Arnold dreamed of a group of artists living in the country, together or seperately, dedicated to extending pastoral vision (fig. 6). And so, in 1975, The Ruralists emerged under a banner devised by their most skilled publicist, Peter Blake.
A majority of The Ruralists remain together nearly thirty years later - not a commune, but dedicated to individual visions of the land descried nearly two centuries ago by Samuel Palmer in The Golden Valley.
Dr. Jerrold Northrop Moore is writing a history of pastoral vision in English Art, with Palmer at its head.