Sunday, June 29, 2008

Samuel Palmer of Walworth and the Dulwich Valley of Vision

Samuel Palmer (1805 -1881) is the best known of a group of 19th century artists who styled themselves The Ancients. They were greatly influenced by William Blake, who they befriended towards the end of his life.

Samuel Palmer was born in Surrey Square, off the Old Kent Road. The eighteenth-century terrace still stands today, with a plaque commemorating Palmer on his old home, number 42 (between two houses named 'Avalon' and 'Content' - very Samuel Palmer). Today the area is dominated by the Aylesbury Estate, but in Palmer's day it was more rural. As a four-year-old he was entranced by 'the moon... rising from behind some elms, casting their shadows on the floor' (Lister, Samuel Palmer: a biography).

With his father, he enjoyed childhood walks to Greenwich Park and to Dulwich, and continued these excursions as a young man. Of the former he he wrote: "We observed the shadows in Greenwich Park in the morning so purple and cool" (quoted in Abley).

As a young artist, Palmer visited Dulwich Picture Gallery in the company of John Linnell, his mentor and later father-in-law. The paintings he saw there had a lasting influence on him. Forty years later he recommended specific pictures in Dulwich Picture Gallery to a friend, including Aert de Gelder's striking 'Jacob's Dream', wrongly attributed at the time to Rembrandt (1864 letter to Louisa Twining).

But the local countryside had at least as profound an effect on Palmer. In his notebooks from 1824, Palmer imagined a rural scene of a field of corn over which 'golden sea might peep up elysian hills, the little hills of David, or the hills of Dulwich or rather the visions of a better country which the Dulwich fields will shew to all true poets'. He also made a note to "Remember the Dulwich sentiment at very late twilight time with the rising dews (perhaps the tops of the hills quite clear) like a delicious dream".

Samuel Palmer, Cornfield by Moonlight
This image of the dreamlike Dulwich landscape recurred in his notebooks; "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 (hard task) should give us promise that the country beyond them is Paradise" (quoted in Abley). He wrote that "at Dulwich, the distant hills seem the most powerful objects in colour, and clear force of line: we are not troubled with aerial perspective in the valley of vision".

Palmer's most famous works were undertaken while living at Shoreham in Kent, but it is clear that the landscape of (what is now) South London had a formative influence on his art. It was in this period too that he composed poems such as "Twilight Time" and "The Shepherds' Home". Perhaps we can see the "And now the trembling light/Glimmers behind the little hills" (Twilight Time) as a reference to his Dulwich visions.

Palmer's visionary sense of the landscape paralleled that of Blake. While Blake famously had childhood visions of angels in a tree in Peckham Rye, Palmer once wrote: "Sometimes trees are seen as men. I saw on, a princess, walking stately with majestic train". Elsewhere he wrote "creation sometimes pours into the spiritual eye the radiance of Heaven: the green mountains that glimmer in a summer gloaming from the dusky yet bloomy East; the moon, opening her golden eye, or walking in brightness among innumberable islands of light, not only thrill the optic nerve, but shed a mild, a grateful and unearthly lustre into the inmost spirits, and seem the interchanging twilight of that peaceful country, where there is no sorrow and no night" (letter to John Linnell, December 21 1828).

Samuel Palmer, Garden in Shoreham

  • Abley, Mark (ed.), The Parting Light: Selected Writings of Samuel Palmer (Manchester: Carcanet, 1984)
  • Lister, Raymond, Samuel Palmer: a biography (London: Faber, 1974).
  • Lister, Raymond (ed.), Letters of Samuel Palmer (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974).
  • Lister, Raymond, Samuel Palmer and 'The Ancients' (Cambridge: University Press, 1984).


Anonymous said...

It is OK, but not good.

anne clark said...

The most unique and sublime of British artists!