A visionary spark: contained exultation

''Visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise.'' Samuel Palmer used these words to describe some woodcuts by William Blake: They apply as well, if not better, to his own early works. The loaded inspiration, the richness and intensity, of these works were the conscious result of Palmer's labouring after excess. ''Excess,'' he wrote in 1825, ''is the essential vivifying spirit, vital spark . . . of the finest art.'' His vision transformed the natural world.

It was not easy, as the artist John Linnell found out when he tried to persuade Palmer that a more conventional observation of nature should be an artist's main concern. In 1828, Palmer wrote in reply to the older painter, ''I doubt not that 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. . . .''

In fact Linnell's advice did not fall on completely deaf ears. For one thing, Palmer's only surviving sketchbook (1825) of the so-called ''visionary'' period shows that he had already by no means been ignoring the minutiae of plants and trees, fields and woods. Now, however, he went out in the countryside around Shoreham in Kent and sacrificed his imagination even more to a ''normal'' record of his surroundings.

''Pear Tree in a Walled Garden'' was painted at about this time. It is freer and more painterly than his earliest visionary pictures, and might well be of a particular place. Linnell's counsel had had its effect. Nevertheless I believe this small picture is part of what might be called Palmer's second visionary blooming - a brilliant reflowering of the ''vivifying spirit'' before he lapsed, in the 1830s, into a very tame style of landscapism, less strange and far duller.

Perhaps the germ of the idea of ''Pear Tree'' can be found in the earlier sketchbook mentioned above. In it there is a drawing of the edge of a thick wood and a note which goes further than description: the wood is ''very wild and intricate yet such as you would wish to explore guided by one that knows its mazes to a shaded cottage and garden of sweet herbs and flowers in the midst where you might forget the wretched moderns and their spider's webs. . . .''

This kind of fancy, and the literature and art which prompted it, were indeed not ''modern'' at all. They harked back ultimately to a kind of medieval innocence and religion. He and his closest friends at the time even called themselves ''The Ancients'' - though they were actually young - Palmer's best work was made in his 20s. His value of nature was for its hints of ''Eden,'' secret and enclosed, in the centre of a wood, or for a ''paradise'' beyond the hills. Both pictures and writings are full of such ideas. But this attitude didn't in the least make him treat the visible world ascetically. He positively revelled in its most fertile and fecund qualities, its ''fruitful sentiment'' as he called it, its growing and swelling, flowering and fruiting and harvesting.

''Pear Tree'' is often coupled with the perhaps better known watercolour ''In a Shoreham Garden.'' Both are hymns of praise to the blossom of fruit trees, the other being mainly of an apple tree smothered in a glorious explosion of billowing, profuse, pink-tinged flowering as thick as snow.

The ''Pear Tree'' watercolour perfectly shows how Palmer identified blossoms - the epitome of the overgenerosity of spring - with the fullness and roundedness of clouds, and clouds (piling up unimaginable worlds of light), with the paradise beyond the hills. Outside the walled garden (which is redolent with monastic secrecy and seclusion from the world), trees, hills and clouds fill the space and press in close, increasing the warm feeling of inclosure. Through the stone arch is a further glimpse of crowding nature, budding and leafing. The other plants in the garden (what are they? Brassicas?) lead strange, free lives of their own, almost like people, or odd creatures, dancing and growing. The pear tree itself, weighted with a mass of heavy florets, almost has a personality. This vegetative verve was more important to Palmer than accuracy of observation. He could happily ignore aerial perspective (which makes objects recede into an increasingly faint distance) and disregard stylistic usages. But his aim was not eccentricity, it was a kind of ecstatic abundance, an expression of his ''dearest landscape longing,'' as he phrased it, of the aspirations and bliss he felt, rather than precisely saw, in observed aspects of nature.

''The visions of the soul,'' he wrote, ''being perfect, are the only true standard by which nature must be tried.''

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, later in the 19th century, was no distant artistic cousin of Palmer's. His poem ''Spring'' might almost be the text for this picture, even to the mention of ''the glassy peartree leaves and blooms'': part of it reads: . . . What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning in Eden garden. . . .

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