Painting the Promise of Paradise

NOT, perhaps, until the paintings of Van Gogh, some half a century later, did an artist produce such an overflowingly rich, unstintingly colorful visual hymn to nature as there is in this little 1830 watercolor by Samuel Palmer. It was nicknamed (nobody seems certain by whom) ``The Magic Apple Tree'' - and the name has stuck. It's an astonishing, jewel-like miniature painting, with a vivid palette. The fervency of this work, glowing like some fiery hot ember, is all the more extraordinary for its being the work of an English artist - an artist of the cool-and-collected northern part of Europe, not from the hot Mediterranean south. The Dutch Van Gogh, also a northerner, produced his more expressively color-rich paintings only in southern France, in response to the fresh, strong use of color by the Paris Impressionists, and, even more, because he was exposed to the fierce sunlight and heat of Arles and St. R'emy.

Born in 1805 to a London bookseller, Samuel Palmer had not, in 1830, been out of England. But he had been out of the city; in fact, in his own later words, he was ``forced into the country by illness'' and lived afterward for about seven years at Shoreham, in Kent, with his father. ``There, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes visited by friends of congenial taste, literature and art and music whiled away the hours, and a small independence made me heedless, for the time, of further gain; the beautiful was loved for itself, and if it were right, after any sort, to live for our own gratification, the retrospect might be happy....''

According to his son and biographer A.H. Palmer, the young Samuel's time in the Kentish village of Shoreham - lasting approximately from 1826 to 1837 - was ``the great epoch of his life. He himself loved to dwell upon it in after years, - and for those who knew him best delighted to hear him discourse of that old time.'' If this suggests that the Shoreham years receded in memory as a kind of fond nostalgia, it also hints at the undoubted fact that as he grew older Samuel Palmer (he lived until 1881) was aware that the visionary freedom and radical imaginativeness of his life and art in Shoreham might well be misunderstood by people who didn't know him well.

Palmer had largely become, over the years since Shoreham, a rather conventional Victorian landscape painter - though some etchings from 1850 on did revive a little of what he described 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.''

Though his later sense of conventionality never entirely crushed Palmer's determined individualism - he told his son not to care a whit what others thought of him. The independence, some even today would say the peculiarity, of his early art, from 1824 until the mid-1830s, is of a completely different sort from anything that followed. In fact it was so ``far ahead of its time'' that it didn't achieve much real appreciation until the 1920s and '30s, when, like the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, his extreme originality suddenly made sense, at least to a number of artists.

Palmer must have retained a sufficient awareness of the quality and value of his early work not to destroy it, though he is known in his later years to have destroyed works he didn't consider good enough to keep and also preliminary drawings for finished works. But that was nothing to what was to happen in 1909.

This was the year that A.H. Palmer emigrated from England to Vancouver, British Columbia, and before leaving he deliberately burned, in a bonfire that lasted for days, what he later wrote was a ``great quantity of my father's handiwork - handiwork which he himself valued more than that work which the public could understand.''

A.H. Palmer burned them, he said, ``knowing that no-one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt; I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate.'' This act is particularly astounding because A.H. Palmer actually had a considerable appreciation of his father's work, as his biography, still the basis of all subsequent work on Palmer, frequently shows.

The world's stock of Palmer work was even further reduced by an undeliberate fire in a storage warehouse in Vancouver after his son's arrival there. And, as Raymond Lister wrote in his new catalogue raisonne (1988) of Palmer (the most recent of the numerous books and catalogs Lister has written about the artist), more works were probably destroyed by air raids in World War II. Lister also believes that there must be a number of owners of Palmer's works who are ``reluctant for various reasons to declare their ownership.'' So the works by Palmer that are known must be sadly small in number compared with his actual production. Nevertheless, some of the works that have survived are remarkable enough.

``The Magic Apple Tree'' rates highly among them. But it is intriguing that Palmer kept it apart even from some of his other Shoreham works in what he labeled ``The Curiosity Portfolio.''

Palmer's sources of inspiration for a painting like ``The Magic Apple Tree'' were by no means just the beautiful countryside around Shoreham, though his letters often mention such rural pleasures as the annual apple crops in the area, famously rich in orchards. Undoubtedly Palmer also saw shepherds and shepherdesses guarding their flocks of sheep.

While Palmer was living in Shoreham, he made great efforts to study and draw nature at first hand. His mentor and future father-in-law, the artist John Linnell, encouraged him to do this. But it went against Samuel's grain to do so. His real interest lay in the imagination, and this imagination, so strange and impassioned, thrived in an atmosphere of poetry reading, music, wandering about dreamily in the twilight or moonlight, and in studying and imitating the old masters.

Linnell had a collection of prints by or after such old masters as D"urer, Lucas van Leyden, Raphael, and Bonasone, and the encounter with these black-and-white images had, according to Palmer, rescued him ``from the pit of modern art.'' So smitten with the ``grand old men'' of art were he and his friends that they jokingly called themselves ``The Ancients.''

The poetry that fed Palmer's vision was above all that of the Bible and Milton. His drawings and paintings might be seen as transporting Shoreham into the world of the Psalms of David, or Milton's poem ``L'Allegro.'' I wonder if by the time he painted ``The Magic Apple Tree'' Palmer knew John Keats's ode ``To Autumn,'' written about a decade earlier. There's no evidence whether he did or didn't, but it is irresistible to want to link the painting's rich fructification with that poem's lines: ``To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.''

Palmer also loved the mixture of practical agriculture and poetry in the writings of the Roman poet Virgil, and his frequent painting of sheep and shepherds owes quite as much to fancies aroused by such reading as to direct observation.

And then there was William Blake. Linnell had introduced him to this aged artist in 1824, and Palmer was instantly an admirer and friend, if not a follower. Blake's art, usually of figures, belongs vividly to the imagination rather than observation, and he, too, was a great collector and student of prints of the Old Masters.

Blake had a relish for the sweet air and sounds of the countryside, and occasionally produced his own little images of pastoral delight. But Palmer's response to these almost casual pictures and prints was overwhelming. It took him far deeper into a specific love of real landscape, for tree trunks, chestnut leaves, heads of barley, the roundness of hillsides, the mystery of valleys, burgeoning blossom - or apple trees overloaded with fruit. It is the recognizability of such natural details in his works, transported into his land of fancy - his ``valley of vision'' - that give his early works their remarkable power.

His only remaining sketchbook from this visionary period, as well as some of his letters of the time, continually explore this mingling of nature and imagination. Before he moved to Shoreham, the countryside that stirred him was at Dulwich, on the outskirts of London. In his sketchbook he wrote: ``...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....''

The high golden horizon in ``The Magic Apple Tree'' almost goes further: It suggests that Paradise has crept over the hill.

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