Palmer's literary landscapes

Bowled over by an artist whose work was unlike anything I'd seen before

I vividly remember my first encounter with Samuel Palmer. I was at Cambridge University. I had just walked into the bookshop Bowes and Bowes. I can still visualize the counter where I picked up a slim book with an orange cover: "Samuel Palmer's Valley of Vision" by Geoffrey Grigson.

I was bowled over. I pored over all of its 48 plates. I put the book down. Lifted it again. Wondered if I could afford to buy it. I'd never seen art like this - not even Van Gogh - but surprisingly it rang loud bells as if these intensely delineated, strange (some might think eccentric) landscape drawings and paintings were familiar. But as landscapes, they belonged as much to the artist's imagination as to observation. They weren't literal like most 19th-century English landscape paintings. But they were literary.

They were infused with literature - the Bible, Chaucer, Milton, and Keats. Grigson pointed to Spenser and Bunyan, too, both of whom were also favorites of the patriarchal poet-painter William Blake, who was exceedingly admired by Palmer. Blake had made some tiny black-and-white wood engravings that greatly moved Palmer. And Blake shared his love of old prints, particularly by Bonasone.

I was reading English. I was schooled in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Keats. In an earlier, longer book about Palmer that I also soon bought, Grigson wrote that Palmer knew much of the Miltonic epic by heart.

I switched from English to a new course in the history of art, to which I was better suited. And when it came to a subject for my thesis, I shyly suggested Palmer. My tutor was enthusiastic and pointed me in the direction of "the influence of prints of Samuel Palmer." Things came together.

In 1962, Palmer's only surviving sketchbook from his "visionary period" was published in a small facsimile edition. I had to have a copy. My father, persuaded it was essential to my very existence, bought it for me at the unheard of price - for a student - of nine guineas.

Now, 200 years after Palmer's birth, the British Museum is staging the first major Palmer exhibition since 1926. The sketchbook is being published once again (by Thames & Hudson in both London and New York). At last, this extraordinary document will be given a wider audience.

Palmer used his vivid imagination to transform Lullingstone oak trees into literary art.

The thing about ancient trees is that they stay ancient so long. Lullingstone Park in Kent boasts some of the largest ancient oaks in Britain. They were already old and gigantic almost two centuries ago. The young and extraordinary artist Samuel Palmer drew them in the 1820s.

Palmer and some of his friends at the time lived in or periodically visited the nearby village of Shoreham and called themselves "The Ancients." Palmer believed art should be "visionary." The Ancients were strongly influenced by William Blake.

Blake was not much interested in landscape. Palmer was. Shoreham and its idyllic surroundings fed his love of trees, hills, and valleys; of moonlight and darkness; of harvest and sheepfold. He transformed them using his intense imagination, making art that had to wait until the mid-20th century to be appreciated.

Two fruitfully contradictory elements informed his vision: a direct love of nature and what he called "divine Art." He wrote: "The visions of the soul, being perfect, are the only true standard by which nature must be tried."

His father-in-law, artist John Linnell, introduced him to the visionary Blake, but he also advised Palmer to make studies from nature. Linnell was sure they would sell.

Palmer's drawings of the Lullingstone oaks were in answer to this, though he wrote fellow "Ancient" George Richmond that he would "never be a naturalist by profession." And to Linnell: "Milton, by one epithet, draws an oak of the largest girth I ever saw, 'Pine and monumental oak': I have just been trying to draw a large one in Lullingstone; but the poet's tree is huger than any in the park...."

He minutely investigated "the rifts and barky furrows" and "twisted sinews" of the oak, but he maintained that, whatever nature's "genuine perfection," it seemed "hard to be reconciled with the unwinning severity, the awfulness, the ponderous globosity of Art."

'Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape' will be at the British Museum Oct 21-Jan. 22. It will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 7 to May 28, 2006. "British Drawings from the National Gallery of Canada," is on view at the museum in Ottawa until Nov. 20.

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