An influential and beloved landscape painter, Samuel Palmer (1805 – 1883) brought spiritual into the bucolic. He is most associated with the Kent village of Shoreham, a village I have loved and visited repeatedly, drawn by its association with a world I recognise in Palmer’s pictures.
Although the sound of the motorway is always present, in many ways the village he knew, and the fields he drew are still recognisable. I moved to SE London in approximately 2008 and spent many early excursions in the countryside there. I found that among the hills I could imagine myself back in the landscape of my home, in the Pennines. I had found it difficult to acclimatise to the flat landscape of my areas of London and it was a relief to me to see those hills, gentle as they were compared to the wild moors of my childhood and my Yorkshire ancestry on my mother’s sides, the moors around Haworth, the area that forms the backdrop to Wuthering Heights.
When I first encountered Palmer’s pictures I thought they were of a fairytale, imaginary place, because the land looked so benign. These calm, fruitful valleys seemed impossbile, the stuff of story, not real life. And of course they are. But they are based on these actual sites and I had to do a double take when I saw them.
The landscapes of Shoreham and its surroundings draw on udeas if poetic feeling and the British Romantic tradition, the idea that the rural life is a good life. His particular version with its mix of pastoral and agricultural scene which emphasises the magical or religious power of the shepherd looking after his sheep is an Anglican vision of god. It brings to life scenes from the stained windows. It brings to life the charm of the nativity. And he blends this sense of natural, divine power with the scenes of trees, farmhouses, hills, sky, crops and often, the mysterious light of the moon.
Palmer, a follower of Blake, was a member of a group called the Ancients who settled with him in Shoreham in search of a more primal vision of nature. They turned their backs on the modern world, and the commercial life of London. They would walk through the fields at night, sometimes reading from Gothic texts, Macbeth being a favourite with its evocative, bloody, soul-rending monologues. This sense of the value of experiencing the countryside at night is so important in many of his pieces. The evocative light of the moon is extremely important in creating the right atmosphere in the scenes. Often Palmer’s treatment of light, although informed by his love of moonlight, mysterious light and natural effects, is altered and impossible in order to convey the appropriate specialness of the moment.
His pictures occupy points in time which are rich with fecundity. In ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ (1830) a tree magically puts forward apples at the same time as a corn harvest is ready. The large woolly sheep in the foreground further emphasise that this is a vision of the munificence of a bountiful god, giving to his faithful congregation through natural richness.
Palmer’s landscapes feel still. This is not a land where the wind blows harshly through the trees. The air feels unmoving. There is a sense of warmth, not baking heat, but warmth in the light, cool in the shade. The pictorial framing emphasises the storybook nature of the pictures. God could be holding the world in his hands, caring for those within, animals as well as humans.
Shepherds sleep, reclining beneath trees. There is no sense that a wolf might attack. Wolves are not known in Shoreham for many years. The sheep gather round each other but not from fear. They look well fed and calm. He loves trees. His ‘Pastoral with a Horse Chestnut Tree’ (1831) shows deliciously plump horse chestnut flowers, golden hand shaped leaves, and a shepherd with his flock beneath the tree, taking shelter for a restful, meditative bit of peace in a calm, pleasant day.
But despite the sense of calmness, Palmer’s work is exciting. The sense of divine presence creates this scintillating electricity in blossom, in moonlight, in shining gold fields of corn. The churches are places of pilgrimage to which the people come and go in procession. In ‘Coming from Evening Church’ (1830) the themes of the church and the community that goes to church are affectionately expressed in stained glass colour. It is not a literal expression of Shoreham. There the church has no spire. The spiritual nature of the experience of the worshippers, going home from church, their exaltation and transportation is shown in the flame colour of the dress of the woman at the front. The picture evokes mediaeval pictures of church goers and shows how Palmer felt a continuity with the religious belief of this era. The nineteenth century was a very devout age in England, with the Anglican church having powerful membership and following.
My favourite Palmer pictures are those where the moonlight is at the heart of the piece, where the night sky and mysterious light of this time dominates the mood. He was interested in astronomy in the dark sky and in astral phenomena. He seems to have a particular affinity with the beauty of a calm, bright night, and the whe way senses are heightened in darkness. I can almost hear the plants growing, the sound of an owl and feel the huge moon shining on the leaves of his beloved trees. As a young person I was also entranced by the sensations when awake when most were asleep. I too experienced a sense of excitement mingled with peace.
(after Samuel Palmer)
They come out at night,
the large cream and rust apples,
hanging from a dripping tree,
ready to drop, so you feast on their sweet-bite.
Comets with two tails sweep
the sky clean of unbelievers.
Pilgrim, go towards the country bridge
where you see your future down the still river.
I am in need of a wife.
So believe in the television of faith,
The water tunes into the next ten years.
Can you see her face, new woman that loves you?
Doesn’t she look like your mother?
Albeit dressed as mother of God, the blessed
who rides tonight on a donkey.
Ssssh while she passes the steep clock,
ready to give birth any second.