Saturday, 27 September 2008
As befits a follower of William Blake, Palmer’s paintings have a seer's intensity; unlike his older mentor, however, his paintings are visionary reworkings of the natural world, rather than Biblical or mystical scenes. A child prodigy, Palmer first exhibited his paintings in 1819 at the Royal Academy and the British Institution. He began studying under John Linnell aged seventeen, who introduced him to Blake. He headed the group known as the ‘Ancients’, so-called because of their shared admiration for early Renaissance art and their belief in the superiority of ancient over modern humanity. A further vital influence was Blake's illustrations to Thornton's Virgil (1821), which Palmer described as 'visions of little dells and nooks and corners of paradise'. This is an excellent description of the most powerful of Palmer’s own works.
The images which appeal to me most are illustrations of pastoral scenes executed in ink with washes of golden and sepia varnish over them, giving them a mellow, twilit lustre. They consist of a series of tiny landscape paintings and drawings, were produced in Shoreham, Kent, which he first visited in 1825 and where he lived between 1827 and 1832. The handling is startlingly linear, perhaps an attempt to emulate the qualities of northern Renaissance woodcuts. Natural detail teeters on the edge of abstraction. Perceptual precision of individual features (the pattern of tree-bark, the motion of ears of ripe wheat) is subordinated to the whole composition by his harmonising, spiritual style. So hills are exaggeratedly humped, seeming to leap like lambs, in the words of the Psalmist. The moon rocks back on itself like a softly-glowing sickle-blade. In the image below, each blade of grass is picked out, with a sweet fatness that betokens lushness and abandon. The trees and hills are designed in layers of rounded, textured cells, lending the image an organic softness. The oak tree stands like a bizarre fungus, its semi-circular canopy reaching out as though to shelter the weary traveler. Each stone in the path that the rabbit lollops up is picked out with a loving clarity. The log by the path has a glowing solidity, a golden smoothness that says: all here is kindly, here man and nature are in harmony. This is England as Arcadia, blessed by the eye that transfigures even as it observes. He also painted in watercolour, producing paintings in which corn seems to fall from the hills like milled gold, apples hang like low moons in ancient boughs, and evening shadows lend an autumnal richness to idealised country scenes.
Sadly, Palmer’s work gradually lost its visionary sensibility and took on the common appeal of traditional British landscapists as he grew older. But the twenty or so images which belong to his early style remain astonishing, and he deserves our respect as a visionary nature-mystic.