English Eccentric Who Put Poetry in Pictures; the British Museum's Samuel Palmer Exhibition Shows Him to Be One of Europe's Greatest Romantic Artists
Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
OVER the past half century or so, art historians have occasionally sought to define the Englishness of English art, identifying such constants as our love of horses, dogs, landscape and portraiture, and discovering in their combination - as in Gainsborough, Reynolds and Stubbs - the best that we can do.
This, however, is a blinkered view, for these were constants, too, in European art, and the sane man must argue that in the 18th century, the first in which we became a nation of painters, we were among the greatest. We have nevertheless been conditioned to believe that because we had no obvious Goya or Tiepolo, we were inferior. Inferior?
Where is there a European match for Wright of Derby as a painter of the Enlightenment, for Hogarth as the liberal and compassionate Jeremy Bentham of painting, or for Stubbs as the scientific re-creator of the horse?
The subject that historians should have investigated was not the Englishness of English art but the Englishness of English taste, for if one thing is certain of the 19th century, it is that the grand ambitions of the century before were snuffed out by a deplorable shift in taste towards the trivial.
We became collectors of the illustrated narrative - "every picture tells a story" was not merely the slogan of a kidney pill, but the battle cry of the Royal Academy, and painting thus became the handmaiden of the novels of the middle classes and the pennydreadfuls of their servants; painting put roses round the door of every country cottage, made every cow contented and every baa-lamb pretty, painting poked its nose into every cranny clad with ivy and bathed every sweep of landscape in the warmth of summer or the golden tranquillity of afternoon.
Where does Samuel Palmer fit into this, the admirable eccentric who spanned the 19th century, the boy genius, the recluse, the moonstruck "Extollager", the scholar gipsy, the painter of small things in an old Romantic manner that, after the passage of half a century, tricked the imaginations of Graham Sutherland and half his generation into painting the even smaller things of the new Romanticism of the 1930s?
In his time he did not fit at all, for spiritually he was too close to the then neglected Blake, his insight and intuition too remote, too downright strange for eyes trained to read pictures as sentimental, pathetic and heroic tales. Palmer could never have conceived a Death of Nelson or an exploration of the North-West Passage, could never have given us Pygmalion or Perseus, the cottage girl or chimney sweeper's boy, and when what he could and did give us as a visionary failed to pay his bills, his adaptation to Victorian demands was commercially scarcely more successful and aesthetically almost unremarkable.
English to the core and in a broad sense literary, too, his work was not to the taste of the Victorians, but for three-quarters of the 20th century he was the subject of wild, romantic and informed enthusiasm, and is so still, an epitome of English art.
Born in 1805 in Southwark, it is significant that Samuel Palmer was the son of an educated middleclass bookseller of modest independent means. Never short of books to stimulate his imagination, at 13 he was apprenticed to a forgotten painter, William Wate, and at 14 exhibited for the first time at the RA. At 17, he met John Linnell, Blake's friend and patron, whose daughter he was to marry and whose influence sharpened his perception.
A year later, he encountered the 14-year-old George Richmond, who became a lifelong friend, and the following year they, and others, formed a society, The Ancients, and wore a uniform of flowing cloaks and broad-brimmed hats.
Years later, in 1853, Matthew Arnold, in his poem The Scholar Gipsy, that in so many of its lines evokes visions of the English countryside that are virtually descriptions of Palmer's most powerful but enigmatic early drawings, conjured his core character with "in hat of antique shape and cloak of grey". …