The Shoreham Gang

Seamus Perry

  • Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer by Rachel Campbell-Johnston
    Bloomsbury, 382 pp, £25.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 7475 9587 8

A bearded patriarch, possibly in Elizabethan dress, rests on his elbow, stretched out on a snug little hillock in the middle of a wedge-shaped field of corn. He is leaning against some sort of natural cushion, and it’s possible he is asleep, though he has a large book open in front of him so perhaps it’s just that his eyes are cast down to scrutinise its pages. But that would be difficult since it is evidently night-time: above him, an owl (or perhaps it’s a bat) flies across a large moon that looms over a range of rounded hills. From among them a spindly church spire can just be seen stretching up into the sky; the foreground is filled by heavy ears of corn gathered around the central figure like a comfy blanket. The reclining man is apparently undisturbed by the two hefty cows who, despite the late hour, are making their way through the corn just over his left shoulder – and undisturbed, too, by an insomniac shepherd who pipes to his sheep in a nearby field of standing sheaves, sitting beneath a tree shaped like a lollipop.

‘The Valley Thick with Corn’ (1825).
‘The Valley Thick with Corn’ (1825).

Altogether these might not sound like the ingredients of a very satisfactory work of art; but the picture, Samuel Palmer’s The Valley Thick with Corn, conjures a masterpiece out of its incongruous elements in a way that is wholly exemplary of the artist at his best. Palmer’s technique seems to have been unique, a striking combination of intricate pen-work and thick outline done in a gloopy mixture of ink and gum. (‘Outlines cannot be got too black,’ he jotted in his sketchbook in a characteristic spirit of self-exhortation.) The picture is finished off with a varnish that has aged into a rich yellowy-brown: the total effect is sometimes said to resemble an etching, which is true enough, though it resembles something else even more, as Colin Harrison says in his excellent handbook to Palmer: a carved ivory. The Valley Thick with Corn is one of the most beautiful expressions of what Palmer’s son once astutely noted in his father, ‘a certain sentiment of surpassing fruitfulness’, and its fecundity lies as much in its manner as in its subject matter: ‘We must not begin with medium, but think always on excess, and only use medium to make excess more abundantly excessive,’ Palmer instructed himself in his sketchbook. The sheer thickness of the gummy ink feels wonderfully supererogatory, a spirit confirmed in a different way by all the crammed detail that fills the composition: it is a masterpiece of absorbed attention and, blithely at odds with the rules of perspective, it is quite as full of detail in the far distance as it is in the nearground. A cart, as crisply drawn as the old man’s book, lumbers its way up a remote slope, while the distended ears of ripe corn that swell in the foreground are almost comically oversized, as though they had been imported from a drawing of a different scale. ‘There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,’ according to Francis Bacon, a remark Palmer considered one of his ‘very deepest sayings’. Topography in Palmerland is usually richly askew, as though the separate elements of its landscape were somehow too exuberantly full of their own reality to be kept within more normal picturely constraints. ‘We are not troubled with aerial perspective in the valley of vision,’ Palmer declared to his sketchbook.

The strangeness only intensifies on deeper acquaintance: the light and darkness of the scene, for example, seem quite independent of any shadows likely to be cast in nature by that immense moon. Oddity in art can be a bravura display of brilliant perversity, like Glenn Gould taking Bach at a counterintuitive lick; but the best Palmer is odd in a much quieter and more mysterious way than that, as though serenely unaware of its own peculiarity. It is hard to imagine an art less calculating: the picture is not the emphatic expression of a personality but more the exposure of one, as though allowing an intensely private kind of idiosyncrasy to reveal itself to a public gaze; and a good part of its quiet power comes from the implicit sense of vulnerability which goes along with that sense of exposure. Here, the feeling of vulnerability finds its locus in the stretched-out reader, heedlessly sealed up in the bubble of his unlikely repose. Palmer was always moved by the mysterious privacy of such self-enclosed figures: dozing shepherds were one of his favourite subjects, and he had a lifelong fascination with a statue in the British Museum that he took to be Mercury asleep (it is actually Endymion) and which he thought of as ‘the sure test of our imaginative faculty’. ‘Bend over it,’ he instructed a correspondent in hushed wonder. ‘Look at those delicate eyelids; that mouth a little open. He is dreaming. Dream on, marble shepherd; few will disturb your slumber.’

The Valley Thick with Corn is one of the six so-called Oxford sepias, a group which now belongs to the Ashmolean Museum. (You can go and look at them in the Print Room, and really you should: seeing the real thing is, in this case, quite unlike seeing the tamed reproduction of the thing.) The pictures date from the beginning of the extraordinary period between about 1825 and 1835 when Palmer found inspiration in the landscape around the village of Shoreham in Kent and produced some of the greatest English pictures of the 19th century. Shoreham for Palmer, like Grasmere for Wordsworth, was not an enchanted birthplace to which he returned, but a deliberately sought-out paradise that he invented from scratch. Palmer had been born, in 1805, in leafy Walworth, but when young had moved with his family to Houndsditch, where his father had set up as a bookseller. Houndsditch was dirty and rough; the contrast with Walworth must have been dismaying, and the boy’s unhappiness was subsequently deepened by the death of his mother and the miseries of school; a subsequent move to Bloomsbury, a much better location for a bookshop, would not have made life feel any more salubrious. Altogether, it is difficult to imagine an upbringing more likely to dispose someone towards thoughts of a bucolic idyll. Most of Palmer’s sketchbooks have been lost, but one that survives, dating from 1824, is filled with dreamy scenes of an English Arcadia, accompanied by statements of pastoral purpose: ‘Whatever you do guard against bleakness and grandeur – and try for the primitive cottage feeling.’ Palmer’s health was never robust and when he began to develop asthma and bronchitis there were clearly practical as well as spiritual reasons for abandoning ‘horrid smoky London’ and finding a rural escape. He had visited Kent and based his drawings on what he saw there, and in 1826 he bought a small rundown house in Shoreham. The cottage feeling certainly was primitive: he called his new home ‘Rat Abbey’.

Palmer’s rural retreat was companionable. His father sold up, followed his son to Shoreham and settled in a spacious house, which was just as well since Rat Abbey could not accommodate many guests and Palmer had numerous visitors. He was the central member of a group of young painters united in their opposition (as usual) to the academic aridity of modern art: they called themselves ‘The Ancients’, among whom the most gifted, besides Palmer, were George Richmond and Edward Calvert. Shoreham for the Ancients functioned as, in Henry James’s phrase, ‘the Great Good Place’ – ‘a valley so hidden,’ Calvert said, ‘that it looked as if the devil had not yet found it out.’ The Shoreham spirit that emerges from the letters and reminiscences seems as much larky as it was rapt, a group of boys inventing nicknames and drinking cider and generally luxuriating in a sense of their own promise. ‘We all wanted thumping,’ Richmond reflected in later life; but perhaps something of their levity found its way into the exuberance of the images that Palmer made there. ‘I believe in my very heart,’ he told Richmond, ‘that all the very finest original pictures … have a certain quaintness by which they partly affect us.’ He means something quite strong by ‘quaintness’, a powerful and indecorous idiosyncrasy, which is certainly what you see in pictures such as The Magic Apple Tree and In a Shoreham Garden – works, Rachel Campbell-Johnston says in her new biography, ‘of mad splendour’.

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[*] Smith’s essay is included in Samuel Palmer Revisited, edited by Simon Shaw-Miller and Sam Smiles (Ashgate, 182 pp., £60, July 2010, 978 0 7546 6747 6).

[†] See, for example, Tom Paulin’s account of John Clare’s ‘anti-pastoral’ in the LRB of 19 February 2004.