Rachel Campbell-Johnston's Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer
Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer
With the publication of Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer by Rachel Campbell-Johnston in 2011, one of the more strangely resonant of English artists may have at last achieved some sort of Waterstones-friendly status. It's been a long time coming. Hitherto, Raymond Lister's biography, which first appeared in 1974 (1), was the only authoritative, full-length account of a painter whose influence directly informs the early work of such twentieth century luminaries as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. As a volume clearly aimed at the general reader rather than the academic world, Campbell-Johnston's book offers a colourful and evocative reappraisal of an artist who, certainly in his early career, produced a fascinatingly anomalous vision of the English pastoral landscape.
Indeed, it is Palmer's early career that has always attracted the most critical attention. The period that he spent in the Kent village of Shoreham between approximately 1824 and 1836 saw Palmer produce a series of works such as In a Shoreham Garden and The Magic Apple Tree, which, on their rediscovery in the twentieth century, were acclaimed as pre-empting post-Impressionism by several decades. The artist also became, in effect, the presiding genius of the so-called Neo-Romantic movement.
Campbell-Johnston's book is, understandably, big on this Shoreham period. We read about the various night-scented rambles that Palmer and his artist friends, who collectively named themselves 'The Ancients,' enjoyed in the Kentish countryside, the impact of his reverential friendship with William Blake, and the way in which Palmer continually sought to invest his rural surroundings with a kind of numinous wonder. In the post-Shoreham sections of the book we follow the gradual disintegration of his youthful intensity as a series of personal and professional setbacks marked his transformation into an, at best, moderately successful Victorian painter who only finally regained some of his original inspiration towards the end of his life. In effect, Palmer burns bright in his twenties but loses that idiosyncratic vigour once marriage, children and the vagaries of the nineteenth century art market begin to crowd in upon him.
This parable of early promise thwarted by a combination of Mammon and the pram in the hall corresponds, in some significant respects, with Palmer's own sense of loss, expressed throughout his letters and journals, for a long-vanished world where stifling mundanity had not yet extinguished the marvellous. However, that is to tell only half the story. In fact, far from being some sort of capricious sprite blithely mixing fairy dust with his paint to depict the local landscape, Palmer's whole outlook was shaped and tempered by an ascetic commitment to High Church and High Tory traditionalism. Behind all the hypnagogic free association there was a good deal of old-fashioned intolerance.
Palmer even composed a political pamphlet with which to proclaim his views to his neighbours. In An Address to the Electors of West Kent, written in support of the local Tory candidate in the run-up to the elections which followed the 1832 Reform Act, Palmer embarked on a spectacular diatribe which one contemporary reviewer referred to as "the ravings of a maniac." Targets included political reformers, the "sacrilegious plunderers of…THE CHURCH!" and the French.(2) Each of these factions represented, for Palmer, a direct and immediate threat to the traditions of that stout English yeomanry who had long defended these shores. In also singling out the "wretched faction" responsible for "the late, dreadful fires," Palmer was making reference to those contemporary disturbances known as the Swing Riots, in which farm machinery and property were attacked by poverty-stricken labourers in response to long-term agricultural depression following the Napoleonic Wars. Given the evidence of his virulent antipathy to these various despoilers of English virtue on his doorstep, it is, perhaps, not altogether surprising that starving families and rick burning are nowhere depicted in Palmer's bucolic Eden.
The discrepancy between what Palmer saw around him and what, fuelled by a tub-thumping conservatism, he depicted does not, however, automatically relegate his Shoreham output to nothing more than a kind of panicked whimsy. Nor is the selective rendering of the natural landscape to support an ideological world-view particularly unique to Palmer. In fact, that's something that artists have always done. That's why it's a little too convenient to close the case on Palmer as nothing more than a curious propagandist for an England that never was, an artist who preferred to see foaming vegetation and nocturnal star bursts rather than machine breakers. To do so is to fail to appreciate what it is about the Shoreham work which continues to resonate in the deepest recesses of English landscape art.
In terms of contemporary critical reaction to this work, in fact there was hardly any. It is known that Palmer did exhibit some pictures during his Shoreham years, although it is unclear which examples in particular merited one critic's suggestion that "what manner of man […] produced such performances [should] show himself with a label round his neck."(4) Indeed, the majority of the Shoreham output was completely unknown to all but a small circle of Palmer's friends during his lifetime. Furthermore, what survives is only a part of what originally existed, Palmer's son, in 1909, having burnt unknown quantities of "handiwork which [my father] valued more than that work which the public could understand. Knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt; I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate."(5) Those works that were spared from the flames were first brought to general notice in an exhibition staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1926. Since then Palmer's reputation has risen steadily, if not spectacularly, and although he is not to everyone's taste (John Berger has cited Palmer as amongst his personal bętes noires with his "landscapes like furnished wombs"), the last major retrospective of his career, held by the British Museum in 2005, attracted its fair share of eulogistic reviews as well as substantial visitor numbers. (6)
It seems, then, that as time goes on Palmer circles ever closer to unofficial endorsement as one of those intriguing nineteenth century artists to whom we return for the singularity of their vision. Even if he is still some way off Pre-Raphaelite celebrity status, there are twists and turns enough in Palmer's relatively long career (he died aged 76 in 1881) to interest those who like their Victorian melancholia spiced with creative adversity. After Shoreham Palmer married Hannah, the daughter of his early mentor, the artist John Linnell. They spend a protracted honeymoon in Italy, during which Palmer's mature style began to ossify. On returning to England, Palmer embarked on a career of poor sales and general lack of recognition, forced to supplement his income by giving drawing lessons to the children of the comfortably off. In the background there are regular clashes with his dominant father-in-law, the shattering death of his nineteen-year-old son and the gradual deterioration of his relationship with Hannah. In his last years the dark clouds dissipated somewhat, as he took up a commission to produce a series of landscapes based on Milton's Il Penseroso and L'Allegro. These watercolours, along with their accompanying etchings, display an imaginative virtuosity which summons up something of the Shoreham spirit, as distilled through age and world-weary experience. Together with Palmer's illustrations to his own translation of Virgil's Eclogues, on which he was working at the time of his death, they constitute an appropriate coda to the career of a man whose surviving son, in 1892, claimed had "failed egregiously in the battle of life."(7) Whilst that verdict could be seen as somewhat harsh, it could also be a form of retaliation for the rigidly pious upbringing that Palmer imposed upon his children and which, at times, seems to have verged on religious monomania. Somewhat less critically, however, his son does go on to claim that Palmer always retained "the simplicity of an old-fashioned child,"(8) a phrase which conjures in equal measures the ingenuous spontaneity and wilful insularity that Palmer brought to some of his most remarkable pictures.
In the end it may be that Palmer will always occupy an atypical niche amongst the ranks of notable English landscape artists, but then he is all the more absorbing for that reason. In recent years there has been a swell of interest in analysing his work in the context of the more esoteric byways of English culture, with all the overlapping discourses which that entails. In contrast, Campbell-Johnstone's biography can be seen as more of an exercise in reframing his life and art within the conventions of popular biography. It is no less informative and welcome for that and, if anything, suggests that interest in the Palmer story is far from exhausted. The "old-fashioned child," it seems, retains his intrigue.---Mark Jones
Copyright © Mark Jones 2011.
Mark Jones comes from Manchester. In 2010 he gained an MA in Art History from the Open University and hopes to embark on a PhD, cold, hard cash and time permitting. Earlier this year he gave a talk on Samuel Palmer to a student conference at Birkbeck College.
(1) Extensively revised in 1987.
(2) See an appended transcript of the Address in Lister, Raymond, Samuel Palmer: His Life and Art (1987).
(3) Lister, Raymond, ed., The Letters of Samuel Palmer, Volume 1, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), p. 51.
(5) Quoted in Lister, ed., Letters, Vol 1, p. xiii.
(6) Quoted in Shaw-Miller, Simon and Smiles, Sam, eds., Samuel Palmer Revisited, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), p.3.
(7) Palmer, Alfred Herbert, Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, (London: Seeley, 1892), p.169.
Thomas Houseago: What Went Down
This book, published in association with the exhibition of the same title held earlier this year in Oxford, is the first monograph devoted to this young English sculptor. It represents a review of his work from approximately the past fifteen years, and is a fascinating collection which enables the reader to fully appreciate the routes that his art has taken over this period. That the recent exhibition was his first solo show in this country suggests that our art establishment has been somewhat slow to give him the recognition that he deserves. The book amply demonstrates that Houseago is a developing artist of the highest order, but one also prone to occasionally producing works which can be weak and derivative.
Thomas Houseago was born in Leeds in 1972 and studied at Central Saint Martins School of Art, London, and then at De Ateliers, Amsterdam. Since 1996 he has participated in many shared exhibitions in Europe and the U.S., but this book marks his first major solo exhibition. He now spends most of his time living and working in Los Angeles, and one of his most engaging recent works, Wood Gate I (2009), is partly a response to that environment, using wood from the California redwood, a massive tree with an enormously thick trunk. The work has many references, including Egyptian sun-disks, Viking heads and helmets, and the wonderful Assyrian gates in the British Museum. Whether these allusions are deliberate or not, they help the viewer to connect with the age-old theme of crossing a threshold into another space. The mere figure of a gateway suggests transformation, and by covering the columns with standing figures and large-eyed masks and faces, the artist refers us to similar objects which are personally remembered. We know that the work is modern, yet it is easy to believe that we are looking at an ancient relic, a shamanic emblem from the past.
The book is well produced and informative, and reveals a young artist on a journey of discovery. Any modern sculptor must decide what is his most productive medium, and in earlier times this would have meant choosing bronze, marble or wood. Houseago has experimented with traditional media (wood, bronze and aluminium), but has added an extra combination of Tuf-Cal plaster, hemp, iron rebar, and various drawing materials which he seemingly prefers to work with. The results are mixed but are worth looking at, since the artist has an affinity with the varying textures and seems to be comfortable combining familiar images -faces, masks, and human figures- with unusual materials, ancient and modern forms fusing to re-explore common themes. It is in some ways reassuring and not a little refreshing that a young artist has turned his back on post-modernist abstraction, and has embraced figurative forms which enable easy communication with the viewer.
This mixture of ancient motif and modern form is seen at its most effective in Classical Head I (2010). The bronze head clearly recalls the shape of old fighting helmets, like those found at Sutton Hoo or in York, with the long nose guard and smooth rounded headpiece. Yet the work is unmistakeably modern, with visible finger-marks from the artist's working of the original material. The blank eyes add strength to the still figure; this is everyman, the eternal wanderer, the unknown soldier, the anonymous warrior. There is a monumentality about the figure which harmonises the whole. It is a strikingly beautiful piece which is enhanced by its simplicity, and demonstrates that the artist is sure of himself and his materials. Like Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth before him, Houseago can bring the viewer into his world through mastery of form and texture.
The book is to be recommended as a visual record of a young artist experimenting with materials and subjects, experiments which do not always work. Alongside the impressive works already mentioned, there are others which seem less successful. Some of the plaster figures not only look unfinished, but their deliberate roughness can distract attention from their classical references. Pieces like Clay Mountain I (Sun) are difficult to relate to, since the title accurately describes the work, a solid piece of clay which tapers upwards to a flattish top. The rough texture appears only to emphasise the impression of arbitrary assemblage. This could be unfair, but when one also has to consider a rough-hewn two-metre-high plaster spoon, one begins to wonder precisely what is intended. Placed alongside the other more accessible and carefully-crafted pieces, these suggest that Houseago is a gifted artist who occasionally missteps.
On the evidence provided by this book, Houseago is firmly positioned in the higher ranks of contemporary artists. One hopes that after the success of this exhibition and the accompanying book, another major gallery in this country will make space available for us to see more of his work in the future. He is certainly an English artist to follow.--Paul Flux
Copyright © Paul Flux 2011.