Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Shadows, Echoes and Reflections - A Series of Brief Encounters With Mysterious Wisdom - The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer by Rachel Campbell-Johnston Part 2

This section of our tour through Mysterious Wisdom by Rachel Campbell-Johnston is going to be fast. Imagine you're on the back of a motorbike driving through the Lake District or something - "Oh look at tha..." and it's gone.

Samuel Palmer met William Blake and was greatly impressed. Blake's imagination was extraordinarily powerful and stunned the young Palmer. The conviction to see and to see through the world into an imaginative realm beyond was just the tonic Palmer needed. He produced some of his best work under the influence of Blake though in many respects they were very different.

Both men loved children and were loved by them. Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience are childlike in many respects superficially but grapple with universal themes that provide a lifetime of exploration for an adult reader/viewer. What Blake wanted was to see through the world that could be scientifically verified to a more real world that included a spiritual dimension. To do this required confidence and strength of vision.  He was so out of step with society he would be reduced to decorating crockery for Wedgewood. These woodcuts produced to illustrate Virgil were also primarily produced to earn money.
I detect the influence of such works on Palmer's Oxford Sepias, some of my personal favourite Palmer images. 

In Early Morning (above) the rays of the rising sun creep into the world. Tiny details are picked out by the new light, as though revealing them for the first time. Palmer clearly loved nature though Blake, a true Londoner, saw the natural world as a distraction from the symbolism and drama of the struggles of mankind. A similar divergence occurred when it came to politics. 

Blake was a radical and a working man. Palmer was from a different social strata. Where Blake heard the cries of the chimney sweeps, Palmer sought refuge in the village of Shoreham. He encountered the countryside as an outsider. 

His beautiful images of rural scenes suggest that Heaven can be found on earth, something Blake would have agreed with. But his dreaming shepherd boys and rustic gardens were painted at a time of great stress for the rural poor. 

Blake railed against the "Dark satanic mills" of the industrial revolution but Palmer's relatives had made good money from the recent corn laws. In fact whilst Palmer was in Shoreham delighting in the countryside trouble was brewing. 
The Swing Riots of 1830 started in Kent and expressed the frustrations of the rural poor. Enclosure had robbed many of the right to graze a cow or sheep on the village common. As small plots were amalgamated into ever larger farms new methods of threshing (see above) removed a good source of winter work from the rural economy. Palmer was horrified by events. As a land owner (he had several houses in Shoreham by this time) he got to vote. He simply could not appreciate how hard the lives of the folk he placed in his paintings really were. Meanwhile the name of Captain Swing was chalked all along the road from London to Canterbury. 

Palmer was not just conservative politically but in his religious beliefs. He saw the Anglican Church as being a kind of guardian of the soul of England where Blake hated organised religion and saw tradition as manacles. 

In the image above the Anglican Church is seen at the centre of rural life. The ivy-clad church seems to become a part of nature and the folk walking home are similarly part of the harmonious whole. 

As a Londoner now living in Kent I too have a tendency to see the rural through tinted specs. One of the reasons I responded so strongly to Palmer's work when I first encountered it was that I was perhaps looking for a way to engage imaginatively with the countryside around me. That he was a friend of Blake, that they walked together up Haverestock Hill (where I used to work at Daunt Books - also where the story In A Drawer from my collection Washed Up is set!)  just adds to my belief that I chose well. 

Last night I went for an evening cycle. When the sun burst through the clouds and the sea blazed I thought of Blake. I can imagine him and Palmer exulting in such a scene...

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