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In Samuel Palmer’s Garden

Samuel Palmer, 1805–1881: Vision and Landscape

Catalog of the exhibition by William Vaughan, Elizabeth E. Barker, and Colin Harrison
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,March 7–May 29, 2006.
Lund Humphries, 256 pp., $80.00;British Museum Press/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 256 pp., $45.00 (paper)


In the last decade of his life, as is well known, William Blake began to receive recognition and respect as an artist, not from the general public but from a group of painters and printmakers who looked to him as a figure of deep spiritual and artistic authority: “The Interpreter,” they called him; they called themselves “The Ancients.” The painter John Linnell (1792–1882) was the first of these. He would visit Blake at home, get work for him, keep him company, take him to the theater (Sheridan’s Pizarro, a “New Grand Serious Opera” called Dirce, or the Fatal Urn, and Oedipus in the version by Dryden and Nat Lee), and introduce him to his circle of young artists, some of whom became his disciples. Among them was Samuel Palmer, whose work is currently on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. Born in 1805, Palmer was the son of a London bookseller, a Baptist who was easy-going enough to support his earliest artistic endeavors.

For the sixteen-year-old painter George Richmond (1809–1896), being allowed to walk home with Blake was “as if he were walking with the Prophet Isaiah”; he had already heard much of him, and had admired what he had seen of his designs. And besides, according to a biographer of Blake:

The prophet talked fully and kindly, freely opening his mind, as was his wont with the young—men of eighteen or twenty say—even more freely and favourably, perhaps, than with their elders. There was more community of sentiment—a bond of sympathy. On this occasion he talked of his own youth, and of his visions. Just as Mr. Palmer speaks of Blake’s tolerant kindness towards young men, Mr. Richmond relates that, in their intercourse, he would himself, as young men are prone to do, boldly argue and disagree, as though they were equals in years and wisdom, and Blake would take it all good-humouredly.1

Once when Richmond went to see Blake, finding him at tea, he explained that he felt deserted by the power of invention. Blake turned to his wife and said, “It is just so with us, is it not, for weeks together, when the visions forsake us? What do we do then, Kate?” “We kneel down and pray, Mr. Blake.” Richmond was only eighteen when, on August 12, 1827, the task fell to him to close Blake’s eyes and kiss him farewell in death. His grandson said much later that Richmond had closed Blake’s eyes “to keep the vision in.”

Edward Calvert (1799–1883) was another of the group who used to refer to Blake’s London lodgings in Fountain Court (just off the Strand) as “The House of the Interpreter.” The Ancients were thinking of the passage in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian “came at the house of the INTERPRETER [and said]…I am a man that am come from the City of DESTRUCTION, and am going to Mount Zion; and I was told…that if I called here, you would shew me excellent things, such as would be a help to me in my journey.” Calvert had been in the navy, but had left when his closest friend had been killed in action, and had devoted himself to art. He was married and with some private means.

Samuel Palmer, the best remembered of the Ancients, visited the Royal Academy’s exhibition of contemporary art with Blake, and years later recalled Blake pointing out a painting by Thomas Wainewright (now usually referred to as “Wainewright the poisoner”) hung near the ceiling, which Blake thought “very fine.” Palmer wrote:

While so many moments better worthy to remain are fled, the caprice of memory presents me with the image of Blake in his plain black suit and ratherbroad-brimmed, but not quakerish hat, standing so quietly among all the dressed-up, rustling, swelling people, and myself thinking “How little you know who is among you!”

Palmer’s first meeting with Blake is vividly recorded. It was the custom of those who worked on copper plates to reduce the glare of sunlight or lamplight by stretching silk paper over a square frame. Palmer remembered Blake working on his illustrations to the Book of Job:

At my never-to-be-forgotten first interview, the copper of the first plate—“Thus did Job continually”—was lying on the table where he had been working at it. How lovely it looked by the lamplight, strained through the tissue paper.

Decades have passed, but Palmer can recollect not just the specific plate, but also the specific light conditions under which he saw it. This is very much an artist’s memory.

The painter John Linnell rented a farmhouse on Hampstead Heath, where Blake used to visit him and his family and spend Sundays with them. Palmer’s house, in Broad Street, Bloomsbury, lay on Blake’s route, and the old man would pick up the young artist and they would walk up to Hampstead together. Linnell’s daughter Hannah, who later married Palmer, would watch for Blake as he came over the brow of the hill, when he would make a particular signal to her. Blake, on these Sundays, we are told,

would often stand at the door, gazing in tranquil reverie across the garden toward the gorse-clad hill. He liked sitting in the arbour, at the bottom of the long garden, or walking up and down the same at dusk, while the cows, munching their evening meal, were audible from the farmyard on the other side of the hedge. He was very fond of hearing Mrs Linnell sing Scottish songs, and would sit by the pianoforte, tears falling from his eyes, while he listened to the Border Melody, to which the song is set, commencing—

O Nancy’s hair is yellow as gowd,
And her een as the lift are blue.

To simple national melodies Blake was very impressionable, though not so to music of more complicated structure. He himself still sang, in a voice tremulous with age, sometimes old ballads, sometimes his own songs, to melodies of his own.

So it seems more than probable that Palmer and his future wife heard Blake sing his own songs, to music which was once written down by his admirers but has since been lost.

Palmer, in the mid-1820s, began visiting the Kent village of Shoreham, and in 1825 he invited Blake and Mr. and Mrs. Calvert to come down and visit. They made the journey in a covered wagon, and were accommodated in various parts of the village. One night they went looking for ghosts, without evident success. In due course, Palmer had to return to London for some engagement, and he left in the evening by coach. An hour later, the remainder of the company were sitting quietly in the kitchen. “Old Palmer” (according to this account, the painter’s grandfather) was smoking a pipe by the fire. Calvert was sitting with his back to the candles, reading. Then Blake put his hand to his forehead and said quietly, “Palmer is coming; he is walking up the road.” Someone said: “Oh Mr. Blake, he’s gone to London; we saw him off in the coach.” Then after a while Blake said again: “He is coming through the wicket—there!” and pointed at the closed door. A minute later, writes Calvert’s son, “Samuel Palmer raised the latch and came in amongst them.” The coach had broken down near the gate of Lullingstone Park.

Palmer and his circle did an important posthumous service to Blake when they explained to Alexander Gilchrist, his biographer, that Blake had not been mad at all, as was often stated. Some of the stories commonly told about him were nonsense, while others reflected a particular way of speaking he had when feeling harassed in conversation. He saw things most vividly in his mind’s eye, and believed in the truth of what he saw vividly. He was not a victim of hallucinations. The key to this is the exchange in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Isaiah provocatively asserts that he never saw God, but was persuaded that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God. Blake asks, “Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?” Isaiah replies, “All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains….”2 This was an aspect of Blake’s thought that Palmer and his friends grasped and passed on to later generations.

But Palmer’s circle failed to prevent one of its members doing Blake the grossest disservice of all: it was Frederick Tatham, a Shoreham habitué, who inherited Blake’s papers from his widow and who “seems to have sold such of Blake’s prints and drawings as were vendible and to have burned or lost the rest.” Plates, blocks, manuscripts, volumes of verse prepared for the press, “Six or Seven Epic poems as long as Homer and 20 Tragedies as long as Macbeth”—nobody knows quite what Tatham destroyed. Linnell and Calvert seem to have tried to stop him, but Tatham was a member of a mad sect—he was an Irvingite, and the Irvingites told him to destroy all Blake’s writings and notebooks because they were “unclean.”

Very strikingly, Geoffrey Grigson, in his beautifully written monograph on Palmer (which was the first twentieth-century study of any length), suggests that Palmer and George Richmond, who had in Grigson’s view a shallow knowledge of Blake’s systematic ideas, “would have agreed to the destruction of any Blake MSS. making religious statements that seemed to them likely to harm Blake’s reputation; or, at any rate, that they would not have disapproved.”3 Prophetic books and aphoristic works containing attacks on conventional religion or morality might well, for them, have fallen into such a category.

This is not to accuse Palmer of any deed, or any sin of omission. It is only to pay attention to one aspect of Palmer’s religiosity. He was not a free spirit, an original, like Blake. Excepting when tempted by Rome, he was a passionate traditionalist Anglican, like Constable. Anything unorthodox was liable to put the soul in peril. “I mean,” he wrote, “to get the print of the Venerable Fisher and his fellow martyr Sir Thomas More, and hang them cheek by jowl in my little chapel, that they may frown vice, levity, and infidelity out of my house and out of my heart.” And his son, A.H. Palmer, tells us that “few undertakings were begun without a prayer or finished without thanksgiving, both of these being sometimes committed to writing.”4

And here, by spooky symmetry, we have to note that A.H. Palmer, having gone through all his father’s papers and notebooks, all his sketches and personal documents, in order to write his biography, made a bonfire of them. He seems to have done so not for religious reasons but because he believed that these private documents showed certain of the Ancients to have been either homosexual or in danger of the disease. How else is one to interpret Palmer junior’s letter to Martin Hardie of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1920:

  1. 1

    Alexander Gilchrist in his biography of Blake. Most of the Blake facts in this review are taken from the superb second edition of Blake Records, edited by G.E. Bentley Jr. (Yale University Press, 2004). Part Five of this assembles all the surviving documentary evidence of Blake’s relationship with the Linnell/Palmer circle. The passage is quoted from pp. 403–404.

  2. 2

    Complete Writings of William Blake, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 153.

  3. 3

    Geoffrey Grigson, Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years (London: Kegan Paul, 1947), p. 38.

  4. 4

    The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, Painter and Etcher, written and edited by A.H. Palmer (London: Seeley, 1892; reprinted 1972), p. 44.

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