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:
Like many other things of which I wrote in my father’s life, without hinting how much they disgusted me, Calvert as a man is not to my taste—a man who left the navy (according to Mr. Richmond) because his “dearest” friend was killed. [There was too much “dearest” about Mr. Richmond and sometimes about my father too.]
Actually there is a degree of evident disgust in Palmer junior’s life of his father—he did not succeed in suppressing all of it. He is devastating, for instance, in his brief assessment of his father’s literary skills: “The lugubrious poetry and morbid prose upon which he sometimes spent his time would have been better unwritten….” We cannot test the truth of this judgment on Palmer’s verse because only one serious poem survived the son’s bonfire (which lasted days). But “Twilight Time,” which is in Palmer’s sketchbook of 1824, is at least not lugubrious:
Thee night shall hide, sweet visionary gleam
That softly lookest through the rising dew:
Till all like silver bright
The faithful Witness, pure, and white,
Shall look o’er yonder grassy hill,
At this village, safe, and still.
All is safe, and all is still,
Save what noise the watch-dog makes
Or the shrill cock the silence breaks
—Now and then.—And now and then—Hark!—once again, The wether’s bellTo us doth tell
Some little stirring in the fold.
This sketchbook is the sole survivor of a group which Palmer junior described as follows:
[Palmer] inherited from his father the habit of committing to paper whatever he considered worth remembering, and he had formed another habit of carefully writing down the exact nature of any difficulty he encountered, because, in doing so, he found that the solution often suggested itself. More than twenty of the large, clasped pocket-books in which these memoranda were made have been preserved, and they also contain so many sketches, poems, essays, and columns of accounts, that the series, as far as it goes, forms a kind of skeleton autobiography.
An autobiography which the author of this passage destroyed, partly because he believed that his father and the Shoreham Ancients would have been healthier people, mentally and spiritually, if they had engaged in country sports. “There was,” he wrote, “a curious absence of the innate and almost universal instinct which makes these sports so peculiarly the solace of the Englishman.” Palmer senior’s troubles “would have appeared less formidable if he had found some healthy distraction other than mere walking, or an occasional jolt upon a superannuated cart-horse.”
What we are shown, in the first part of the exhibition at the Met (which I saw earlier in London when it opened at the British Museum), is therefore a body of work which has been radically censored. We cannot tell whether what was destroyed, in sketches or manuscripts, was thought to be obscene, or effete, or seemingly heretical—or none of these things. (The son had enough reason to hate his father: he was a second son, and his older brother had been his father’s favorite; when this brother died young, Palmer spent years grieving and neglecting his second son’s education; later he obliged him to become an artist, when he would have preferred to be a naturalist.) But we ought to be aware of an absence. It seems, too, that the relevant volume of Linnell’s journal, which might have shed more light on the Ancients, has been destroyed.
The work of Palmer’s early years, including time spent in Dulwich before he moved to Shoreham, represents a kind of primitivism. The Ancients are to the English School what the Nazarenes were to the German, or the Barbus to the French: their version of Romanticism looked to the past for its inspiration. Palmer’s paintings from his years at Shoreham are a version of pastoral—usually in the strict sense of the word, in the sense that they habitually feature shepherds and sheep, but are also agricultural, with fields of corn or barley, and fruit-laden trees. Milton was a source of inspiration, but it was a particular Milton, the pastoral poet of “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” and of Comus, more than the epic bard of Paradise Lost.
Similarly, with Blake, what the Ancients admired so much in his work that they imitated them wholesale were Blake’s woodcut illustrations to Robert Thornton’s translation of the Pastorals of Virgil. These are small works, about six inches wide by four inches high, and they were unusual in their day (and have been imitated ever since) for being cut directly into the block, so that the image appears white on black. Here is Palmer writing about them sometime in 1823–1824, before he had met Blake:
I sat down with Mr. Blake’s Thornton’s Virgil woodcuts before me, thinking to give their merits my feeble testimony. I happened first to think of their sentiment. They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I found no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world. They are like all that wonderful artist’s works the drawing aside of the fleshly curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed, of that rest which remaineth to people of God.
This contrast between the “mystic and dreamy glimmer” of the illustration and the “gaudy daylight of this world” applies just as well to Palmer’s own early art. His drawings and paintings typically present what (wrenching a line of Blake’s out of context) we could call the lost traveler’s dream under the hill. Often there is a sleeper in the landscape, which is seen as a twilit, enfolding space. Often there is a sickle moon, as in the Virgil illustrations. And, where the works are colored (as in the Rest on the Flight into Egypt or Coming from Evening Chura), the light is golden and glowing.
There is a difference, though, between Blake and Palmer, as there is a difference between Blake and Wordsworth. Blake loved Wordsworth, he loved hearing the “Immortality Ode” read to him by his friend Henry Crabb Robinson, but he always insisted that Wordsworth was what he called an Atheist: “I fear Wordsworth loves Nature and Nature is the work of the Devil—The Devil is in us, as far as we are Nature.” But Palmer believed that nature might give us an image of the divine: that is why he can see Paradise in Blake’s woodblocks.
It is true that what we find in Palmer’s early work is a nature transformed, abstracted, elaborated into new shapes and rhythms and compositions. In the exhibition at the Metropolitan the six remarkable sepia drawings from the Ashmolean Museum, though they present nature in some form, are very, very far from naturalism. The artist’s eye is very much on the page, rather than on a physically observed subject, as he executes them, and the rhythms of the drawing are created by obsessive reiteration and variation of single elements—the ears of corn, the leaves, the folds of the hills.
The result is unique in the art of the period, and incidentally quite unlike the work of Blake. But it shares a Blakean sense of scale. Neither Palmer nor the other Ancients made the mistake that bedeviled some other Romantic careers, that of believing that sublimity depended on scale. Blake, in his furious and brilliant annotations to Reynolds’s discourses on art, which Palmer also came to know, jumps on a phrase of Reynolds’s about early Raphael, “a dry, Gothick, and even insipid manner, which attends to the minute accidental discriminations of particular and individual objects.” Blake comments: “Minute Discrimination is Not Accidental. All Sublimity is founded on Minute Discrimination.” And again: “Execution is the Chariot of Genius.” And: “Without Minute Neatness of Execution The Sublime cannot Exist! Grandeur of Ideas is founded on Precision of Ideas.” And finally, to the remark of Reynolds that “the principal works of modern art are in Fresco, a mode of painting which excludes attention to minute elegancies,” Blake retorts: “This is False. Fresco Painting is the Most Minute. Fresco Painting is Like Miniature Painting; a Wall is a Large Ivory.”
This message of Blake to the Ancients—that sublimity depended on precision, not scale—would have been very welcome, since they shared Blake’s interest in engraving and in the prints of Dürer and of other old masters such as Giulio Bonasone (this was after all the medium through which they knew the old masters best), and since, if what they were engaged in was religious painting, there was very little opportunity for it unless on the small scale. Palmer may have dreamed from time to time of creating altarpieces, but how many churches were asking for them? The influence of the Reformation remained strong, and, even where it was not strong, religious painting never really reestablished itself as normal practice in English churches. Palmer’s surviving notebook has fascinating studies for drawings of God creating the sun and the moon, for a Repentant Thief, and even perhaps for a torso of Christ. It looks as if he were planning an altarpiece. But if he took these thoughts further, the results have been destroyed.
Calvert we have already encountered, the man who left the navy because his “dearest friend” had been killed in action (a good enough reason in my view), who therefore became the object of A.H. Palmer’s insinuations. And indeed Grigson, who in his pioneering monograph has such a lively sense of the different characters involved in this story, and of their passions and aversions, appears to be saying something more than he quite spells out when he says of Calvert that
there was a serpent—or so it seemed to Palmer and Richmond, and Calvert’s widowed mother down at Lostwithiel—twined round the tree of Calvert’s paradise, a Greek serpent. Discreetly disguised, it is still visible in Richmond’s reminiscences of him as a young man, for besides Wordsworth and Byron “He was a very great lover of Plato, and admired W. Savage Landor very much…. Chapman’s Homer and some of his hymns, especially that to Pan, I have often heard him read.” He started off, in fact, with a vague aspiration towards Pan; then, in tune with Palmer and Blake, changed to a brief period of mystical Christianity, and finally backslid into a curious, developing and devitalizing paganism.
The catalog tells us that Calvert erected an altar to Pan in his garden in London, and that he favored the world of pagan antiquity. It speaks of “the earthy sense of fertility and sexuality that underlies all Calvert’s best work,” including “The Chamber Idyll” in which the shepherd is shown getting into bed as his wife removes her garment. The writer William Vaughan wonders why Calvert, having achieved so much as an erotic artist, went no further: “As a man of independent means, he did not have to fear the financial consequences of taking risks with his art….” But perhaps he had reason to fear for his soul’s eternal damnation, if he left such proofs of his libidinousness.
Grigson gives us several texts through which Palmer could have received “a mystical sanction for admiring the natural world,” among them the Cambridge Platonist John Smith:
Thus may a man walk up and down the world as in a garden of spices, and suck a Divine sweetness out of every flower. There is a twofold meaning in every creature, a literal and a mystical, and the one is but the ground of the other.
And this, from a seventeenth-century translation of Saint Teresa:
But now, let us goe back to our Orchard, or Garden, and see, how these Trees beginne to button, and budd out towards flowring, that they may yeild fruit; and how these Gillieflowers, and other odoriferous Plants, dispose themselves, to give delightful Sent to the Owner. I confesse, that this Comparison regales, and pleases me much; for, manie times, in my beginnings…it was of much delight to me, to consider, that my Soule was a Garden, and that our Lord walked it, up, and downe.
This surely captures the spirit of Palmer’s colorful visionary watercolors such as The Magic Apple Tree or Pastoral with a Horse Chestnut Tree.
The Shoreham period (1825–1835), when these works were produced, was one of great social unrest, during which time Palmer developed a strongly reactionary political position, opinions which in 1832 he gave vent to in a printed Address to the Electors of West Kent. In a striking essay, perhaps the most interesting in the catalog, David Bindman tells us that Shoreham had been right in the middle of the “Captain Swing” riots of 1830, when acts of arson by poor farm workers, such as the burning of corn stacks and barns, were followed by threatening letters sent to local farmers and others signed “Captain Swing.” Palmer would have known people who had been directly affected by the riots and the intimidation, and his hysterical tone in his one piece of political writing, Address to the Electors of West Kent, can be explained in part by such experience:
Farmers! They were the wretched leaders of this wretched faction, who, during the late dreadful fires, strenuously encouraged the incendiaries! Some of the most abandoned of them published cheap tracts for distribution among the poor, stimulating them to fire their masters’ property. But now, if there be a Radical Parliament, the starvation produced by free trade, and the consequent reckless desperation of the peasantry, will supersede the necessity of all other stimulants. If, then, you patronize Radicalism, in any shape, you will have yourselves to thank for the consequences.
Already the fires have begun. Do you wish them to blaze once more over the kingdom?
But Palmer backed himself into a position where he was calling for the continuation of feudal society, by supporting the paying of tithes to the Church. He opposed Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Act. He repudiated even his former tolerance of the Dissenting or Unitarian tradition:
Once I was full of this lightness and folly—yea even to the present time my old Adam can see no reason why the sleek & sober Quaker or the meek & moral Unitarian should be beholden to the Church, claiming the power of the keys of the kingdom of Heaven—But blessed be to God. I am changed ever since you saw me—I am a free thinker in art in literature in music in poetry—but as I read of but one way to Heaven & that a narrow one it is not for me to chuse which way, I will be saved & make it a pretty speculation or matter of taste, & run to seek my Saviour in holes and corners, but go at once where He is ever to be found, at the Apostolic altar of the Melchisedekian priesthood.
Astonishingly enough, the word “Melchisedekian” in this context means Anglican.
The vehemence of such a passage reminds us that Palmer’s Anglicanism was one of many things that set him apart from his father-in-law, Linnell, who had only reluctantly allowed him to marry Hannah. Linnell was always the more successful artist, and often had to support Palmer, who was considered a failure. Even Richmond, apparently, told him to his face that the Shoreham years had been a waste of time.
In later life, looking at some annotations he had once made in the margins of a book, Palmer wrote:
I knew the positive and eccentric young man who wrote the notes in these pages. He believed in art (however foolishly); he believed in men (as he read of them in books). He spent years in hard study and reading and wished to do good with his knowledge. He thought also it might with unwavering industry help towards an honest maintenance. He has now lived to find out his mistake. He is living somewhere in the environs of London, old, and neglected, isolated—laughing at the delusion under which he trimmed the midnight lamp and cherished the romance of the good and beautiful; except so far as that, for their own sake, he values them above choice gold. He has learned however not to “throw pearls to hogs”; and appears, I believe, in company, only a poor good-natured fellow fond of a harmless jest.
The exhibition makes a strong case for looking at Palmer’s later work, his paintings of Italy, over which the presiding genius is that of Turner, and his meticulous late etchings. Admirable though these are, I cannot escape from the feeling that a good part of the respect and affection for them that we feel comes from their being the later work of the early visionary artist. The earlier Palmer is quite extraordinary, and one can only deplore the fact that much more of that remarkable visionary phase fell victim to his son’s festering resentment.
May 11, 2006
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. ↩
Complete Writings of William Blake, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 153. ↩
Geoffrey Grigson, Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years (London: Kegan Paul, 1947), p. 38. ↩
The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, Painter and Etcher, written and edited by A.H. Palmer (London: Seeley, 1892; reprinted 1972), p. 44. ↩