‘I find the hyper-real and dreamlike quality of this work compelling.’

Early Morning, 1825, by Samuel Palmer (1805–81), 81⁄2in by 101⁄2in, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Bridgeman Images. 

‘I find the hyper-real and dreamlike quality of this work compelling. It feels modern in its boldness. Capturing that moment of dawn half-light when your eyes strain to see detail, it is obsessively intricate in its observations. Each blade of grass, each leaf and branch, each stone and seed show that the artist is someone with an intense feeling for Nature and landscape. The skill in realising so much variation in light and shadow in monochrome is breathtaking ’

Dan Pearson is a landscape and garden designer. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a Royal Designer for Industry.

John McEwen comments:
As a young man, Samuel Palmer and his like-minded friends, the self-styled brotherhood of the Ancients, sought to revive a ‘Gothic’ art of visionary faith as opposed to mundane 19th-century truth to appearance. Their contemporary hero was the old and largely scorned William Blake, then approaching 70.

When Palmer saw Blake’s engravings to Ambrose Philips’s imitation of Virgil’s First Eclogue, he wrote: ‘They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry… 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.’ Inspired by Blake’s bucolic vision, the Ancients set up as an artistic group based in rustic Shoreham, Kent.

This is from a Shoreham series on paper in pen and brush, mixed with gum and varnished. It is an ecstatic style, giving expression to Palmer’s love of Nature’s ‘translucent amber… the thousand repetitions of little forms, which are part of its own genuine perfection’, in contrast with ‘the awfulness, the ponderous globosity of Art’.

The original mount was inscribed with lines from The Complaint of the Black Knight by John Lydgate (about 1370–1450), in Palmer’s day more glamorously attributed to Chaucer:

I rose anon, & thought I would gone
Into the wodde to heare the birdes sing,
When that the misty vapour was agone,
And cleare & faire was the morning.

Palmer may be the long-haired man in the group under the tree.

The American art critic Roberta Smith wrote (in 2006) that his Shoreham works ‘transcend reality and stop just short of freaky’.

This article was first published in Country Life, February 18, 2015
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