My favourite painting: Simon Conway Morris

'If we are such stuff as dreams are made on, Palmer’s vision shows how Heaven can touch the Earth.'

The White Cloud, about 1833/34, by Samuel Palmer (1805–81), 9in by 101⁄2in, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Simon Conway Morris says:
‘Once, in Oxfordshire, I saw a transcendental landscape. The same trees and fields, but shot through with light from another world. And of the artists that transfigured the English landscape, none saw deeper than Palmer. An obvious choice would be one of his umbrageous masterpieces, villagers harvesting or in procession to church. But The White Cloud goes deeper: its plunging slopes, seas of corn, figures both familiar and mysterious and, like Prospero’s cloud-capp’d towers, the huge white rack of cumulonimbus. If we are such stuff as dreams are made on, Palmer’s vision shows how Heaven can touch the Earth.’

Simon Conway Morris is Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. His book The Runes of Evolution will be published this month. 

John McEwen comments:
‘Appalled by the industrialised and dangerously egalitarian turn of events, Samuel Palmer sought refuge, literally and imaginatively, in an ideal world in which Man lived in beatific harmony with Nature. Mary Ward, his nanny, had first encouraged his imagination. He never forgot, as a boy of four, watching a London moonrise with her and how ‘she transferred and fixed the fleeting image’ in his memory by reciting a couplet from Edward Young’s Paraphrase on Part of the Book of Job: ‘Vain man, the vision of the moment made,/Dream of a dream and shadow of a shade.’

When he and his artists’ group, the self-proclaimed ancients, lived and worked as a colony at Shoreham in Kent to pursue ‘Poetry and Sentiment’ in their ‘Valley of Vision’, Ward made his flamboyantly practical clothes: a coat with pockets deep enough to carry two imperial palettes, drawing materials and books and a hat wide enough to serve as an umbrella. Locals thought the ancients cranky and mocked them as ‘extollagers’.

This mixed-media painting — Palmer was profligate and inventive with materials — derives from his sepia masterpiece The Bright Cloud. It shows the influence of his guru William Blake’s illustrations for Virgil’s pastoral poems and touches on the bucolic scenes of Bruegel, medieval prayer books and early-Renaissance panels, but the interest in clouds was innovative. As with his contemporary Constable, it was surely sparked by the recent naming of the clouds by Luke Howard (1772–1864), ‘the father of meteorology’. This is a cumulonimbus, all too familiar in England, where the sight of it calls for a brolly.’

This article was first published in Country Life, December 3, 2014

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