Thursday, November 24, 2005

The sun and moon

There is an early sketch in the Samuel Palmer exhibition currently showing at the British Museum depicting God Creating the Sun and Moon (1824). It is indicative of Palmer’s “sun-and-moonism”, the way he lights his landscapes with dramatic suns and shining moons. This tendency is present from the beginning, in the ink drawings of the Shoreham period, such as Late Twilight with its waxing sickle moon, and remained fifty years later in watercolours like The Lonely Tower. Palmer said “the earth is never so fair without its luminaries – they are its eyes; and if it border on mannerism to introduce them, it is the same often to omit them.” It may indeed have become a mannerism among Palmer’s twentieth century followers. John Minton for example was aware that in the wake of Graham Sutherland and the other Neo-Romantics, Palmer-inspired moons were ‘in’ (see the catalogue essay by Colin Harrison). It is a long time now since the etchings of Sutherland and Minton were ‘in’, but seeing these Palmers together prompts the thought that it may be time to think again about the ways in which the earth’s “eyes” transform the landscape.

Samuel Palmer, The Lonely Tower, painted 1868, etching 1878
Source: Wikimedia Commons


snarlerson said...

I have not seen the exhibition but your pieces have encouraged me to do so. Perhaps the catalogue mentions Palmer’s words to Robert Linnell in 1828: ‘the green mountains that glimmer in a summer gloaming from the dusky yet bloomy East; the moon, opening her golden eye, or walking in brightness among innumerable islands of light, not only thrill the optic nerve, but shed a mild, a grateful an unearthly lustre into the inmost spirits, and seem the interchanging twiligtht of that peaceful country, where there is no sorrow and no night.’

snarlerson said...

Stimulated by your blog, I visited the Samuel Palmer exhibition and was glad that I did but it was a bit of a curate’s egg. I thought that the Oxford series was probably the high light with the very tight graphic composition and rendering and their intimate scale. I can see how 20th century artists , who I admire, such as John Piper and Graham Sutherland, warmed so much to Palmer’s almost prophetic style. Of his early years, The Storm near Hailsham, Evening and the Cloud studies showed what was to come. In the early years I loved the dark colouring, the ink, wash and gouache. The landscape is magical and mysterious but not threatening. Each example replays the effort of detailed scrutiny. The almost wood cut-like illustration of Lydgate’s Complaint of the Black Knight was so sharp and incisive.

But was Palmer spoilt by being told to concentrate on the ‘Great Masters’? His sketches of their works were not at all memorable. The only exception I would make would be for William Blake’s wood engravings of illustrations of Virgilian works. Perhaps his best period was the Shoreham years and highlights included The Cornfield by Moonlight with Evening Star where he added some wonderful deep red colours to the usual dark palette. In general, I was less impressed by the more colourful paintings. From this generalisation I would exclude The Magic Apple Tree, so rich and golden. It is such a treat to see on a bleak Winter day. I was moved by the biographical objects especially his spectacles. Although it was right and proper to include works by his associates in The Ancients, it is clear that none of them came any way near Palmer in talent and vision.

The exhibition goes down hill in the post 1835 period and one wonders what would have happened if Palmer had died at thirty. Would we have looked on him as a genius whose later works were cruelly lost to us? A painter’s Mozart. Unfortunately Palmer lived and worked for another fifty years and nothing bettered his Shoreham years. There were still beautiful individual pieces especially his lovely treatment of Tintern Abbey with its unfinished surroundings throwing the abbey buildings into higher relief. Some of his Italian works were also outstanding but the later water-colours would be passed by, as as the output of a minor artist, if we did not know of his reputation. There were a few flashes of his old talent in the Eclogues of 1863 and The Lonely Tower of 1880-1, but the exhibition ends in a whimper.

Plinius said...

A further reflection on this theme:
Elizabeth Jennings wrote several poems about art. In one of them, ‘Samuel Palmer and Chagall’ (in The Mind has Mountains, 1966), she likened the two artists: “those moons, those marriages, that dark, that blue”. In both artists’ landscapes, “the moon and sun shine out of the same scene.”