Pastoral Scenes

1 March 2008

Imma Ramos walks through the Garden of England with Samuel Palmer

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Kent is widely known as “the Garden of England”, and for Samuel Palmer (1805-81), one of Britain’s most celebrated Romantic artists, the countryside around the village of Shoreham became an earthly paradise, his “Valley of Vision”. His stay here marks the high point of his artistic career, inspiring him to produce some of his most compelling works. Here he developed his stylized mystical landscapes, characterised by vivid colour, decorative patterns and a certain archaic primitivism, which veer away from conventional, naturalistic representation. His greatest influence was his friendship with William Blake, who became a mentor to the young Palmer.

“The Magic Apple Tree” (1830, ink and watercolour on paper, Fitzwilliam Museum) is a poetic, pastoral scene in which the figures of the shepherd and his sheep seem to fuse into their organic surroundings. Trees shelter them on either side; Palmer preferred to portray places of refuge rather than impressive panoramas because he felt that nature, like religion, had protective, nurturing qualities. This glimpse of a rural refuge bursting with vitality also suggests an infinite, expanding space beyond, reflecting a Romantic desire to uncover supernatural mysteries and expressions of divinity at the heart of natural phenomena. In a letter to a friend dated 1828 he wrote: “Terrestrial spring showers, blossoms and odours in profusion, which, at some moments, breathe on earth the air of Paradise: indeed sometimes, when the spirits are in Heav’n, earth itself, as in emulation, blooms again into Eden.”

“In a Shoreham Garden” (1829, ink and watercolour on paper, Victoria & Albert Museum) is essentially a portrait of an apple tree. A female figure dressed in red stands serenely beside it but she is far outshone by the brimming, blossoming entity that seems to metamorphose before the viewer’s eyes in a shock of colour. The blossom froths and overflows as a single mass, and there is a hallucinatory, heightened quality to the work that conjures up the inner force of the tree, giving it a unique identity and character.

In both works, Palmer imbues nature with a visionary sacred significance. The figures depicted, aside from acting as intermediaries between the viewer and the landscapes, appear enveloped by an immensity of protective flora suggesting an indivisible harmony between man and nature.