Salmer Palmer: Mysterious Wisdom

Rachel Campbell-Johnston's biographical study of the painter, Samuel Palmer, is excellent: a vivid account of a person and their period and their artistic development and offering.

It paints a compelling picture of an art world coming to professionalism and to a market, inclusive of but beyond patronage. There is a wonderful story of Turner upstaging Constable by adding, in situ, last moment colour to his painting at the Royal Academy exhibition. The artists may be in pursuit of beauty but the all too human often intrudes, as does the necessary: the earning of one's keep in diverse ways, deploying myriad stratagems.

The book too paints a vivid picture of the impact of the elderly, impoverished William Blake on the group of young artists that called themselves the 'Shoreham Ancients' of whom Palmer and Edward Calvert were two of the key members and subsequent luminaries. It is incredibly moving to see in his twilight moments of life, racked by several physical afflictions, Blake receive the admiration of the talented young and respond to it so warmly and by imparting shards of wisdom: though each interpreting it to their lights.

If they did not, could not, fully understand him, they loved him and learnt from him.

The book's only shortfall, thus far, is to share the limitations of understanding Blake. She admirably conveys the sympathy of the younger artists but half sees Blake through eyes that imagine him if not mad, eccentric, and does not know how to place his visions. Peter Ackroyd, whose admirable biography of Blake, Campbell-Johnston refers to, does the exact opposite - takes Blake at his word, allows his visions to breathe, and recognises them fully as emblematic clothing of a worked out metaphysical vision, resting on a path of traditional wisdom.

Here Palmer's biographer does not follow as is aptly demonstrated by her clipped references to Paracelsus, Boehme and Swedenborg - all of whom Blake absorbed as teaching masters (with varaying levels of agreement, argument and absorption).

What to do when spiritual seeing - the atmosphere of transcendence - that Palmer painted so well becomes the alternate imagining of perceived reality that Blake invites us to?

The author stays on the boundary, unsure whether or how to enter in - which interestingly is probably what Palmer did too for all his admiration, he lacked the framing knowledge that would have taken his intuition deeper, fleshing it out into an unfolding vision.

Palmer was destined to be periodically exalted but not fashioned anew by what he glimpsed, hallowing, rather than saw whole.

Yet what intimations of glory he does paint - especially in that time of concentrated withdrawal at Shoreham on and after Blake's death. The wonderful balance, as here, between specific place and time and a world wanting to shape shift in transfiguration, burst with the light of being seen aright, with doors of perception cleansed.


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