Mysterious Wisdom, by Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012.
CONSIDERING THE recent resurgence of interest in Palmer, it is easy to forget that the rural idylls fastidiously painted, drawn, and etched by the Victorian artist were largely ignored during his own lifetime. In 2005 a retrospective of Palmer's work was organised by the British Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last year saw a new collection of critical essays published by Ashgate, and Cambridge University Press reprinted A. H. Palmer's The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer. But, as Rachel Campbell-Johnston's new biography emphasises, Palmer's pastoral folds and vales, transfigured into twilight visions of Beulah, struggled to find a receptive public at the time he produced them.
Mysterious Wisdom treads familiar ground, restating the common view that Palmer's youthful Shoreham period represents the pinnacle of a career that (with the exception of a late revival of the early visionary spirit) gradually waned as the artist became increasingly burdened by professional and private adversities. Campbell-Johnston describes an indifferent contemporary art world lacking the eyes to see the divine resonances in his work and an artist, like Pound's Mauberley, out of key with his time. Palmer's unease with the fast-changing Victorian world about him, Campbell-Johnston suggests, was exacerbated by certain events in his personal life, particularly the death of two of his children. John Linnell (Palmer's mentor and father-in-law) is represented as an overbearing influence who not only had negative implications for Palmer's art but also for his marriage which, as Campbell-Johnston describes in detail, was strained both emotionally and financially.
Campbell-Johnston offers little in the way of new insights about Palmer's art. Mysterious Wisdom is perhaps best described as an easily digestible summary of pre-existing Palmer scholarship, particularly Palmer's Life and Letters, the two volumes of Palmer's letters edited by Raymond Lister, and the recent criticism collected in the British Museum's Vision and Landscape exhibition catalogue. When Campbell-Johnston does bring new light to her subject, such as her discussion of Palmer's family genealogy and its Christian background, this seems more coincidental than conscious. For an artist so heavily influenced by Bunyan and The Pilgrim's Progress, and whose own career represents another kind of pilgrimage, it is remarkable that Campbell-Johnston doesn't reflect more on the fact that the name Palmer, as she points out, "derives from the medieval nickname for pilgrims."
Another weakness of Mysterious Wisdom is Campbell-Johnston's tendency to make her subjects into caricatures. Linnell becomes a larger-than-life bully while Palmer's overstated eccentricities turn him into the endearing victim of an alienating world. Indeed, Campbell-Johnston's sentiment and affection for her subject often compromises her biography. Taking considerable poetic licence Campbell-Johnston speculates about and sentimentalizes her subject, especially Palmer's Shoreham years, which perpetuates a simplified pastoral ideal that contrasts markedly with Palmer's own innovations in the mode. As Geoffrey Grigson stresses in his two seminal books on the artist (Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years and Samuel Palmer's Valley of Vision), Palmer's art is very different from the insipid pastoralism of Chelsea and Meissen porcelain or the fashionable "picturesque" paintings and poems of the time.
CAMPBELL-JOHNSTON DOES, however, occasionally temper her enthusiasm for the picturesque and the sentimental. She notes how "Palmer's work grappled with the spiritual world" and used pastoral to "give it a presence, to bring it back down to earth." She also rehearses a familiar anti-pastoral critique of the Ancients as well-to-do suburbanites who painted their Shoreham vistas with little awareness of the hardships of the rural life around them. It does seem ironic, however, that the author herself, we are told, "lives in London and in Norfolk with her family and her flock of sheep." This, a point favourably noted in other reviews of Mysterious Wisdom, indicates just how enduring (and seductive) remain romantic projections of the pastoral.
But perhaps there is a reason why this pastoral sentiment is pervasive throughout Mysterious Wisdom. The Palmer that Campbell-Johnston promotes in her biography reflects a current fascination for a lost, or utopian, England. It is an England depicted in the classic Shell County Guides (which are now experiencing something of a revival) and is also conjured in Alexandra Harris' recent book, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. This fascination is also reflected in Penguin's recent "English Journeys" series which, their website claims, "explore the English countryside and the pleasures of being English," and features titles by Thomas Gray, A.E. Housman, and Gertrude Jekyll. Palmer is, undoubtedly, a major figure in this tradition and for this reason Mysterious Wisdom is a timely, if limited, book that capitalizes on this resurgent interest in England's lost visionary traditions.