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A treatment of light both 'cleare and faire'

The vision of English landscape that gripped and inspired the young Samuel Palmer in the 1820's is a vivid amalgam of pastoralism, images suggested by the poetry of Milton and Virgil, a love of things gothic, a profoundly religious sense of nature, an admiration for the prints of Durer, and an emulation of engravings after some of the early Italian and Dutch masters. His very earliest lessons in drawing as a child were, as he recalled significantly, "to copy laboriously the prints of Campo Santo frescoes, engravings of 'botanical minutiae,' and even architectural drawings."

Among the first works that can really be called his own are six drawings in sepia now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. "Early Morning" is one of them. On the mount are inscribed four lines by Lydgate (though at the time thought to be by Chaucer):

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I rose anone and thought I would gone into the woodes to hear the birdes singe when that the misty vapour was agone and cleare and faire was the morninge.

This painting partakes more of an affinity between picture and verse than of an illustration. Both words and images inspired him, and he expressed himself freely in both. In the sketchbook, extant from the years 1824 and 1825, there is a drawing in which the artist tried to capture dawnlight. On this page, he wrote that the trees were "brilliantly lighted up by the rising sun -- those parts brightest against the line of the field which was in shadow, but white with frosty dew and as light, perhaps, in tint as the illuminated trees which cut against its edge. The green, rich and autumnal. Note perhaps at sunrise the light makes more massy lumps of brightness than the sunset."

The extraordinary thing about Palmer's art at this time is the balance he achieved between the stimulus of the old woodcuts and engravings he loved, and his fresh observation of light and landscape. "And cleare and faire was the morning" encapsulates a shared memory many people have of first light: its strange suffusion of the night that is over, the crystalline silence and clarity , the stillness that seems to be waiting.

In a minutely particular style, which could easily have become a rather idiosyncratic medievalism, Palmer (because of a good deal of straight observation) cuts through to a universal atmosphere. It is the airm in this picture that is so remarkable.

All of Palmer's ambitions and affections reached a climax in these six sepia drawings. He kept them in his possession to the end of his life; they epitomized his intense, prime, youthful vision. Here is his striving after the utmost severity of line; the accumulation of "many little forms in one mass," his determination that "outlines cannot be got too black," the ripeness and roundness of autumn; his observation -- running counter to the "aerial perspective" loved by his contemporaries, in which objects far from the viewer fade into a mist -- that "the most distant hills seem the most powerful objects in. . .

And above all, here is an ideal, dreamlike, dewy world; a kind of fruitful paradise depictable only in a poetry or art that is both intense and innocent. Is it remembrance or foretaste? Hard to tell. But Palmer's evocation of enchanted rusticity invests familiar leaves and grasses, tree trunks and branches, shadowed paths, thatched cottages, hillocks and fields, with a gemmed unworldliness. Even the people (as though in a nest), the two perched birds, the slow hare -- completely in unity with the atmosphere of the scene -- seem to be entranced by the tranquil penetration of morning light.

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