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Can Britain save this picture?

Late, late yestreen I saw the new moon, Wi' the auld moon in her arm . . . run two lines from the Scottish ballad of ``Sir Patrick Spens.'' I always think of them belonging, by some odd shift of period and nationality, to Samuel Palmer, an early 19th-century English artist. If ever there was a painter enamored of the moon and its light -- particularly as seen in remote countryside away from urban illumination -- it was Palmer. That ``orb'ed maiden, with white fire laden'' (in Shelley's words) perfectly suited his youthfully intense vision of nature as a hint of eternity. In his sepias and rich watercolor-and-gouache landscapes, his aim was to evoke ``a mystic glimmer like that which lights our dreams.'' What could suggest this more entrancingly than ``the moon brilliant silver'' (as he noted it in a sketchbook) and its accompanying train of stars -- ``gems which sparkle on the Ethiopic forehead of the night.'' Living in Shoreham, Kent, between 1826 and 1832, this London-born son of a middle-class bookseller found in his rustic retreat something almost parallel to his imaginings -- which were already deep into the pastoral idylls of Fletcher's ``Faithful Shepherdess,'' most probably of the Psalms, and of Milton. It was about the time he painted ``A Cornfield by Moonlight, with Evening Star'' (c.1829-30) that he was given a two-volume edition of Milton's poetry. Inside the cover of Volume 1 he listed all Milton's descriptions of the moon. But the moons that appear again and again in his pictures do not come only from Milton but from determined observation followed by remarkable visual memory. However ``visionary'' his art, it is informed by an authentic representation of experienced phenomena. He -- and a group of fellow ``visionaries'' -- did not just dream in Shoreham, they worked there as well, with a kind of fierce self-denial. They didn't just visualize the moon. They went out and gazed at it. Palmer records: ``The people of the Village could not make out what we were after, for we walked much in the deep Twilight, and into the Night, so `Astrologers' seemed most likely, and so I believe we were dubbed, but in time they knew better, and came to know us, and we to love them.'' They dubbed themselves not astrologers but ``Ancients'' (though very young), because, apart from a tremendous admiration for the almost venerable William Blake (1757-1827), they looked for inspiration to much older masters of northern Europe such as Lucas van Leyden, Van Eyck, and above all D"urer. Their inclination was even toward the ``primitivism'' of the Middle Ages rather than the heroism and breadth of the Italian Renaissance, toward illuminated manuscript or woodcut rather than palatial fresco or architectural altarpiece. The actual smallness of their work is integral to its intimate fervency.

``A Cornfield by Moonlight, with Evening Star'' is a supreme example of Palmer's work at this period, visionary and naturalistic. As Kenneth Clark wrote in ``Landscape into Art'': ``No less than Wordsworth, Palmer invested nature with a spiritual quality; but whereas Wordsworth took his point of departure from the senses . . . , Palmer . . . saw first with the spiritual eye, and in so doing found every blade of grass and leaf and cloud was designed according to God's pattern. It was the vision of the Middle Ages. . . . But, unlike other 19th-century escapes to the past, this style has no antiquarian flavour.''

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If there was one Palmer picture that Clark must have known best, it is this one. He owned it for many years. It is in the news currently. It is a secret who owns it now (it may still be in the Clark family), but an application has been made for its export to ``a private collection'' in the United States. Britain's Export Reviewing Committee, however, has refused an export license for five months, until the end of April, to allow time for an institution to purchase it, so as to keep it in Britain. The British Museum has accordingly launched an appeal for 170,000 (about $187,000), contributing 30,000 itself toward the 200,000 required.

Palmer strove for a concentration and fullness of gemlike exquisiteness, transmuting into art those aspects of nature that were fruitful, precious, and particular. Here the sickle moon rises over stalks of corn ``barbarous in beauty,'' competing in its white light with an orange-and-gold twilight afterglow cast over the field. This light picks out the staff, hat, and smock of the man who strides along its path like a figure who is part Old Testament prophet, part down-to-earth farmer, and part Palmer's alter ego: With a strange prescience he seems almost to foretell Van Gogh's much later painting, ``The Painter on His Way to Work.'' But here it is the silvery Kentish moon, not the relentless sun of southern France, that presides over the scene.

``Sometimes,'' Palmer had noted in his remarkable sketchbook of 1824-25 (already owned by the British Museum), ``the rising moon seems to stand tiptoe on a green hill top to see if the day be going and if the time of her vice regency be come.''

In its peculiar combination of the naive and the majestic, this note is an apt word-equivalent for the tone of universality, tempered by precise, unusual observation of natural phenomena, so powerfully mixing in the alchemy of Palmer's art.

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