Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby’s, 30 November 2000, lot 151 (as John Linnell);
With Thomas Agnew & Sons, London;
With Andrew Wyld Fine Art, London;
Until sold ('Andrew Wyld: Connoisseur Dealer sale'), London, Christie’s, 10 July 2012, lot 150 (as circle of John Linnell);
Where acquired by the present owner.
R. Lister, Catalogue Raisonné of the works of Samuel Palmer, Cambridge 1988, p. 101, no. 211.
As William Vaughan commented, Samuel Palmer is one of those artists who gave us a new way of seeing. Though he painted familiar, everyday scenes – trees, hedgerows, flower meadows and fields of ripened corn – his rich forms and vivid colours presented them as never before and even today, over two centuries later, seem strikingly modern. Of all his great works it is those that he produced at Shoreham, that small Kent village in the Darent valley, the ‘Valley of Vision’, which became a spiritual centre for Palmer and The Ancients, that were the artist’s most enduring legacy and capture the modern imagination most forcefully. Very few of Palmer’s surviving Shoreham works remain in private hands, however, and the rediscovery of a late oil painting from this period is a significant and extremely exciting addition to the artist’s œuvre.
Painted in 1834/35, this jewel-like picture is a masterpiece of Palmer’s late Shoreham period; one of just four works by the artist selected by the hanging committee of the British Institution for exhibition that year. As Vaughan commented, it is works such as this that mark the high point of Palmer’s individuality, when the model of Blake had receded and the domineering influence of Linnell had not yet induced the self-doubt that was to afflict his work in Italy. The scene is a simple, bucolic one: a country lane passing a low verdant bank and a sprawling hedgerow. In the foreground a farm labourer and a group of peasant children head for home on a summer’s eve – a perfect embodiment of rustic charm and innocence. The composition revolves around the exquisitely painted rose bush emerging from the gloom of the hedge; a sublime detail that demonstrates the artist’s sympathy with Coledridge’s theory of mimetic imagination. Indeed the rose has a dual role within the painting, and – far from being an incidental detail – reveals the continued emphasis upon sacred meaning and spiritual symbolism that had so characterised the artist’s work at the height of his visionary Shoreham period in the mid-1830s – the rose being a traditional metaphor for Christ’s sacrifice within Christian doctrine.
The year 1835 marked a watershed for Palmer. The artist turned thirty and returned to London from Shoreham, a move that saw his re-engagement with the wider artistic community and signalled a new course for his art. Withdrawing from the youthful ideal of ‘Imaginative Art’ that had characterised his early Shoreham work, it was around this time that Palmer sought to broaden his horizon of the English landscape by conducting series of tours of the British countryside in search of what he referred to as ‘Universal Nature’. In 1834 he had begun his travels in Dorset and Devon, inspired by a print of Watermouth Bay at Ilfracombe, North Devon, which he had glimpsed in a shop window, and his drawings from this period reveal an increasingly free and exploratory manner. As Palmer’s son, A.H. Palmer, who was also one of the artist’s earliest biographers, commented, in Devon he found in the ‘heaped up richness’ of ‘the loveliest of counties’, ‘nearly all he desired in landscape’, and this first visit fostered a lifelong admiration for the area in the artist’s heart.
Previously signed and dated by the artist,1 in style and technique this painting closely relates to other works from the period, including Palmer’s Scene from Lee, North Devon (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, fig. 1), which he exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year. Both works seem to summarize Palmer’s previous accomplishments and predict the work to come – the globular forms of the foreground leaves recalling his earlier Shorham works, whilst the rustic children seen in both relate to other works of the mid 1830s and the naturalistic delineation of the scene, the subdued sky and cooler tinted palette of each foretell the characteristics of his later landscapes. Other related works from this period which bear similar hallmarks include A Pastoral Scene (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and Landscape – Twilight (Private collection), both of which were probably exhibited at the Academy in 1835 and combine elements of the Shoreham landscape with that of North Devon. A number of Palmer’s other 1835 exhibits, at both the British Institution and the Royal Academy, remain untraced, encumbering our knowledge and understanding of this vital period of his work. The rediscovery of this beautiful picture is therefore all the more exceptional and important.
1 The signature is still very faintly visible. It was partially removed at some point, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century, and a false J. Constable signature was added just above the figures in the lower right, presumably to enhance the picture's value at a time when Palmer's art was little appreciated. The Constable inscription can be seen in the illustration in the 1987 sale catalogue (see provenance).
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