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Authors: Rachel Campbell-Johnston

Mysterious Wisdom

BOOK: Mysterious Wisdom
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Praise for
Mysterious Wisdom


Shortlisted for the Biographers' Club HW Fisher Best First Biography Prize



‘One of those rare biographies which is a work of literature: beautifully written, overwhelmingly moving. A great art critic, with an understanding of the human heart, has produced this masterpiece. It is one of the best biographies I have ever read of anyone: it captures the tragedy of Palmer's life, and brings out the shimmering glory, the iridescent secrets of his Shoreham phase' A.N. Wilson


‘She tells in detail the story of his long and often sad personal life, skilfully interweaving it with the many changes in his professional interests and outlook, and in the process illuminating hitherto obscure aspects of his career. Th is is a valuable study ... excellent'
Literary Review


‘The neglected artist Samuel Palmer is well served by this richly perceptive life'
Sunday Times


‘Triumphantly captures such ardent early Victorian piety with a vividness and an energy that carry the reader to the luminous heart of Palmer's work … Campbell-Johnston deploys her talent as an art critic to delineate the technical as well as philosophical progressiveness of Palmer's work, yet the figure who emerges from
Mysterious Wisdom
is too exuberant and vivid for tragedy. He strides from the pages, as warm and tenderly eccentric as the paintings from his “Curiosity Portfolio”'
Times Literary Supplement


‘The compelling strangeness of Campbell-Johnston's book, however, is that it doesn't depend on a claim to Palmer's artistic greatness. Rather, it's carried by the almost shockingly polarised light and shadow of his life'
Daily Telegraph


‘A brilliantly written book. Rachel Campbell-Johnston brings a novelist's eye to the life of Palmer' John Wilson,
Front Row


‘[A] vivid new portrait'
Evening Standard


‘Excellent … A hugely remarkable story engagingly told'
Sunday Times Ireland


‘This gentle, sympathetic book will encourage people to discover a visionary' Eileen Battersby,
Irish Times


‘Yet if Palmer doesn't quite live up to our expectations of the Romantic artist, the close society the author describes is as rich in detail as his paintings and vivid with the life of its personalities, the now neglected first movement in Britain, The Ancients' ****

Mysterious Wisdom


The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer




Rachel Campbell-Johnston







For Will whom I love and for Sebastian whom I have lost.

‘The painter's and the poet's struggles are solitary and patient,

silent and sublime'


from an 1881 letter from Samuel Palmer to his son






1 The Palmer Family

2 Early Years

3 The Beginnings of an Artist

4 John Linnell

5 The Sketchbook of 1824

6 William Blake

7 Palmer Meets Blake

8 The Oxford Sepias

9 The Primitive

10 The Ancients

11 Shoreham

12 At Work in the Valley of Vision

13 The Pastoral and the Political

14 The Sensual and the Spiritual

15 The End of the Dream

16 Honeymoon in Italy

17 Back in England

18 The Years of Disillusion

19 A Bitter Blow

20 Redhill

21 The Milton Series

22 The Lonely Tower

23 The Legacy




Plate Section


A Note on the Author


The young man in the picture looks straight out at the viewer. But he is also at the same time staring into himself. His gaze is so distant that it seems almost drugged. What is he thinking? The spectator can't help but wonder about the world that lies beyond that broad, high brow.

Samuel Palmer was barely out of his teens when he drew his defining self-portrait. It's hardly the image you would expect from an upcoming artist at that time. He does not strike the pose of the ambitious young professional; make a bid for new clients by parading palette and brush. He hasn't bothered to shave or to straighten his collar; no comb has been run through his thick tousled hair. This is not a picture that presents a public persona. It is a portrait that asks you to look into a mind.

How can he conjure the visions that move through his entranced imagination, speak of the feelings that swell like an organ fugue in the heart? These are the problems that Palmer faced all his life as a painter. To try to understand them is to enter the head of the dreamer who stares out from this picture, to know why his image, a longstanding favourite of Ashmolean Museum visitors, is also among the most evocative of its Romantic age.

Palmer's life leads its followers into a world that has been transformed by a visionary imagination, into the landscapes that lie beyond earthly veils. It is a place in which the magical shines through the material, in which nature and heaven are intertwined, in which God in all his mildness blesses man's harvests and the darkness of night can be innocent and day. This is not the haunt of any workaday painter. It is the home of the artist as mystic and seer and poet.


The Palmer Family


O! blessed biography which has embalmed a few of the

graces of so many great and good people

The Letters of Samuel Palmer


To stand on the Old Kent Road amid the fumes of the traffic crawling in from the suburbs and the thunder of lorries rumbling off to the coast is to feel an awfully long way from the land of Samuel Palmer; from his slumbering shepherds and his tumbling blossoms, his mystical cornfields and bright sickle moons. But take a turn down a side street, beside the betting shop where cigarette butts scatter the pavement and opposite the fuel pumps of a garage forecourt, and within a matter of paces you will find yourself stepping into what could almost be another world. The noise of cars fades to a dull background grumble, the fumes leak away amid rustling plane leaves. You might even spot a songbird flitting into a garden as you slip between the posts that prevent the passage of vehicles and enter the peaceful enclave of south London's Surrey Square.

To the right, behind a row of ornamental iron railings, runs a handsome terrace of houses. They are Georgian. Each has an elegant three-bay façade with a smartly symmetrical pattern of sash windows, a panelled door with brass knocker and a pretty fanlight; a few are distinguished by an old-fashioned lamp bracket arching over the steps that lead up from the street. It is one of these – now number 42 – that is marked out with a homemade English Heritage-style plaque. And it is here that the story of Samuel Palmer starts.



Life is always a lottery, but the odds were not good at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Almost a quarter of all babies would have been bundled into their graves before they reached their first birthday, a fraction that rose to more than a third among the urban poor. Palmer would one day learn the pain of loss only too well. But for now he was lucky: he was born into a middle-class family whose comfortable financial circumstances could cushion a few of the world's harsher blows.

The surname of Palmer is not an uncommon one. It derives from the medieval nickname for pilgrims who, returning from their long, faithful tramps to the Holy Land, brought home with them palm fronds which they displayed as proof. But the branch of the Palmer family to which Samuel belonged boasted gentlemanly origins. Its members bore arms, tracing their ancestry back to the fourteenth-century Henry Chicheley who, as Archbishop of Canterbury, had been immortalised by Shakespeare in
Henry V
. In the play, he is the favourite who first urges the King to lay claim to France and, in real life, to atone for his role in disastrous French wars, he founded the Oxford college of All Souls.

Palmer, however, would relate rather more closely to a later Anglican lineage which included the sixteenth-century theologian Richard Hooker and the eighteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury William Wake. The family also claimed kinship with the Whig politician Charles James Fox who, having filled a number of senior government posts including that of Britain's first foreign secretary, was still in office when Samuel was born, though he died the following year. ‘My Father used to say that his brother . . . made out their relationship to Charles James Fox in two minutes, beginning with the words “Sir Stephen Fox married so and so”,'
Samuel would recall towards the end of his life, though the only evidence he could offer of this connection was the story of a Mr Barry who, standing in the same relation to Fox as Palmer's father, had upon application been endowed with a valuable government appointment for life. As for the Palmers' much-vaunted relationship to the Church of England's principal primate, it was no closer than that effected through a marriage to an archiepiscopal niece.

The family descended more directly from a line of rather humbler Anglican clergy. Palmer's great-great-grandfather, Samuel, had left Ireland in the early eighteenth century and, having made an advantageous match with the aforementioned niece, was offered the living of Wylye in Wiltshire where his memorial slab can still be found inset in the church wall. His son, Edward, had followed in his clerical footsteps, becoming the rector of Ringmer in East Sussex. But towards the end of the century the family had moved into business as the rector's son, Christopher, set himself up as a hatter, becoming a partner in the firm of Moxon, Palmer and Norman based in Cannon Street on the fringes of the City of London.

BOOK: Mysterious Wisdom
11.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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