A Review of Two Works Related to Samuel Palmer

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University


[Originally appeared in Victorian Studies, (1976), 79-81.]

The Letters of Samuel Palmer, edited by Raymond Lister, 2 vols. pp. xvi + 1123. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, 28.00; New York: Oxford University Press, 1975, $80.00.

Samuel Palmer, by James Sellars; pp. 159, illus. London: Academy Editions, 1974, 15.75; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974, $45.00

Raymond Lister' s fine edition of Samuel Palmer's letters skillfully presents much hitherto unavailable information about the artist, and yet, through no fault of the editor, the results are somewhat disappointing. Following what is increasingly standard practice, Lister has tried to reproduce the punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and paragraphing of the original as closely as possible. The advantage of such an editorial approach, which always produces a rather rough looking text, is that by conveying the effect and appearance of a manuscript, it manages to remind us that we are reading private materials not originally intended for publication.

Lister's introduction carefully explains his general principles, also characterizing the particular problems faced by the editor of Palmer's correspondence. Since A. H. Palmer's Life and Letters contains the only surviving text of many important letters, one might perhaps have wished a more detailed discussion, preferably with examples, of the characteristic differences between other printed versions by the artist's son and the original manuscripts. Other than this minor omission (which the curious can supply using Lister's own edition), the editing is intelligent and admirable. Lister, for example, valuably indicates the presence of now vanished letters, thus indicating the range of the artist's correspondence, and in editing the letters from Palmer's Italian honeymoon, which comprise almost twenty percent of the total, he usefully prints those from the artist's wife Hannah to her parents, John and Mary Ann Linnell. At the same time, Lister makes a most intelligent use of other manuscript sources, placing long passages from Linnell's letters in the notes to individual letters. By informing the reader about both sides of the correspondence, such a procedure produces a more interesting as well as a more reliable edition -- the letters of Palmer's father-in law create the proper context within which his can be better understood.

One must also compliment the editor upon his generous annotation, which is well suited to the needs of the potential users of such a scholarly edition. One of the few points at which one would add to the annotation is in the letter to Miss Frances Redgrave of 6 July 1866 (II, 742), where the reader should be informed that William Edward Frost, R. A. to whom Palmer refers was one of the "faerie painters" who specialized in imaginative visions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and similar literary sources; such information is necessary, particularly given Palmer's favorable comments upon Frost, because of his own visionary work. Furthermore, Palmer's comments would also seem to demand that the editor identify a specific painting, since the artist's mention that he received enjoyment from "the poetic heat and movement of feet upon the sands" suggests that Frost had painted another version of the subject chosen by Richard Dadd and R. Huskisson.

The only other omission of which I am aware occurs in the failure to recognize several allusions to Carlyle. In a letter to Mrs. Anne Gilchrist of November 1863, Palmer refers to the "'respectable' who 'keep gigs'" (II, 681), and he makes a similar allusion in one to Julia Richmond of September 1866 (II, 746). Writing to Thomas Wright on 17 March 1870, he gave a somewhat garbled explanation of his allusion when he explained that at Burlington House he had encountered "a very select company: carriage and poodle people; more respectable than Thurtell who only 'kept a gig', in which he took Mr. Weare into Hertfordshire to be murdered" (II, 809). The source of Palmer's several allusions to the gig as ironic emblem of social respectability was Carlyle's note to "Jean Paul Richter Again" (1830) which quoted a witness at Thurtell's trial to the effect that the murder victim was respectable because "he kept a gig." Carlyle, who had the same jaundiced view of such seeking after respectability as did Palmer, took delight in coining words such as "gigmantic" and "gigmanty." One must emphasize, of course, that such omissions are quite minor flaws in a very fine job of editing and annotation.

Nonetheless, despite generally scrupulous editing, The Letters of Samuel Palmer are somewhat disappointing, for although we learn a great deal about the artist's later development and his often trying relationship with Linnell, there are few new letters from the Shoreham years, the period of his greatest creativity. The honeymoon letters, which form the single largest block of the correspondence, relate experiences of art and life which led, rather sadly, not to greater heights of vision, but to decline and accommodation. Therefore, Palmer's abundant theorizing, which appears frequently in the later letters, does not seem to generate any very important art. In Samuel Palmer and His Etchings (1969), Lister himself had little good to say about the artist-etcher's abstract pronouncements on the arts. In truth, unlike the long disquisitions upon art and theology of William Holman Hunt, that other great Victorian theorizer, Palmer's do not find themselves embodied in his most characteristic works. One comes away from reading the letters thus disappointed that the artist's own statements, however interesting they might be, will not open the door to his magical visionary world.

James Sellars proposes to lead us into that visionary landscape, "writing" -- so the puff on the jacket of Samuel Palmer announces -- "not as an art historian or critic but as a fellow artist." If by this statement it is meant that the author does not trouble himself with a careful presentation of evidence, rigorous argument, or a consistent and carefully thought out methodology, then such an assertion is quite correct; but if, on the other hand, it intends to suggest that the reader will encounter a daring or particularly imaginative approach to Palmer, it is most misleading. This quite derivative introduction to the artist follows all previous writings on the subject -- including those by A. H. Palmer, Laurence Binyon, Geoffrey Grigson, David Cecil, Carlos Peacock, and Raymond Lister -- quoting the familiar remarks by the artist and the well-known letters. It relates the usual information about the Shoreham years, Blake, and Linnell with out making any attempt to relate the art of Palmer, particularly that of his middle period, to that of the Pre-Raphaelites or Ruskin. Nor do we find any revision of the conventional assessments of Palmer's early, middle, and late productions, and, in fact, the reader who expects a fresh encounter with his work will be much disappointed, for in the course of his brief text Sellars frequently relies on quoting long passages, occasionally of several pages, which have little apparent relevance to the plates which surround them. It is from these often superb reproductions, more than two dozen of which are in color, that the work derives its chief value, for they go a long way towards making it possible to perceive the range -- and excellence -- of Palmer's art.

Unfortunately, the text is not up to these fine plates, for like most previous writers on this painter-etcher, Sellars finds it difficult to come to precise terms with Palmer's work. Although, like Grigson and Hardie, Sellars makes some useful observations on the artist's techniques and also makes some interesting formal analyses of individual works, he in general pays too little attention to the pictures themselves.

To his credit, Sellars at least confronts the nature of Palmer's greatest works, attempting to discover the source of their intensity. According to Sellars, who employs a rather crude and not very carefully thought out psychosexual theory of art, Palmer's Shoreham productions are "erotic landscapes," by which he apparently means that they are suffused with various levels of erotic feelings, drives, and symbolism. Unfortunately, he fails to explain precisely what he means, and while he may in fact possess a consistent theory of the visual manifestations of the unconscious in individual paintings, one cannot make out quite what it could be, since his remarks often seem implicitly contradictory. For example, he writes of the unconscious both as if it contained the raw content or drives "underneath" consciousness and as if it were also capable of censoring itself. Moreover, he presents a very confused and confusing account of the way sexuality is supposed to enter the work of visual art. Thus he can quite baldly assert that Palmer's sexual satisfaction after marriage -- of which, incidentally, there is no evidence one way or the other -- directly destroyed the visionary intensity present in his earlier paintings: "By the time he returned from Italy he was thirty-four and the sexual drive which he had sublimated through his art had lost the Urgency it had had fourteen years before. He was now married so that he no longer needed to channel his sexual impulses" (p. 105). On the other hand, when Sellars describes the positive causal relations of sexuality to an individual picture, he is neither so direct nor so specific. When writing of the 1824 sketch book, he tells us that "Palmer here is seeing not with a male eye but with a universal one which is at once male or female. He is excited by the forms of tree trunks and these are not just phallic but the phallus metamorphosed into trees, so closely does Palmer identify with his landscape. When he shows the whole tree it is frequently soft and breast like as are his hills" (p. 18). This rather characteristic passage strikes me as confusing, and I am afraid I cannot determine what Sellars means by it, for after proposing a conception of sexuality that is little more than undifferentiated physical pleasure, he then apparently offers a different (and opposed) conception of genital sexuality. At the same time, here and in other passages one cannot be certain whether he is writing literally or merely intends some loose analogy to sexuality -- a problem which is compounded by the author's surprising coyness, for he frequently points to the presence of symbols without interpreting them for us. The basic difficulty is that having asserted that individual elements in particular pictures function as signifying units (or bits of information), such as a felled tree, he fails to perceive that a linguistic structure requires a syntax, a system of relations, as well as individual words. In other words, he seems completely unable to move from specific details to an overall impression, much less to any explanation of the underlying source of Palmer's briefly achieved greatness.

Although in his text Sellars does not increase our understanding of this artist's life or work, his book is nonetheless a most useful contribution to studies of nineteenth-century English art, since the fine color plates bring Samuel Palmer's painting to many who would not otherwise encounter it.