In pervading biblical symbolism. Power. Dancing, curving rhythm. Vibrant harmony. Richness of colour. Golden glimmering light. And gently brooding shadow. And in energies of sublime and extraordinary contrast, The Shearers is unique among Palmer's most inspired visions. For it represents both his vision of Paradise, and the very real dangers he saw threatening his ideal of a heaven on earth.
Lister in his catalogue raisonné shows no other work with its range of subject, movement and symbolism; nor its monumental presence and scale. He writes:
A group of richly textured and abundantly coloured paintings of this period includes some of Palmer's greatest and most attractive work. Such work reached its ultimate expression in The Shearers and The Sleeping Shepherd.
The Sleeping Shepherd slumbering in the same barn entrance, is however smaller, painted principally in tempera, on paper. And of a different order.
In The Valley of Vision, Grigson, the Palmer biographer, writes;
Great richness of technique was used to realise The Shearers. In this Palmer combined oil and tempera so as to render every nuance of texture from the light on the distant hills and in the sky to the detailed depiction, almost Dutch in its realism, of the group of implements on the right. There is also an advance in the drawing of the figures, the shearers and their helpers; rarely if ever before this had Palmer portrayed figures so convincingly in movement.
Palmer's 'Shoreham Period' [c.1825-1835] is unique - in the art of any nation.
When he was living at Shoreham, in Kent, he produced some of the most extraordinary and passionately felt pastorals in any art……whose richness, mystery and fantasy is unique in British landscape art. This flowering of Palmer's art is all the more remarkable for being so brief but its brevity is not hard to account for. Palmer's work at Shoreham was made in isolation, intensely personal, part of a mystical and, often, overtly religious experience, shared only with a few other people.
David Blaney Brown Senior Curator, The Tate Gallery
Alfred Palmer, the artist's son, writes:
Had the artist depended for his material solely on the fields, and woods, and hills around him, and had he used that material in a sordid way, he might have given us faithful representations of those he selected, but there would have been inevitable repetition, and he would never have shown us as he has undoubtedly done, the very spirit and quintessence of the loveliest and most poetic pastoral scenery - scenery which we may imagine as that of ancient England, when shepherds piped upon their pipes, and the clouds dropped fatness.
And of this painting:
The doors of a great barn (on the floor of which we stand) are open before us, and form a kind of frame to the subject. In the chequered shade of some trees outside, a group of men and girls are busy over their sheepshearing. Beyond and far below them an expanse of undulating country rolls away, glowing in a flood of sunshine. Within the barn on our right is a group of admirably painted rural implements, together with a rustic hat, which was one of my father's most treasured possessions occurring over and over again in the works of this time. A striking feature in the picture is the bold colouring peculiar to this era in the painter's life.
Like Blake, Palmer envisioned in the English landscape a spiritual Jerusalem. Shortly before their first meeting, Palmer wrote:
A group of different sex and age reaping, might be shewn in the foreground going down a walk in the field toward the above cottage island, and over the distant line that bounds this golden sea might peep up elysian hills, the little hills of David, or the hills of Dulwich or rather the visions of a better country which the Dulwich fields shew will to all true poets.
A vision of The Shearers had begun to appear.
Lister records approximately 156 Shoreham works [58-214]. 47 are untraced [38 since 1893]. Of the 109 reproduced, only nine are in oil. Of these, Adam and Eve was painted during the first two years of his stay. The remaining eight were painted towards the end.
Of the five oils now in private hands, The Shearers is the largest and most important.
Palmer was nineteen when he met Blake. In painting The Shearers he depicts, more vividly and faithfully than any other artist, Blake's own vision of a Paradise England. A vision Blake never pictorially realised so completely, on so large a scale. And with such richness.
Lister, in his catalogue writes:
Blake's greatest influence, apart from his magnetic personality, came from his Pastorals of Virgil wood engravings, a comparatively minor work, but one which happened to chime with the young Palmer's visionary yearning.
And of Blake's influence on The Shearers:
The golden blue hills beyond recall the landscape of The Magic Apple Tree. The figures of the two men at the left are charged with energy, poised as if they were about to begin a dance.
These and others are reminiscent of figures in Blake's engraved books: the man second from the left was probably derived from that of The Traveller Hasteth in the Evening in 'The Gates of Paradise', and there are several parallels with the woman dressed in blue at the right in 'Songs of Innocence and of Experience'.
Palmer was moved and inspired by Blake's Virgil woodcut engravings. Their influence is present in The Shearers - Palmer's own 'corner of Paradise'.
I sat down with Mr Blake's Thornton's Virgil woodcuts before me, thinking to give to their merits my feeble testimony. I happened first to think of their sentiment. They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisite pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them, I found no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world. They are like all that wonderful artist's works the drawing aside of the fleshly curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed, of that rest which remaineth to the people of God. The figures of Mr Blake have that intense, soul-evidencing attitude and action, and that elastic, nervous spring which belongs to uncaged immortal spirits.
Twenty-eight years after Blake's death, Palmer wrote of Blake's overwhelming impression upon him:
In him you saw at once the Maker, the Inventor; one of the few in any age: a fitting companion for Dante. He was energy itself, and shed around him a kindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the ideal. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter; and the high, gloomy buildings between which, from his study window, a glimpse was caught of the Thames and the Surrey shore, assumed a kind of grandeur from the man dwelling near them…He was a man without a mask; his aim single, his path straightforwards, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy. His eye was the finest I ever saw: brilliant, but not roving, clear and intent, yet susceptible; it flashed with genius, or melted in tenderness. It could also be terrible. Cunning and falsehood quailed under it, but it was never busy with them. It pierced them, and turned away…He was one of the few to be met with in our passage through life, who are not in some way or other, 'double-minded' and inconsistent with themselves; one of the very few who cannot be depressed by neglect, and to whose name, rank and station could add no lustre. Moving apart, in a sphere above the attraction of worldly honours he did not accept greatness, but confer it. He ennobled poverty, and, by his conversation and the influence of his genius, made two small rooms in Fountain court more attractive than the threshold of princes.
When Palmer painted his barn, was he thinking also of Blake's last dwelling?
Bindman in his essay The Politics of Vision: Palmer's Address to the Electors of West Kent 1832, in the current Palmer exhibition catalogue, describes Palmer's passionate response to the 1832 Reform Act. Palmer held the instigators of this act responsible for the recent violence and burning of farmers' property across Kent. And saw this tragic disruption of an ancient, sanctified order as being directly inspired by the contemporary political uprisings in France.
Palmer wrote and published his pamphlet a few months before beginning The Shearers. He proposes the Tory candidate, Sir William Geary, as a vital bulwark against an iniquitous tide of violence and anarchy. And vehemently argues that the 1832 Reform Act would, in abolishing tithes to the Church, destroy a centuries' old, harmonious, sacred way of English life.
The passionate sentiment expressed in these extracts from Palmer's 1832 Address To The Electors of West Kent [available in complete form] seems to mould every aspect of the two figures moving violently forward in the surrounding stillness. And explain the unique symbolic appearance in Palmer's work, of the scythe and implements so prominently displayed.
She [France] obtained her freedom: and, alas! immediately lost it again, irretrievably: by confiding it, as the people of England are at this moment confiding their own - to revolutionary empyrics. Then, when suddenly distracted with an infernal phrenzy, her songs and dances became the yells and contortions of possession: and, in a frantic spasm, she hurled over the Continent fire-brands, arrows, and death: who, with more alacrity than the Kentish patriot, sprang forward, and bound the demoniac? …..
And shall we, even now, bitten with that selfsame madness: while, though somewhat exhausted with her paroxysm, France yet heaves in incurable distraction: shall we mistake her ravings for the voice of Delphic Sibyl; and proceed to model, or rather unmodel, every institution of our country, and tumble them all together, into the semblance of that kingless, lawless, churchless, Godless, comfortless, and most chaotic Utopia of French philosophy?
Farmers of Kent - we are tempted with a share of the promised spoliation of the CHURCH! - There was a time when every Kentish yeoman would have spurned at the wretch who should have dared to tickle him with such a bait - to offer him such an insult! But piety and honour are in the sepulcher.
He who has now withdrawn Himself for a while, and from His high and invisible watch tower in the heavens, is beholding the fury of His enemies, and the lukewarmness of his servants: will suddenly descend among us, and deliver us gloriously, at that moment when we shall lay the ark of our liberties on the alter of the sanctuary; and, banded together in one impregnable phalanx of holy patriotism - SWEAR TO DEFEND THEM IN HIS NAME!
Is this the rant of a fanatic?-NO. It is the zealous but sober voice of one who dares to speak what millions think: millions, who seem stunned and panic-stricken by the yelling of a crew of savages, and a thoughtless rabble who follow them. It is the voice of one who would deem it happiness and glory indeed, to die for his country….
Permit me to suggest to you, Electors of West Kent, that this is no time to multiply party distinctions, or to remember old grudges. We should travel in Caravan: prepared against a horde of thieves far more cruel than wandering Arabs. These highwaymen will rifle us if they catch us singly; but take to their heels over hedge and ditch, should they once meet us walking together on the King's Highway.
Brother Electors; we have been requested to return to Parliament two Gentlemen, who have, unhappily, ranked themselves under the standard of the, so called, Radical Reformers. Personal remark is remote from my intention: but I would remind you that the Radicals have ever been found adverse to the agricultural interest: that whatever they may pretend; they will, if possible, sweep away your protecting duties.
… They were the wretched leaders of this wretched faction, who, during the late dreadful fires, strenuously encouraged the incendiaries! Some of the most abandoned of them published cheap tracts for distribution among the poor, stimulating them to fire their master's property. But now, if there be a Radical Parliament; the starvation produced by free trade, and the consequent reckless desperation of the peasantry; will supersede the necessity of all other stimulants. If, then, you patronise Radicalism, in any shape, you will have yourselves to thank for the consequences.
Already, the fires have begun. Do you wish them to blaze once more over the kingdom? If you do; send Radicals into Parliament; make Radicals of the poor; and as those principles effectually relieve all classes from every religious and moral restraint; neither property nor life will be for a moment secure. Conflagration has already ravaged your harvests; and assassination and massacre are in its train.
Let us rally once more; Whigs, Tories, Moderates; and especially every Christian man in West Kent;-it may be for the last time;-round the noble standard of Old Kentish Loyalty; and defend it to the last…..If we perish in the contest; let it not be, O spirit of Albion, as recreants and dastards: but with Thy standard clenched in our grasp, or folded about our hearts!
The tonsured figure, his body tensed to danger, his shears clasped dagger-like to plunge into the attacking foe, mirrors so vividly Palmer's fervour, his Spirit of Albion; thy standard clenched in our grasp as to assume the character of a self-portrait.
The powerful young 'Yeoman of Kent' leaps into battle.
His companions, untroubled, continue their timeless, peaceful ritual. But one, soft shadow and light sensually moulding her slender neck and shoulders, faces mysteriously away; dreamily contemplating the peaceful golden valley and sheep-scattered hills turning to blue and fading into distant sky. Or standing alert to announce the approaching foe?
The 'impaling' scythe so menacingly featured in the foreground is both a symbol of the destruction and death Palmer foresees in 'The Radicals' ascent to power. And very possibly, a direct reference to the recently introduced 'threshing machine' which, with failing harvests, had caused a third of Kent's peasantry to become unemployed.
Shears, sword-like, upon the ground. The wooden pitchfork, its prongs closing to a single, piercing point. And Palmer's cherished straw hat proclaiming his gentle presence - yet attached to an implement of potentially devastating destruction. Curving strips of wood - perhaps skeletal remains, animal or human, of mythological proportion? And the shroud-like cloak hanging from the scythe's neck-stump handle. This group stands sentinel-like, in light and darkening shadow - a foreboding portent of the battle ahead.
The sepulchral quality of the barn echoes the mood of his etching
'The Sepulchre' begun c.1880; and inscribed while the troubled moon shrunk in and set/ Th'earth trembled, and the starless heav'n was jet.
For twenty years Palmer carried in his pocket a copy of 'Paradise Lost' given him by his nurse:
When less than four years old, as I was standing with her, watching the shadows on the wall from the branches of elm behind which the moon had risen, she transferred and fixed the fleeting image in my memory, by repeating the couplet.
Fond Man, the vision of a moment made,
Dream of a dream, and shadow of a shade.
I never forget those shadows, and am often trying to paint them.
The fragility of a moment dreamed in Heaven, seems perfectly realised in The Shearers.
On the mount of his watercolour The Golden Valley, Palmer inscribed these lines from 'Paradise Lost':
If chance the radiant sun with farewell sweet
Extend his evening beam, the fields revive,
The birds their notes renew, with bleating herds
Attest their joy, that hill and valley rings.
Originally begun as a commission, he chose, as a devotional act, to spend some seventeen years, illustrating Milton's Comus and Lycidas.
Right against the Eastern Gate
Where the great sun begins his state,
Robed in flames and amber light
The clouds in thousand liveries dight:
While the ploughman near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrowed land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale
L'Allegro, 11, 59-68
Milton too inspired Palmer to paint his 'Paradise Picture'.
Palmer read and studied his bible each day.
God worked in great love with my spirit last night, giving me a founded hope that I might finish my 'Naomi before Bethlehem'…Satan tries violently to make me leave reading the Bible and praying…O artful enemy, to keep me, who devote myself entirely to poetic things, from the best of books and the finest, perhaps, of all poetry. I will endeavour, God helping, to begin the day by dwelling on some short piece of scripture, and praying for the Holy Ghost thro' the day to inspire my art.
He inscribed the reverse of his 'The Valley Thick with Corn':
Thou crownest ye year with thy goodness; and the
clouds drop fatness. They drop upon ye
dwellings of ye wilderness; and ye little
hills shall rejoice on every side.
The folds shall be full of sheep; the
valleys also shall
stand so thick with corn; that they shall
laugh and sing.
LXV Psalm 11-13
The Shearers reverberates with the words and imagery of Blake's Jerusalem.
And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
among those dark satanic mills
Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spear. O clouds unfold
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
Paradise is hard won. Never given. As Blake's hymn so inimitably and wonderfully tells us. Evil remains ever present; and we must …not cease from mental fight, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.
No picture has given greater pictorial form to this most movingly evocative and loved of all English hymns.
The Shearers is among the great poetic visionary paintings of 'England's green and pleasant land'. It stands in the spirit of Blake and Milton - a homage to both. Its passion and biblical, political symbolism make this a work of peculiar English genius. And proclaim a message as relevant today.
Vibrant, powerful, lyrical and tender The Shearers conveys Palmer's mystical vision of a pastoral, biblical England where harmony reigns. But evil threatens. And Paradise is fragile and miraculous. Peace and beauty prevail. And Palmer attains his vision of an English summer's day in Paradise.
Everywhere curious, articulate, perfect and inimitable of structure, like her own entomology, nature does yet leave a space for the soul to climb above her steepest summits. As, in her own dominion, she swells from the herring to leviathan, from the hodmandod to the elephant, so divine. Art piles mountains on her hills, and continents upon those mountains.
However, creation sometimes pours into the spiritual eye the radiance of Heaven: the green mountains that glimmer in a summer gloaming from the dusky yet blooming east; the moon opening her golden eye, or walking in brightness among innumerate islands of light, not only thrill the optic nerve, but shed a mild, a grateful, an unearthly lustre into the inmost spirits, and seem the interchanging twilight of that peaceful country, where there is no sorrow and no night.
After all, I doubt not but there must be the study of this creation, as well as art and vision; tho' I cannot think it other than the veil of Heaven, through which her divine features are dimly smiling; the setting of the table before the feast; the symphony before the tune; the prologue of the drama; a dream, and antepast, and proscenium of eternity.
Palmer to John Linnell, December 1828