Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer by Rachel Campbell-Johnston - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

‘O! This Grinding World’

Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer

By

Bloomsbury 382pp £25 order from our bookshop
 

Samuel Palmer (1805–81) is the quintessential English Romantic painter, even more so than William Blake. Like Blake he loved poetry, especially Milton. But whereas Blake worked out his images in sinuous, weaving figures, Palmer expressed his feelings in weird, loaded and luminous landscapes. Many English art lovers prefer him to Turner and Constable. But while those two have provoked countless volumes and albums (my bookshelves contain over sixty books on Turner), comparatively little has been written about Palmer. His son did his best with a memoir and an (unreliable) Life and Letters. But the first critical biography had to wait until 1947, when the combative Geoffrey Grigson published Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years, an influential book but essentially one that dealt with his early work. A quarter century later, in 1974, Raymond Lister produced a more balanced biography, and an edition of Palmer’s excellent letters. A book appreciating every aspect of Palmer’s work was badly needed, however, and Rachel Campbell-Johnston, art critic of The Times, has now supplied it. 

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. This is a valuable study, which sent me back to

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