This is one of Palmer's best-known works, painted while he was living in Shoreham
in Kent. Palmer lived in Shoreham for about seven years. To him it represented a kind of rural paradise, an ideal landscape, touched by a divine presence. He called the Darent Valley the 'Valley of Vision'. Palmer's pictures of this period are intensely personal, and often have a mystical, even visionary quality comparable to the work of William Blake (1757-1827). Palmer was greatly inspired by Blake's illustrations to Ambrose Philips's imitation of Virgil's First Eclogue (1821) and could have been describing his own work when he wrote of the Blake engravings
: 'They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitist pitch of intense poetry...There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul' (A.H. Palmer, The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, 1892, pp.15-16).
In Coming from Evening Church Palmer adopts a fresco
technique (really a form of tempera
) which is comparable to Blake's 'fresco' panels
such as The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20, Tate N05889). The moonlit scene shows a winding procession of figures returning from Evensong with flowers in their hands. At their head are a young man and his wife, who holds their little boy by the hand. They are followed by the parson in his cassock and a group of villagers, including children and the elderly. Some of the figures, especially those at the head of the procession, probably derive from figures in Blake's Songs of Innocence (1789). The prominent church spire signifies a divine presence within the landscape
. This is emphasised by the gothic arches created by the gable ends of the houses and the branches at the top of the composition
, a device that Palmer also employs in A Hilly Scene (c1826-8, Tate N05805). The leaves of the left-hand tree partly obscure a full moon which casts an atmospheric glow over the scene. Below the moon is a row of steep hills, their perspective
distorted and their shape echoed by the cone-shaped gables, giving the picture a sense of organic unity. The vision is deliberately archaic and appears to have been inspired by early panel paintings
as well as miniatures
in medieval manuscripts.
In his 1824 sketchbook Palmer wrote a poem, 'Twilight Time', which appears to express some of the sentiments in this picture:
And now the trembling light
Glimmers behind the little hills, and corn,
Lingring as loth to part: yet part thou must
And though than open day far pleasing more
(Ere yet the fields, and pearled cups of flowers
Twinkle in the parting light;)
Thee night shall hide, sweet visionary gleam
That softly lookest through the rising dew:
Till all like silver bright;
The Faithful Witness, pure, & white,
Shall look o'er yonder grassy hill,
At this village, safe, and still.
Raymond Lister, Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Samuel Palmer, Cambridge 1988, p.77, reproduced p.77.
Raymond Lister, Samuel Palmer: his Life and Art, Cambridge 1987, pp.40-2, reproduced p.41.
James Sellars, Samuel Palmer, London 1974, pp.77-8, reproduced p.78.