Samuel Palmer, ‘The Bright Cloud’ c.1833–4
Samuel Palmer, The Bright Cloud c.1833–4 . Tate

Room 5 in Spotlights

Ancients and Moderns: Legacies of William Blake

Pastoral

Graham Sutherland OM, Pastoral  1930

During the 1920s Sutherland produced a series of prints and drawings directly inspired by the example of Samuel Palmer. The series culminated in this work, whose simplified forms and detailed technique recall Palmer. However, the strange shadows and bizarrely gnarled and twisted tree trunks strike a more personal note. Here Sutherland transforms the Palmeresque evocation of an Arcadian idyll into a more pagan image, replacing traditional Christian symbolism with animistic forces. The sense of brooding drama seen here was developed in Sutherland's landscape paintings of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

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Entrance to a Lane

Graham Sutherland OM, Entrance to a Lane  1939

Though apparently abstract, the subject of this painting is a lane in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales. Sutherland visited the area regularly between 1934 and 1946. By presenting what he observed in simplified forms, Sutherland felt he captured the ‘intellectual and emotional’ essence of the landscape. He was attracted to the contrasting qualities of the setting, which he described as ‘darkness and light - of decay and life’. In 1939, with the Second World War looming, finding refuge in this natural setting may have had particular significance.

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A Hilly Scene

Samuel Palmer, A Hilly Scene  c.1826–8

William Blake's 1821 wood engravings illustrating Robert Thornton's 'Virgil' greatly inspired Palmer. He wrote 'they are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise [with] such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates... the inmost soul'. For a few years after Palmer moved to the Kent village of Shoreham in 1826, he found the local landscape perfectly matched these Blakean visions. Blake, too, in a rare trip out of London once briefly stayed in Shoreham. This work is partly painted in tempera, as were some of Palmer's other Shoreham works. It was also a medium used by Blake.

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The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’  c.1831–2

This work is a study for A Pastoral Scene 1835, a painting in oil and tempera, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. A shepherd and shepherdess tend their flock of sheep in the foreground, while harvesters gather ripe corn in the fields and a crescent moon rises in the distance. The image suggests fertility and pastoral contentment, unaffected by the outside world.

Like Blake, Palmer particularly admired the poetry of Virgil and Milton. Palmer was drawn to Milton’s evocations of nature, especially the effects of the moon, in which both he and Blake saw a spiritual message.

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Cain and Abel

Keith Vaughan, Cain and Abel  1946

The painting refers to the biblical story of Cain and Abel as recounted in chapter four of the Book of Genesis. Cain was thrown into a rage of jealousy when his brother Abel’s offering was accepted by God instead of his. In his fury he killed Abel. As the first occurrence of murder in the Bible, the story has had considerable interest for artists over the centuries. For Vaughan, who had been a conscientious objector during the Second World War (1939-45), it is likely the story had a special poignancy.

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Pillar and Moon

Paul Nash, Pillar and Moon  1932–42

Paul Nash was deeply affected by his experiences as a soldier and an artist during the First World War. This picture was based around ‘the mystical association of two objects which inhabit different elements and have no apparent relationin life... The pale stone sphere on top of a ruined pillar faces its counterpart the moon, cold and pale and solid as stone.’Though not explicitly about mourning, the deep, unpopulated space and ghostly lighting gives the scene a melancholy air. Rather than depict a real landscape, Nash said that his intention had been ‘to call up memories and stir emotions in the spectator’.

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Moonlight, a Landscape with Sheep

Samuel Palmer, Moonlight, a Landscape with Sheep  c.1831–3

Samuel Palmer was one of the group of men known as ‘The Ancients’, who greatly admired Blake in his later years. Palmer was particularly influenced by Blake’s illustrations to Dr Thornton's Pastorals of Virgil.

For Palmer, nature offered the ‘gate into the world of vision’. He was particularly fond of twilight scenes, in which the light effects heightened the sense of divine mystery in his visionary landscapes. His simplified drawing style recalls the art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which he saw as spiritual and uncorrupted, unlike modern art.

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The Bright Cloud

Samuel Palmer, The Bright Cloud  c.1833–4

Palmer studied clouds for their picturesque qualities. Unlike the artist John Constable he did not go 'skying' as a way of capturing particular meteorological effects which could then be used to inform the overall mood of his landscape paintings. In a letter of 1828 to his friend John Linnell he wrote: 'Nor must be forgotten the motley clouding, the fine meshes, the aerial tissues that dapple the skies of spring; nor the rolling volumes and piled mountains of light.' He saw in the treatment of clouds in Linnell's own paintings 'how the elements of nature may be transmitted into the pure Gold of Art.'

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A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall)

William Blake, A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall)  c.1819–20?

Blake called himself a visionary, claiming he actually perceived things that are not of this world. This is the extreme end of the imagination and not far removed from the Surrealists’ fascination with dreams which, according to Freud, offered access to the unconscious. The title of this work was suggested by a Blake expert named W Graham Robertson:'A Vision'. Probably representing the Poet, in the innermost shrine of the imagination, writing from angelic diction. This reflects Blake’s belief that his work was dictated by angels.

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Dark Landscape

John Craxton, Dark Landscape  1944–5

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The Pyramids in the Sea

Paul Nash, The Pyramids in the Sea  1912

This is one of Nash’s first imaginative drawings, produced when he was twenty-three. The mood recalls the spiritual landscapes of William Blake. It has been suggested that for Nash, as for Blake, the pyramid was a symbol of the ascent from the earthbound to the spiritual realm, or from chaos to form. Nash described this work as ‘a queer drawing’ and commented on its ‘uncanny eclipsed moonlight’. This strangeness may anticipate the mood of his later Surreal works.

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The Chamber Idyll

Edward Calvert, The Chamber Idyll  1831

Calvert's engravings 'The Return Home' and 'The Sheep of his Pasture' are particularly close in style to Blake's illustrations for Thornton's edition of Virgil's 'Pastorals'. 'The Chamber Idyll', by contrast, is a truly original image, and is usually regarded as Calvert's masterpiece. It is a sensuous vision of a bucolic honeymoon. The cottage stands open to the warm night, apples litter the floor, and a plough is silhouetted on the far right-hand horizon emphasising the end of the day's labours. The print, with its fine engraved lines, is an astonishing technical achievement for an artist who had been making prints for only four years. Yet after this work Calvert abandoned printmaking altogether.

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Dreamer in Landscape

John Craxton, Dreamer in Landscape  1942

This subject and its treatment immediately suggest the inspiration of Palmer and Blake. Craxton has pointed to his first sight, in 1941, of two works by Palmer as one influence on this work: 'Palmer took the essence of something and paraphrased it so that one had a poetic image of it. It was a distillation of nature.' In the 1940s Craxton drew and painted landscapes which included shepherds or poets: 'as projections of myself they derived from Blake and Palmer. They were my means of escape and a sort of self protection. A shepherd is a lone figure, and so is a poet'.

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Llanthony Abbey

John Craxton, Llanthony Abbey  1942

The building in the distance is Llanthony Abbey, a twelfth-century Augustinian house in the Black Mountains in Wales.

Craxton was a great admirer of his older friend Graham Sutherland (whose work can be seen in Room 23). Both were among a group of artists in the 1930s and 1940s who drew inspiration from the landscapes of certain ‘visionary’ nineteenth-century artists, particularly William Blake and Samuel Palmer. This ‘Neo-Romantic’ movement was seen by some as a retreat into national tradition at a time of international crisis and war.

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Lavengro and Isopel in the Dingle

Paul Nash, Lavengro and Isopel in the Dingle  1912–13

This is an illustration for George Borrow’s novel of gipsy life, 1851. On the left is the hero, Lavengro, whose name translates from Romany as ‘wordsmith’. He is teaching Armenian to Isopel (on the right) in order to deflect her romantic interest in him. Nash’s interest in this imaginative portrayal of the gypsy life reflects, perhaps, his romantic fascination with a lost, idyllic relationship with nature. A ‘dingle’ is a deep, wooded valley.

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Three Rooms

Paul Nash, Three Rooms  1937

This work reflects Nash’s renewed commitment to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. It shows three interrelated rooms invaded by the sky, a forest and the sea. The air of strangeness and the combination of disparate elements is typical of much Surrealist painting and writing. The mysterious symbolism also recalls the work of William Blake.

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Landscape, Girl Standing

Samuel Palmer, Landscape, Girl Standing  c.1826

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The Ploughman

Edward Calvert, The Ploughman  1827

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Pecken Wood

Graham Sutherland OM, Pecken Wood  1925

Sutherland saw an etching by Samuel Palmer when he was studying printmaking in the early 1920s. He later recalled 'I was amazed at its completeness... [It was] quite new to us that the complex variety of the multiplicity of lines could form a tone of such luminosity. It seemed to me wonderful that a strong emotion, such as was Palmer's, could change and transform the appearance of things.' Like Palmer and 'The Ancients', Sutherland was looking back to a purer, earlier age of art. His religious intensity is highlighted by the cross put after the date in the top right hand corner.

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Abel the Shepherd

George Richmond, Abel the Shepherd  1825

Richmond was the youngest of Blake’s followers known as the ‘Ancients’. He first met Blake in 1824. Later that year he became a student at the Royal Academy. This was his first exhibited picture, shown at the Academy in 1825. It shows Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, who was described in Genesis as ‘a keeper of sheep’.

Richmond had asked Blake’s advice about using tempera. Blake copied out for him a passage from a modern edition of a fourteenth-century treatise on art by Cennino Cennini (reproduced on the panel to the left). Richmond’s choice of medium and support here reflects this advice.

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Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon

John Piper, Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon  1944

Many critics believe that Piper's gouaches of Snowdonia, an example of which the Tate has lacked until now, are among his best works. Their rather sombre aspect could be associated with the artist's experience of the destructiveness of the Second World War. As an official War Artist, he had recently recorded the effects of war in other works, such as the Tate's watercolour of the blitzed, 'All Saints Chapel, Bath' 1942. (N05719). Piper produced a resumé of his work in the screenprint portfolio, 'Stones and Bones' 1978 (P07363) and included a number of Welsh mountain images, indicating their importance for him.

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The Sheep of his Pasture

Edward Calvert, The Sheep of his Pasture  c.1828

This engraving dates from 1828, the year after Blake died. Blake inspired a relatively small number of artists, but there are few works whose subject and composition owe such a direct debt to his work as this print. Its links with the eighth of Blake's wood engravings for Thornton's 'Virgil' show that The Sheep of his Pasture is almost as an act of homage to Blake. Calvert was well aware of the pastoral ideal in Virgil's writing. Here Calvert presents a wider vision of what he described as 'that serene kingdom, teeming with the good and the true and the beautiful.'

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A Church among Trees

Samuel Palmer, A Church among Trees  c.1830

Palmer drew this about five years after he first met Blake. It shows the strong influence of Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil, displayed nearby. There is a similar contrast of dark and light, though handled more broadly.

This drawing is also an evocation of the English pastoral vision, which complements Blake’s idea of England as a country where Jerusalem would one day have been ‘builded’. The peaceful walk to the church is flanked by wheat sheaves – a symbol of the Last Judgement, when the good are gathered into God’s heaven.

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Cray Fields

Graham Sutherland OM, Cray Fields  1925

Samuel Palmer, inspired by Blake's Virgil wood engravings, described them as 'like the drawing aside of the fleshly curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed of the rest which remaineth to the people of God.' Sutherland's few etchings inspired by Palmer present landscape with the same sense of religious ecstasy. In this work the conjunction of the star and a dazzling sun show Sutherland enlarging the idea of simple vision into a visionary act by inviting the viewer to contemplate these heavenly bodies, just as Palmer had done.

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The Cyder Feast

Edward Calvert, The Cyder Feast  1828

In September 1818 Palmer wrote to George Richmond that 'Mr Calvert I found... finishing with surprising rapidity... a beautiful and luxuriant design of the cider pressing: a wood-engraving'. The subject may contain memories of apple harvests that Calvert had perhaps witnessed during his childhood in the cider country of Western England. It's theme, as for most of Calvert's prints, is the fertility and abundance of nature. Earlier states of the print were inscribed with the words 'By the Gift of God in Christ'. However Calvert later removed them, thus helping reinforce the essentially pagan character of the subject.

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Evening, engraved by Welby Sherman

Samuel Palmer, Evening, engraved by Welby Sherman  1834

Although similar to Palmer's drawing 'Moonlight' hanging nearby, this print was taken from an oil by Palmer which is now untraced. In the second state, it bears the lines from the seventeenth- century poet John Milton: 'EVENING LATE, BY THEN THE CHEWING FLOCKS/ HAD TA'EN THEIR SUPPERS OF THE SAVOURY HERB/ OF KNOT-GRASS DEW-BESPENT'. Palmer mentions the print in a letter to George Richmond dated 14 October, 1834. He writes that he would be 'much obliged if ... you would let the little mezzotint flock hang up somewhere where it can be seen as it might be of some service to Sherman or myself who are both at present pinched by a most unpoetical & unpastoral kind of poverty'.

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The Lonely Tower

Samuel Palmer, The Lonely Tower  1879, reprinted 1973

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The Bride

Edward Calvert, The Bride  1828

Calvert's landscapes were partly inspired by the countryside around Shoreham. But they also drew on the pastoral vision depicted by Blake in his Virgil woodcuts and on Blake's notion of Beulah. This came from the Biblical Beulah, the name given to Palestine when God restored it to favour, and from John Bunyan's Beulah or Earthly Paradise of The Pilgrim's Progress. Beulah also meant 'married'. The idea of the Soul as the Bride seeking God on the difficult path to salvation lies at the heart of The Bride.

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The Return Home

Edward Calvert, The Return Home  1830

This work by Edward Calvert, Blake's follower and a member of 'the Ancients', was engraved on wood, like Blake's illustrations to Robert Thornton's 'Virgil', also displayed on this wall. It shows a weary shepherd returning home after the sun has set; his wife waits for him at the door of their cottage. The scene suggest a pastoral life, though the image of a world-weary shepherd on his donkey invites a comparison with Christ entering Jerusalem. Calvert later painted this same image in tempera and, in doing so, seems to enter even more into the spirit of Blake's biblical art.

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Portrait of Henry Walter. Verso: Profile of a Woman

George Richmond, Portrait of Henry Walter. Verso: Profile of a Woman  1829

George Richmond and Henry Walter belonged to a group of young artists who were known as the Ancients. With Samuel Palmer as their leader they gathered around the artist and poet William Blake from 1824 until Blake's death in 1827. Richmond was specially close to Blake and the rough gypsum and clay ground on which this portrait is drawn shows the influence of Blake's 'fresco' technique. Walter (c.1786-1849), who was a drawing master, was one of Palmer's earliest friends. Richmond, whose art was at first inspired by Blake's, went on to become an eminent Victorian portrait painter. This closely studied portrait was one of several he made of his fellow Ancients.

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Art in this room

Pastoral
Graham Sutherland OM Pastoral 1930
Entrance to a Lane
Graham Sutherland OM Entrance to a Lane 1939
A Hilly Scene
Samuel Palmer A Hilly Scene c.1826–8
The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’
Samuel Palmer The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’ c.1831–2
Cain and Abel
Keith Vaughan Cain and Abel 1946
Pillar and Moon
Paul Nash Pillar and Moon 1932–42

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