A Hilly Scene

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I saw an invitation to Tate Friends to write a short piece for its MicroTate feature about a selection of Tate works, including ‘A Hilly Scene’ by Samuel Palmer. (Please do click on the last link to look at the work. I don’t think Tate like you taking their images for your own websites. You’ll see the sense of enclosure and the path through that the writing refers to.) I’ll work on a poem at some point, exploring the idea of mixed up seasons, the ‘continuall Spring and harvest there’. For now, here’s a short straight bit of prose, and here are some photos from a walk in Shoreham. The illustration above is from this walk, up the hill that Palmer painted. (Please do correct my mentions of English agricultural history and Neo-Platonism if I have them wrong. I’ll submit it to Tate soon, when it seems OK.)

This scene of Shoreham village is both day and night, both Spring and Autumn, Earth and Heaven, natural spirituality and church, all enclosed in one small vision. The moon is out, but evening sun lights the field. The chestnut tree is flowering as in Spring and yet the cornfield is ready for harvest.

As a Neo-Platonist, Palmer believed that perfection was attainable in this life, in fertile nature, without waiting for an afterlife. Soul in the world could be manifest by opening yourself up to beauty through the senses, and capturing it in art. A lover of poetry, he must have known Spenser’s Faërie Queene, which includes the line ‘There is continuall spring, and harvest there’. This is an Elysian ideal of nature, where the mechanisms and outcomes of fertility are all visible. The reality was different, both in terms of the ways of nature in the flowering and harvesting, and in terms of the crushing of nature through the Enclosure Act. This was painted in 1826-8, 10 years after the Corn Laws and rural workers were still migrating to cities in their thousands due to the agricultural depression.

While country workers were leaving, having lost common access to the land, poetic urbanites were noticing the charms of the landscape. There is no particular focal point in this painting, so much is crammed in, except that we are beckoned through the open gate and tight path through the high corn towards the church, and then to the hill and moon above. It suggests both a general invitation to an aspirant journey, and also to appreciate Shoreham as a paragon of English pastoral life. Many friends and family came to stay with him there, to share in this appreciation, in a cottage he named Rat Abbey and then in Water House. This rural living experiment had to end when he moved to London to make a living as an art teacher but his attachment to a Romantic ideal of countryside persisted.

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