Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Hiding Out in the English Countryside: Geoffrey Household & Samuel Palmer

David Rooney, illustration for 'Rogue Male' by Geoffrey Household, Folio Soc, 2013
Whenever I investigate an artist described as Neo-Romantic I discover that they either a. disliked the term or b. vehemently rejected it. Was there anyone who actually wanted to be thought of as Neo-Romantic, in the way that artists queued up to be labelled Surrealist? I'm not sure it's a very helpful term either, except as a description of a certain mood. You know a Neo-Romantic painting when you see one.

I have a book called 'This Enchanted Isle'. The author, Peter Woodcock, was apparently taught by Bawden and himself taught for many years at Camberwell. Aside from that I know nothing about him, but I love this book. It is everything an art history book is not supposed to be. You might call it anti-academic in its joyous mixing-up of artists, writers and film makers spanning two centuries.

'This Enchanted Isle', Peter Woodcock, Gothic Image Pub. 2000
When I first got it out of the library I baulked at the subtitle: 'The Neo-Romantic Vision from William Blake to the New Visionaries'. The new what? And then the list of names, from Palmer and Nash to Keigh Vaughan and John Craxton. So far it made sense. Blake, Palmer, then the 'Neo-Romantics'. But what about Elizabeth Bowen, Peter Ackroyd... Iain Sinclair? Powell and Pressburger, David Lean, Derek Jarman?

Instead of reading it as one would an art history book, looking for analysis and explanation and a clearer sense of how x fits with y, I dipped into it before going to sleep, reading a chapter here and a paragraph there. Gradually I realised that this wasn't a conventional book with a thesis but one built around mood, feeling and suggestion. The author had evidently spent years reading, watching and studying the various writers and artists, and wanted to share both his enthusiasm and his sense of a connection between disparate creative minds.

Graham Sutherland, Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate)
One writer who was new to me was Geoffrey Household, and having read about him I rushed out to find his best-known book, 'Rogue Male'. Ostensibly a thriller about a man on the run from more or less everybody, it is evidently the work of a strange mind. The protagonist spends much of the novel hiding in a sort of burrow, in the side of an impenetrable holloway not far from Beaminster, and this experience is vividly described. On one level it reminds me of childhood den-building and grubbing about in ditches.

John Craxton, Poet in Landscape, 1941
But the thorny lane and earthy hollow are also Neo-Romantic motifs. At least they are subjects explored by Graham Sutherland and then by younger artists who were influenced by him. Sutherland in turn was the most ardent of Samuel Palmer's many early 20th century admirers. And when Palmer set to work in the 1820s portraying the Kent countryside in ink and paint and gum arabic he did so in a manner reminiscent of  Blake, cramming trees, churches, cornfields and shepherds into dense compositions, as his hero distorted human figures to fill the page.
William Blake, illustration from 'The First Book of Urizen', 1794
When I was reading 'Rogue Male' I thought about the late Tom Lubbock's description of Palmer's dense, dark ink drawings known as 'blacks':

'These pent twilit views lie snugly within their frames, with framing trees at the sides. Hills hump up at the back, the clouds close in , in the middle more trees gather into a mass, and underneath the sleeping sheep are folded into a mound, the fields of sheaves likewise. Everything is enfolded, cradled, tucked up and oystered...' (English Graphic, p141)

Samuel Palmer, Drawing for the Bright Cloud, c1831-2 (British Museum)
Later on in the same essay he describes the earnest viewers of a Palmer show (presumably the British Museum's brilliant 2005 retrospective) and asks himself, 'Are we a bunch of enclosure-seekers, hobbit-minded back-to-the-wombers? Is this bad?'

Is the urge to bury oneself in the countryside a primal human instinct, a reaction to stress or the prospect of change? Or is it a British - even English - peculiarity? I have no idea, but I'm glad Peter Woodcock wrote his book, and that he found a publisher that shared his enthusiasm.







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