This is the time of year when farmers often work long into the night bringing in the harvest, traditionally by the light of the harvest moon. These days it’s not moonlight, of course, but the dazzling electric beams of their farm machinery which can be seen for miles. For much of the history of modern painting, this harvest was cut by hand and the moonlight provided a perfect opportunity for the painter to capture a unique vision of the countryside and its people. For this I turn to an exceptional series of drawings and paintings made by the nineteenth-century British artist Samuel Palmer (1805–1881).
Palmer had been born in London just after the start of the Napoleonic Wars. He was a precocious artist, and by the time he was fourteen he had three paintings accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy, earlier than even the prodigious JMW Turner. However, the young Palmer was determined not to be taught to paint at the Academy’s Schools, which he saw as ‘the pit’, and pursued an independent course in which he was largely self-taught with the mentorship of John Linnell, an under-rated artist who had been one of William Blake’s patrons.
In 1826, Palmer moved to the rural village of Shoreham in Kent, in the valley of the River Darent to the north of Sevenoaks, where he spent much of the next decade producing some of his most distinctive work. This was well before the Barbizon School in France made this strategy of living in the country a popular choice for painters. For Palmer, the village and its environs became his ‘land of milk and honey’, in a Biblical vision of Beulah, while he lived alone in a tumbledown cottage, without a wife or partner, and remote from his mentor and friends.
Many of his early works in Shoreham are local views, such as this ink drawing of Cornfield and Church by Moonlight (c 1830), in which he is starting to explore the essential ingredients.
From these he developed his characteristic golden watercolours seen in Harvesters by Firelight (1830).
But it was his drawings and paintings of twilight and night which best showed his vision of the enchanted countryside, as in Moonlight, a Landscape with Sheep, from one of his Shoreham sketchbooks (c 1831-33).
When engraved by Welby Sherman, one of those sketches became the beautiful and placid Evening (1834), repeating the process which Blake’s books had undergone when turned into engravings.
The Gleaning Field (c 1833) shows the local poor who have moved in, once the harvest has been completed, to gather any remains that they can salvage to feed their families. Palmer’s still exploring the light, here using the golden reds of the setting sun.
The Harvest Moon (c 1833) is an oil sketch on paper which is one of the best of his paintings from his Shoreham period. It shows local village people, predominantly women, cutting the ripe crop in the traditional way, forming it into stooks, which are then taken away in the cart, still drawn by oxen. The combination of golden corn and moonlight transforms the scene with a deep enchantment. You can hear the still of night, modulated by the soft rhythmic cutting, broken by the occasional calls of owls.
The timelessness and rural peace shown in Palmer’s Shoreham works wasn’t an accurate reflection of the troubling changes which had been taking place in the countryside. There was strife in the rural economy, peasant protests, and Palmer unwisely dabbled in local politics. When he benefitted from a legacy, he found himself with sufficient funds to buy a house in Paddington, London. In 1835, he left Shoreham and returned to the city. The clouds had obscured his harvest moon.
Vaughan, William (2015) Samuel Palmer, Shadows on the Wall, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20985 3.