It was also the case that Octavia shamefully neglected her own children, causing deep family rifts. Her son blamed her for allowing the religion to break up their home, and her daughter, who also suffered from mental illness, was unable to escape, living miserably with the Society.
There are many similarities between the Panaceas and Theosophy, which also appealed to educated middleclass women dissatisfied by the Church, claimed direct communication with God, and confidently expected to see the second coming. Unlike the Theosophists, however, Octavia’s inward-looking cult never really took off. After Octavia’s death in 1934, the Society began a gentle decline. It had nowhere to go once it had lost its charismatic leader.
The Panaceas never threw anything away – it was all kept for the second coming – and Shaw discovered a vast, chaotic archive of exercise books and parcels wrapped in brown paper. This has enabled her to chart their history in meticulous, sometimes excessive, detail. The Panaceas have been extraordinar ily fortunate in their biographer. Jane Shaw is an insightful, shrewd and humorous writer. She is never sarcastic or judgemental, and I ended the book admiring the indomitable Octavia who, for all her dottiness, was no charlatan but a genuinely religious figure. To order this book for £15.19, see LR bookshop on page 16
‘O! THIS GRINDING WORLD’
MYSTERIOUS WISDOM: THE LIFE AND
WORK OF SAMUEL PALMER
By Rachel Campbell-Johnston
(Bloomsbury 382pp £25)
She tells in detail the story of his long and often sad personal life, skilfully interweaving it with the many changes in his professional interests and outlook, and in the process illuminating hitherto obscure aspects of his career. This is a valuable study, which sent me back to Palmer’s work with renewed zest and insights, and I salute her industry and perception. My only complaint is that there are far too few illustrations, and it would have been better if her admirable text had gone to a leading art publisher such as Phaidon or Yale.
As a young man, Palmer lived in Shoreham in the Darent Valley in Kent. There he became convenor of a group of Romantic artists, including George Richmond and Edward Calver t , who ca l l ed t hemselves ‘ t he Ancients’ and produced poetic interpretations of the ravishing countryside they found there. Palmer’s contri-
SAMUEL PALMER (1805–81) is the quintessential English Romantic painter, even more so than William Blake. Like Blake he loved poetry, especially Milton. But whereas Blake worked out his images in sinuous, weaving figures, Palmer expressed his feelings in weird, loaded and luminous landscapes. Many English art lovers pref e r h im t o Tur ner and Constable. But while those two have provoked countless volumes and a lbums (my bookshelves contain over s i x t y books on Tur ner), comparatively little has been written about Palmer. His son d i d h i s best with a memoir and an (unreliable) Life and Letters. But the first cr i t ical biog raphy had to wait until 1947, when the combative Geoffrey Grigson published Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years, an influential book but essentially one that dealt with his early work. A quarter century later, in 1974, Raymond Lister produced a more balanced biography, and an edition of Palmer’s excellent letters. A book appreciating every aspect of Palmer’s work was badly needed, however, and Rachel Campbell-Johnston, art critic of The Times, has now supplied it.
but i on was e a s i l y t he weightiest and most sophisticated and, to many, has an almost mesmerising appeal – comparable only to the images of his German contemporary, Caspar David Friedrich. But it is highly mannered and Pa lmer moved on, for a variety of reasons but chiefly because he had exhausted this particular seam.
‘Opening the Fold’, etching, 1880
The Shoreham works are the basis of Palmer’s fame, dat i ng f rom a rev iva l o f i n t e re s t i n t he i n t e rwar years under the vigorous sponsorship of the young Kenneth Clark. Palmer’s impact on practising painters was enormous, beginning with Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and John Piper, followed by a second wave of Ivon Hitchens, John Minton, Keith Vaughan, John Craxton and Michael Ayrton, and culminating in the work of the tragic Eric Ravilious, the greatest of modern English watercolourists. None of
LITERARY REVIEW June 2011