Friday, 12 April 2013

Samuel Palmer, Simeon Solomon and the Camden Town Group at RAMM, Exeter

Samuel Palmer - Self Portrait
The new selection from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s art collection on display in the downstairs gallery includes some paintings which will be familiar to Exeter citizens who have visited regularly over the years. But there are also some new acquisitions which are being displayed for the first time. Chief amongst these is Samuel Palmer’s After the Storm, a late watercolour from 1861. This was painted on the North Devon coast, with a perspective looking out from Lee Bay. The mountainous outcropping of Castle Rock rises above the sheer cliff face in the middle distance, like a shattered tower keep at the foot of the Valley of Rocks, which leads up to the clifftop town of Lynton. The jutting headland of Foreland Point protrudes in the distance, a more solid echo of the clouds hanging above. These provide an element of Romantic sublimity, a touch of Alpine awe found closer to home. Palmer uses magic hour tones to lend his seascape a stained glass luminosity, the deep blue of the sea contrasting with peaches and saffron yellows of the after sunset horizon with which it is edged. This colour saturated seascape has a melodramatic narrative imposed upon it, as if Palmer were trying to bring his work into accord with Victorian pictorial conventions. A ship has foundered on the rocks, and a lifeboat is being heaved across the shore towards the sea, its crew preparing to row out and rescue any survivors still clinging to the wreckage. One of the lifeboatmen is embracing his young son as he is called by another young man whose hand is raised, summoning him to join the vessel as it is launched into the breaking waves. His wife stands to the side, body tensed with anxious anticipation, hands nervously wrung or firmly clasped in fervent, supplicatory prayer.

1861 was a terrible year for Palmer. His 19 year old son Thomas, to whom he had devoted all of his attention after the death of his daughter at the age of three, and in the face of his own stagnant artistic career, died after a short period of consumptive illness. It’s difficult not to see this tragedy reflected in the emotional parting of father and son which is the dramatic focus of After the Storm. The magic hour sunset light was typical of Palmer’s work, along with atmospheric moonlit night settings. There is, indeed, another late watercolour from 1865 with the title The Golden Hour. After the Storm, in common with the rest of his watercolour work from his middle and late periods, lacks the visionary intensity and sense of numinous presence characteristic of the paintings he produced whilst living in the North Kent village of Shoreham in the seven years between 1827-34. The Darent Valley, or the ‘valley of vision’ as he called it, provided him with the perfect stage backdrop for the realisation of his ideal spiritual landscapes. From it, he projected an Arcadia protectively bounded by the soft, feminine curves of sheltering hills and the rounded, piled up ranges of cumulus clouds, and lit by the silver sickle of a harvest moon, the copper disc of a lowering sun or the warm evening glow emanating from welcoming cottages and churches. These Edenic settings are peopled by figures languorously working in the fields, sheaving and bringing home the golden harvest or lounging about beneath bountifully burdened apple trees. It was a dream, of course, but a glorious one, a landscape suffused with what Palmer saw as a divine spirit. Unfortunately, his non-naturalistic, visionary paintings found no more favour with the public, patrons or the art establishment than had the work of his friend and inspiration William Blake (who came down to visit him in his Shoreham house towards the end of his life).

Scenes from the valley of vision - The Magic Apple Tree
Palmer saw his rural idyll as a retreat from the industrial expansion of the London on the outskirts of which he’d grown up. His solution was to look back to an idealised past, as it would be for the Pre-Raphaelites some years later. It was a past which included a reverence for old masters like Durer, Fra Angelico and Leonardo, soundtracked by Elizabethan English composers like Purcell, Tallis and Gibbons, and with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as its key literary work. But the ideal world which he constructed in his imagination and superimposed on his magical valley clashed badly with the distinctly unromantic realities of the rural labourer’s life in the early nineteenth century, which was a matter of grinding poverty and backbreaking toil rather than mystical communion with the cyclical progress of the seasons. The Captain Swing riots of 1830, a spontaneous reaction across Southern England to a failed harvest, depressed wages and the threat of widespread unemployment posed by new agricultural machinery, punctured Palmer’s dreamworld. Its radiance was already waning as the economic reality of his own commercial failure led to increasingly desperate poverty. An inheritance, which had sustained him for some time, had eventually dwindled away. Frustrated that visionary imagination, intensely personal artistic activity and spiritual idealism were turning out to be forces insufficient to transform his life and the indifferent world about him, he grew increasingly reactionary, retreating into narrow religious conservatism and judgemental hellfire condemnation. The 1832 Reform Act, which took tentative steps towards widening the voting franchise in the country beyond the landowning class, raised his ire and led to him proselytising for the Tories in apocalyptic ‘death of England’ fulminations which were dismissed, if they were noticed at all, as the ravings of a crank.

A Letter from India (1859)
He calmed down once he got married in 1837 to Hannah Linnell, by which time he had left the valley of vision and returned to London, having reluctantly relinquished his Darent dreaming. Hannah was the daughter of John Linnell, a successful and wealthy painter who was also a friend and patron of William Blake. Palmer had got to know Linnell in 1822, when he was still a teenager, and the older, well-established artist had guided him towards forming his own individual style and tastes. He was to prove something of an ogre as a father-in-law, however, loudly voicing his strongly held views and never forgetting to remind his son-in-law of his failure as an artist, both commercially and, in his opinion, aesthetically. Palmer remained humiliatingly beholden to him financially, and it was Linnell who funded a journey to Italy in the wake of the marriage. He steeped himself in the art of the area, consciously adapting his landscape painting to a more classical style, shorn of visionary stylisation, in an attempt to gain wider acceptance, and to hopefully earn a living with which he could support his family and gain some degree of independence. His watercolours from this point onward still have a vivid eye for the numinous qualities of landscape, but they are of a different, more prosaically Romantic tenor to those of the Sharpham period. In later years, he would look back with nostalgic yearning to his days in the magic valley of vision. His regular travels to Devon and the West Country, which began in 1833, suggest that here more than anywhere he managed to recapture something of the enchanted spirit which had illuminated those fast receding days. Paintings such as Mountain Landscape at Sunset (1859), The Good Farmer (1865) and The Dip of the Sun (1857) set the shadowed contours of Dartmoor landscapes before rubescent sunset sky backdrops. The Brother Home From the Sea (1863) and Robinson Crusoe Guiding His Raft Into the Creek (1850) locate their dramas of arrival or return in front of the limestone cliff arch of Durdle Door in Dorset, the jutting spar marking the furthest westward cusp of the curve of Lulworth Cove beyond. A Letter from India (1859), meanwhile, places another narrative within a North Devon landscape. Castle Rock and the Valley of Rocks are viewed from the opposite direction this time, and from an inland perspective. The sun sets below the ocean’s rim, setting the clouds on fire, and the crags of Lundy Island protrude above the watery horizon like the phantom city of Ys risen from the depths.

Simeon Solomon - Night (1890)
Another new painting on display is Simeon Solomon’s Night, a small watercolour painting from 1890. Solomon was born in 1840 in Bishopsgate in East London, on the edge of the Spitalfields area which was home to a large Jewish immigrant population in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Solomon was the youngest of 8 children born to orthodox Jewish parents. He clearly grew up in an environment which encouraged artistic expression, since his brother Abraham and sister Rebecca also had successful careers as painters. Night features a dreamy face in profile, eyes gazing outwards but lost in inner absorption. It is garlanded with light blue poppies, and a bird’s wing of the same colour sweeps back above the ear in a streamlined suggestion of flight. Liquid, light-blue swirls seemingly exhaled from nostrils or mouth, or inhaled from the intoxicating incense curling from the poppy’s dark stamen, are like the vapour trails of dream, and the contours of the billowing grey cloak the expanding shadow of night which this mythic figure trails in its wake. Solomon signs his picture with his characteristic serpentine double S transfixed with a straight line topped by a downward curve. Short strokes rising from this curve are suggestive of radiant flames or beams of light, as if this is some sort of ceremonial torch. It’s a signature symbol which looks like a tattoo. Night bears a definite resemblance to the work of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, both in the androgynous appearance of the dreamer, and in the poppy motif. This recalls Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, his memorial portrait of his dead wife Elizabeth Siddal as Dante’s muse, in which the poppies carried down by a bird alludes to her opium addiction. This is no incidental similarity, and certainly not a case of stylistic copying. Solomon had met Rossetti back in 1857, and through him got to know Burne-Jones and the poet Algernon Swinburne. All four were very close and in the early 60s were pioneers of the Aesthetic style, both in their art and in their lifestyles. The flow of influence and ideas between them was mutual and benefited all in finding their own individual style and thematic preoccupations. Burne-Jones may have partly derived the pallid, androgynous subjects of his later work from Solomon’s sensual dream figures. Of these figures, the poet and art critic Arthur Symons commented that ‘these faces are without sex’ and that ‘they have brooded among ghosts of passions till they have become the ghosts themselves’.

Solomon photographed by David Wilkie Wynfield
Solomon was particularly close to Swinburne, and illustrated two of his most controversial works, which remained unpublished until after his death: Lesbia Brandon, his erotic novel and The Flogging Block, his mock epic poetical paean to flagellation. Swinburne in turn wrote two more restrained poems inspired by Solomon: Erotion and At A Month’s End. It was Swinburne’s work in particular which was the object of a swingeing and hugely destructive attack on Rossetti’s circle by the critic Robert Buchanan in 1871, in which he decried what he described as ‘the fleshly school of poetry’ for its moral turpitude. The ruling powers, both cultural and political, were determined to clamp down on such liberal expressions of desire. The Paris Commune was enjoying its chaotic and brief anarchist ascendancy over the channel, and the Victorian establishment was not about to tolerate the assertion of individual liberties beyond those which were endorsed by the state, which might in turn expand into demands for greater political liberty. Burne-Jones had already experienced censorious ire over his painting Phyllis and Demophoön, which had been exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society and attacked for indecency. The dreamy homoeroticism of much of Solomon’s work, and the suggestive androgyny of his subjects (sometimes dressed in priestly robes) made them another target for the repressive forces of conservatism. His alliance with the flamboyant Swinburne, who was recklessly liable to flaunt his transgressions, increased his vulnerability to attack. In 1873, he was arrested for soliciting in a toilet near Oxford Street, found guilty of illegal homosexual acts, and sentenced to 18 months hard labour. Fortunately, an acquaintance managed to use his influence to suspend the sentence, and he got away with a period of police supervision. The man who he’d been having sex with, a 60 year old stablemaster, was not so lucky. He had to serve out his 18 month sentence, as well as facing the ruinous social repercussions.

Simeon Solomon - Self Portrait (1860)
The echoes of Oscar Wilde’s martyrdom in his 1895 trial are inescapable. Wilde espoused an aesthetic brand of utopian socialism in which the transformation of society would free people from the strictures of time and narrow convention and allow them to express themselves in whatever artistic manner suited them. The wide reporting of the details of the trial, and the repugnance which was stirred up destroyed his public persona as the spokesperson for Aestheticism, and left the movement, with its potentially radical worldview in ruins. Wilde served out his sentence, at least partly involving hard labour to which he was utterly unsuited, and it broke him physically and spiritually. Solomon may have evaded imprisonment and labour, but he still had to face the social opprobrium, verging on hatred, with which any gay man, designated a sexual criminal, was burdened at the time. He fled to France, but was arrested again for having sex with another man, and on this occasion did serve out a three month prison sentence. The year of 1873 opened an unbridgeable fissure in his life, and effectively ruined him. Galleries and patrons were no longer interested in his work, and his friends, the fickle and self-interested Swinburne included, turned their backs on him. Only Burne-Jones, outwardly less of a flamboyant rebel than Rossetti and Swinburne, stood by him. He turned more and more to alcohol, and fell into destitution, until finally he was obliged, in 1884, to take up residence in the St Giles Workhouse in Bloomsbury. At he lowest ebb, he was reduced to begging on the streets. But despite such desperate circumstances, he continued to work, producing small scale visionary paintings, and chalk sketches and pen and ink drawings of angelic heads. Night is one such. The artistic spirit simply refused to be crushed. A lot of the works from the 90s have a melancholy air of escaping into interior dreamworlds. Dreaming sleep is a recurring theme, retreating from harsh reality into blissful imaginative reverie. This is reflected in titles such as The Moon and Sleep, the Healing Night and Wounded Love, and Night Looking Upon Sleep her Beloved Child.

Solomon's grave in Willesden Jewish cemetary
Solomon’s art fitted in perfectly with the Decadent phase of the Aesthetic Movement, the fin-de-siecle 90s of the Yellow Book and the Savoy, the Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome. Solomon anticipated the spirit of this age, with his dreaming androgynes and blurring of the rigid parameters of sexuality. His influence can be seen not only in the palled figures of Burne-Jones, but in the limpid and dandyish fops and angels of Charles Ricketts and Aubrey Beardsley. Solomon was something of a cult figure to this new generation of aesthetes. He was collected by one of the chief intellectual forces behind Aestheticism, Walter Pater, and by its public figurehead, Oscar Wilde. Wilde was particularly upset to lose his Solomons in the sale of his belongings made necessary by the personal and cultural disaster of his trial. Solomon may have fallen on hard times, but his work retained a devoted coterie of admirers. There were tow major retrospectives in the immediate wake of his death: an exhibition at the Baillie Gallery in London in 1906; and a book, Simeon Solomon: an Appreciation by Julia Ellison Ford, published in New York in 1908. It’s clear, therefore, that the value of his work was recognised at the time, even if it would subsequently fall into obscurity once more, eclipsed by his better known contemporaries, whose scandalous activities provided more colourfully and acceptably entertaining versions of the wild bohemian life. Obviously, such appreciation would have been of immeasurably greater use to Solomon had it been forthcoming whilst he was alive. But the lingering taint of scandal, together with his slow plummet into the netherworld of underclass destitution, meant that people were reluctant to be publicly associated with him, particularly after the Wilde trial. He died in 1905, still in the workhouse, five years after Wilde’s passing. It’s strange to think that his last works were produced whilst the first stirrings of twentieth century modernism were making themselves felt on the continent, currents which would first be recognised and drawn upon in nearby Bloomsbury and Fitzroy Street. Although Solomon had long since moved away from the Judaism which had formed the subject of many of his early paintings, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Willesden, where you can seek out and lay a poppy or sunflower upon his grave.

Walter Bayes - Victoria Station, London, Troops Leaving for the Front
Another new picture here is Walter Bayes’ large scale 1915 painting Victoria Station, London, Troops Leaving for the Front. Bayes was a founder member of the Camden Town Group, which formed around Walter Sickert, its presiding elder. It replaced the Fitzroy Street Group, which had met and exhibited in the house and studio space of 19 Fitzroy Street in Fitzrovia, the area of narrow Georgian streets north of Soho. Bayes was the intellectual of the group, writing art criticism for the Athenaeum magazine and supporting himself by teaching at the Westminster School of Art. He was less in thrall to the colourful stylisation and formalism of the continental post-impressionists than the other Camden Town Group members, and painted in a more conservative academic style. He did follow his friend Sickert’s example in choosing unusual and sometimes counterintuitive perspectives for his subjects, however. But his Victoria Station might as well be in a different world form that portrayed by Camden Town fellow Charles Ginner in his 1913 painting Sunlit Square, Victoria Station (this produced in the same year as his Clayhidon, also on display in the RAMM gallery). Bayes’ palette is muted, in keeping with Sickert’s dark, smoke-stained non-primary colours from his dimly lit music hall and Mornington Crescent interiors. The stone arch beneath which the soldiers pass forms a foreground frame within a frame. It’s brooding mass, topped with an ornamental keystone, has the heaviness of ceremonial architecture, and there is a fateful sense that these men are filing through a gateway of doleful significance, a presentiment of memorial monuments later to be erected in their collective name. The drab olive khaki of their uniforms makes of them a largely unindividuated mass. Only the red coat of a woman walking arm in arm with her man and the small red circle of a cap which hangs on the barrel of an erect rifle stand out, adding defiant touches of distinctiveness, reminders of the world beyond military uniformity. The cap on the barrel is a poignant variant on the traditional nursery rhyme image of the knotted pack on the end of a stick thrust over the shoulder of the innocent traveller heading out into the world for the first time. The interior of the station into which the men are trooping in their haphazard group is dark and wreathed with ragged palls of locomotive steam. A suspended bulb provides an angular cone of dim illumination, which fails to penetrate beyond a narrow radius. Although perhaps viewing with the benefit of historical hindsight, there seems to be a highly symbolic dimension to the painting. These men are entering the baleful shadows of a netherworld which will carry them with regimented and timetabled efficiency beyond the land of the living.

Charles Ginner - Clayhidon
Two more familiar works from the museum’s collection on display are from fellow members of the Camden Town Group, the aforementioned Charles Ginner and Robert Bevan. Both are connected with Clayhidon Farm on the Blackdown Hills in Devon, near the Somerset border. Both stayed there in the years before the war, sketching and painting the farm buildings and routines and the surrounding landscape. These paintings are displayed in their centenary year, both having been created during a 1913 visit. Charles Ginner’s Clayhidon exhibits his carefully measured and meticulously built up technique and style. Fields, trees and the roofs, walls and chimneys of the farm buildings are marked out with thickly layered lines of paint, the whole composition divided into strongly distinct ‘pieces’; it’s like a stained glass window or a surface of ornamental marquetry. The oil paint is applied with careful evenness, and the overall impression is of static order, a gelid atmosphere, as if the scene were filtered through the heavy, humid air of a long summer afternoon. With such solid and firmly girdered construction, it’s not surprising to learn that Ginner trained and for a while practised as an architect, before devoting himself to his art. He was born in France, growing up in Cannes, and was educated in Paris, so he could claim a close connection to the source of the post-impressionism which the Camden Town Group aimed to translate into an English idiom. Quite the opposite of the stereotype of the wild bohemian artist, he was a quiet, self-contained and rather conventional batchelor, who kept regular working hours throughout his life. He was very close to his fellow Camden Town Group members Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore, and was deeply affected by their early deaths. He nursed Gilman through a bout of influenza, which proved such a killer after the war, but both subsequently caught pneumonia in the early winter months of 1919. Ginner survived, Gilman didn’t. Ginner lived alone from then until his death, in his house in Pimlico, in 1952, a man increasingly out of his time. He never stopped working, however (and received a commission as a war artist in the second world war). Indeed, his life seemed to have been his work.

Robert Bevan - Devonshire Valley No.1
Robert Bevan’s Devonshire Valley No.1 similarly divides the landscape into discrete blocks of colour, although they are not so firmly delineated here. The characteristic Camden Town colours of muted mauves and magentas and light and dark olive greens are prominently used. Bevan is more free and expressive with his brushstrokes than Ginner, particularly in the wavering lines of the foliage to the left of the frame. His composition is a lot less rigidly controlled, edges allowed to blur into that which they outline. The impression is less of a heavy summer’s day than a hazy spring one. If Ginner’s work shows the influence of Van Gogh, then Bevan’s is more in tune with late Monet (who was still painting at the time, of course) and Cezanne. Bevan had also studied in Paris, and had stayed for a while in the artists’ colony at Pont Aven in Brittanny in the 1890s. This was a hugely fulfilling time for him, during which he met and got to know Gauguin, producing several sketched portraits of him in his books. Unlike Ginner, who was principally an urban artist, Bevan preferred the rural life and the depiction of rural subjects. He painted on Exmoor between 1895-7, and after marrying a Polish woman, Stanislawa de Karlowska, in 1897, made a number of trips to her home country in the early twentieth century. Here, he sketched and painted rural life in and around the villages in which he immediately felt at home. He was quite mature in years by the time he hooked up with Sickert and his circle. Sickert invited him to join his Fitzroy Street group after seeing some of his pictures exhibited in the first Allied Artists Exhibition in 1908. It was the first time he’d received significant recognition for his art. An inward man lacking in self-confidence and belief, he’d frequently doubted his talents and the worth of his endeavours. His wife, Stanislawa, was firm and constant in her encouragement, however, and it was largely due to her support that he persisted in his artistic career. He was a founder member of the Camden Town Group, and his subjects whilst in London generally centred around cabs and omnibuses, and horses and the world of the stables on the periphery of the city. This was a world in its twilight years, the era of horse drawn transportation already increasingly supplanted by the spread of electricity and the insidious invention of the internal combustion engine. Bevan’s choice of the stables as a subject for his urban art suggested that his heart lay beyond the boundaries of the city. He felt particularly drawn to the farm at Clayhidon, and returned on numerous occasions throughout the 1910s. Eventually, he bought his own cottage nearby – Lychetts in Bolham Valley in the Blackdown Hills. Devon was his own version of Palmer’s magic valley. And it was in Devon that he passed away in 1925. The paintings he produced in the area which he made his home remain amongst his most personal, and his best.

There's an excellent archive site providing extensive information on Simeon Solomon, with plentiful illustrations, over here, as well as a good general article (with pics) at the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer culture site over here.

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