Artworks and Artists of Ancients

Samuel Palmer: Early Morning (1825)

Early Morning (1825)

Artist: Samuel Palmer

This rhapsodic early morning scene indicates the ability of the Ancients, particularly Palmer, to produce work at once deeply rooted in antiquity and oddly formally radical. The curvaceous shape of the hare in the foreground and the large, almost topiary-like tree to the left, which immediately draws the eye, is complemented by the gentler rolling forms of the hills. The use of a sepia wash grants the piece the soft atmosphere of early morning light, while the busy depiction of foliage suggests the influence of medieval illuminated texts or tapestries. Although the work is produced in pen and ink, the detailed crosshatching and line-work has much in common with engraving.

Produced early in Palmer's Shoreham phase, Early Morning is one of many works in which a gently receding landscape is populated with varied foliage. The formal arrangement, with the hilly sweep of land drawing the eye towards the horizon, is reminiscent of works of Brueghel's such as The Hunters in the Snow (1565), while Lister suggests the influence of the Renaissance painter Adam Elsheimer's The Realm of Venus, which includes similarly dense foliage. Lister also notes that the odd shape of the tree to the left mirrors those found in medieval illuminated manuscripts . But the formal extravagance of the piece is above all in the spirit of Blake, whose bodies and landscapes often seem to pulsate and distort with spiritual energy. The first plate of "The Echoing Green", from Blake's 1789 version of Songs of Innocence, contains a domelike tree very similar to Palmer's, while the engraving-like quality of Palmer's brushwork is indebted to a method that Blake made his own.

This work is one of Palmer's best-loved, and its influence can be sensed in pieces from the Palmer revivalist era of the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Landscapes by British artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Nash, and John Piper are heavily indebted to Early Morning and similar pieces in their expressionistic shape and color, and in their evocation of the verdant, fecund English countryside.

Pen and dark brown ink with brush in sepia mixed with gum and varnished - Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Samuel Palmer: The Magic Apple Tree (ca. 1830)

The Magic Apple Tree (ca. 1830)

Artist: Samuel Palmer

Palmer's Magic Apple Tree is a masterpiece of The Ancients' Shoreham years, suffused with golden light and animated by a curious quality of motion or liquidity. Nestled in a woodland glade, a shepherdess tends to her flock while playing a pipe, enclosed by the branches of autumn trees on one side and an earth bank on the other. To her right a flock of sheep nestles, the mottling of their wool mirroring that of the orange foliage above. Formally, the piece presents a harmony of enveloping, circular lines, as if an encompassing ring of leaves, light and sky were offering magical protection to the flock. The brushwork is almost proto-Impressionist in its deliberate, painterly quality, while the bold, loose shapes and colors, emotionally expressive rather than naturalistic, predict the approach of Expressionism or Fauvism.

Raymond Lister notes that John Linnell had commissioned Palmer to make some studies from nature in 1828, upon which this work was based. Again, the influence of Blake is clear. Lister suggests that the piping shepherdess evokes the introductory lines of Blake's Songs of Innocence (1789) - "Piping Down the Valleys Wild" - while the strange, globular appearance of Palmer's sheep may be based on the plate for Blake's "The Lamb", from songs of Songs of Innocence, rather than any real-life models . At the same time, the image of the shepherdess is clearly a classical, Arcadian one. Palmer's son A.H. Palmer suggested of this work that "the artist's passionate love for Ceres and Pomona [Roman goddesses of agriculture and fruitful abundance] has led him from the land of plain fact into fairy-land ."

A.H. Palmer goes on to note that "throughout his life [Palmer] reveled in richness and abundant fruitfulness." It is these qualities that have made this painting enduringly popular. As Palmer's biographer Rachel Campbell-Johnston states, "The Magic Apple Tree glows like a great autumn bonfire....... Colour becomes a pure sensual pleasure. These are paintings to glut the appetite ."

Pen and Indian ink, watercolor, in places mixed with a gum-like medium, on paper - Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Samuel Palmer: The Gleaning Field (ca. 1833)

The Gleaning Field (ca. 1833)

Artist: Samuel Palmer

In this late work from the Shoreham period, we find Palmer's color palette darkening and his attention turning - to some extent - towards the realities of country life rather than an exalted Arcadian vision. The gleaners - laborers gathering in the harvested crops - are nonetheless probably the subject of a subtle religious allegory, perhaps reaping the rewards of honest Christian labor or, as the Tate's catalogue notes suggest, working to consolidate the "green and pleasant land" of Blake's "Jerusalem." Around them the dark trees glow gorgeously with evening light, the last slivers of blue visible on the horizon.

Palmer's darkened color palette is partly achieved through the use of a mahogany panel as a base. But it may also reflect the mixing of oil paint with lighter tempera tones, a technique deployed for a number of Palmer's Shoreham pictures. According to A.H. Palmer, "[t]he oil pictures were often begun in tempera...and were wrought not only to a great extent in the technical manner, but also...in the devout spirit of some of the mediaeval pictures ." Lister suggests an affinity with Breughel, particularly his famous gleaning scene The Harvesters (1865 ).

The Tate's catalogue notes on The Gleaning Field suggest that this image of pastoral arcadia "contrasted with the harsher contemporary reality of change and social unrest in the countryside ." At the same time, the encroaching gloom of Palmer's image might itself be read as a kind of eulogy to a vision of rural life which was already fading. By 1833, visits from the other Ancients to Shoreham were becoming less frequent. Two years later Palmer himself would return to London in straitened circumstances. Nonetheless, this image stands out as of the most captivating products of his time in Kent.

Tempera on mahogany panel - Tate Collections, London

George Richmond: Christ and the Woman of Samaria (1828)

Christ and the Woman of Samaria (1828)

Artist: George Richmond

Few works better evoke the debt of The Ancients to William Blake that this lush tempera work of George Richmond's, depicting a scene from the life of Jesus. In the episode recreated, from The Gospel of John, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and asks her for a drink, before going on to proclaim: "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." Illustrations of Biblical scenes were common in Western art but they assumed a pitch of fervent intensity in Blake's plates and engravings which Richmond emulates here.

The specific influence of Blake can be sensed in the posture of the female subject, which, Lister states, is close to that of Blake's Bathsheba at the Bath (ca. 1799-1800). The landscape and sky, meanwhile, are reminiscent of various plates from Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job, while the mixing of Richmond's tempera in preparation for the work involved the same combination of "gums" as Blake's tempera mix. At the same time, the postures of the figure and partial nudity of the female form present a general evocation of an ideal, Classical age of aesthetics.

Richmond's soft yet luminous blue-green color palette, achieved through the use of tempera, as well as the somewhat heavy, fleshy forms of the bodies and tree trunks, and the generally rapturous, allegorical atmosphere, all owe a debt to Blake. But Richmond brings a subtlety of color contrast and physiognomic accuracy which actually surpasses that found in his master's work. This beautiful painting is at once exemplary of The Ancients' output in Shoreham and somewhat unusual in its explicit engagement with Biblical themes, rather than the evocation of God in the landscape.

Tempera and shell gold on Mahogany - Tate Collections, London

George Richmond: Samuel Palmer (1830)

Samuel Palmer (1830)

Artist: George Richmond

This delicate portrait, showing Samuel Palmer in the monastic habit and distinctive facial hair he adopted during The Ancients' Shoreham period, indicates Richmond's skill as a portraitist. It also reveals the significance which the group placed on spiritual brotherhood during the 1820s-30s. It would be easy to dismiss the young artists' adoption of, say, foot-length monastic gowns as whimsical or pretentious. But the sensitivity and unselfconscious quality of Palmer's expression in this sketch, and the skill and understatement of Richmond's composition, implies a subject quietly and steadfastly committed to his ideals.

George Richmond was the most skilled portraitist of The Ancients. Indeed, many of the characters of the group and their wider circle, including Richmond himself, are known to us primarily through the likenesses he produced. After his time with The Ancients Richmond became a prolific portraitist, counting politicians, royals, nobles, and the cultural elite of Victorian Britain amongst his sitters. In his own lifetime, Richmond probably seemed to have become the most conventionally successful of the Shoreham brethren.

For that circle itself, the kind of outlandish dress captured in Richmond's sketch was an outward marker of their inward rejection of modern materialistic culture, while also showing the influence they drew from the German Nazarene group. Campbell-Johnston notes that as a young man, Palmer "came increasingly to detest to affectations of fashion.... In Shoreham, he began to adopt to sort of biblical look which the Nazarenes had favoured." In artworks such as Richmond's sketch, "an idealised 'Ancient' emerges who, with his clipped beard and shoulder-brushing locks, serene downcast gaze and long antique robes, looks pronouncedly Christ-like." Campbell-Johnston suggests that Palmer may have served as the model for Christ in Richmond's Christ and the Woman of Samaria .

Graphite on paper - Yale Center for British Art

Edward Calvert: The Chamber Idyll (1831)

The Chamber Idyll (1831)

Artist: Edward Calvert

During the late 1820s and early 1830s, Edward Calvert produced a series of beautiful woodblock prints, most of which were only recognized as significant works of 19th century Romanticism when they were reproduced after his death in a memoir by his son. This work, often called Calvert's "masterpiece," was the last and most stunning of them, executed with amazing technical dexterity given that Calvert had only taken up wood engraving four years previously . An image of a honeymoon chamber, this evocation of the moment prior to sexual consummation has classical, Christian, and Blakean connotations, although the central figures are also recognizably 19th-century in aspects of their appearance. In short, the composition is utterly original in style and atmosphere. The work preempts the gothic Romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelites by several decades.

Calvert had begun to practice wood engraving during the Shoreham years, seeing it, according to his son's memoir, as "th[e] most beautiful of all representative arts ." Lister notes that the male and female figures, while wearing contemporary hairstyles, may be based on classical images of Apollo and Aphrodite. The Blakean influence remains evident in the use of an enclosure or frame for the scene, familiar from tempera paintings such as The Adoration of the Kings (1799). The decision to embrace wood engraving as a craft was also influenced by Blake, who used that medium in his "Designs for Thornton's Virgil," an important series for The Ancients as a whole. Other Calvert engravings of this period, such as The Sheep of His Pasture (ca. 1828) and The Ploughman (1827), are more heavily indebted to Blake, mimicking his subject-matter and figures.

It is a poignant footnote to the story of this work that it was Calvert's last engraving. He never returned to the medium, for reasons which are unclear given his obvious affinity for it. Lister notes that Calvert "spent the rest of his life as a recluse, drawing and painting," while devoting much time to complex theories of music and color. In old age, Calvert was reportedly "a magnificent sight, with a white head and beard, but with a clear, almost youthful complexion and limpid eyes, resembling...a kindly and spiritually youthful sage from the classical world of his dreams".

Wood engraving on paper - Cleveland Museum of Art

Francis Oliver Finch: The Dell of Comus (ca. 1835)

The Dell of Comus (ca. 1835)

Artist: Francis Oliver Finch

Francis Oliver Finch was probably the most talented and committed of The Ancients outside the core trio of Palmer, Richmond, and Calvert. In his Dell of Comus, he illustrates a scene from John Milton's 1634 poem "Comus", in which two brothers and a sister become separated during a journey through a dark wood. The sister encounters a magical figure based on the Greek god of revelry Comus, who leads her to his enchanted abode (recreated here), traps her, and tempts her with the pleasures of the flesh (which she virtuously refuses). Although the poem is a paean to chastity and restraint, Finch's dell seems an inviting place, lit by startling flecks of white from the revelers' lanterns, with the characters displaying a classical heroism of posture rather than lurching in drunkenness. Finch was influenced by Neoclassical painters such as Claude Lorrain, who may have had an impact on the compositional style of this work.

The Morgan Library's catalogue notes state that the watercolor was "built up using dark pigments enhanced with gum [...] creating a somber but rich effect ." The white sections were then created by scratching away paint, generating the striking color contrast which is central to the visual impact of the work. Campbell-Johnston notes that Finch had been one of Palmer's earliest artistic companions, meeting him well before the Shoreham years, and had "a natural love of learning" which led him towards the illustration of great poetic works. She adds that by the time The Ancients were founded, Finch had already had success with a set of Romantic paintings inspired by James MacPherson's "Ossian" poems. He had also, like Palmer, exhibited at the Royal Academy while he was still a teenager. Finch was said to have been particularly inspired by the poet Keats's image of "embalmed darkness", from his Ode to a Nightingale (1819), a quality which recreated effectively in the enchanted gloom of this image.

After his Shoreham period, Finch became increasingly influenced by the classical imagery previously emulated by 17th-century painters such as Claude and Nicolas Poussin. Finch also become ever more religiously devout. During the late 1820s, Campbell-Johnston notes, he was the most committed of all The Ancients to Blake's spiritual vision, and later in his life he converted to the strange Christian cult of Swedenborgianism , which placed an emphasis on spiritual communication between the living and the dead (Blake had been a Swedenborgian for many years.) Finch and Palmer remained affectionate associates, however, throughout their lives.

Watercolor - The Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Henry Walter: Fallow Deer (1822)

Fallow Deer (1822)

Artist: Henry Walter

Henry Walter was a talented but somewhat ill-fitting member of the Ancients, primarily remembered for a couple of amusing caricature portraits of Samuel Palmer, which cut against the earnest sincerity of Richmond's and others' likenesses. They suggest that Walter was an unusually lighthearted adherent of the fellowship, but he was also a talented sketcher and painter of animals, as this 1822 illustration shows, with its close attention to the physiognomy of the resting, spotted deer.

Like Finch, Walter was an early creative companion of Palmer's. Rachel Campbell-Johnston notes that "Walter appears to have been included amongst the Ancients purely on the strength of old friendship because his pictures...have nothing to do with the spiritual aesthetic of the group ." Lister notes, however, that "The Ancients had a well-developed sense of humor," citing Walter's caricatures as "manifestations of their lightheartedness ."

In either case, Campbell-Johnston points out that Walter "added gaiety to their gatherings...and, as far as the artists' children were concerned, put his skills as an animal painter to most impressive use, making a wolf mask for a Christmas party which they would always remember for its bright glass eyes, jagged teeth and lolling tongue of red cloth ." After his marriage in the 1830s, Walter's already loose commitment to the group faded, and little is known of his later life except that he settled in Devon.

Chalk lithograph - Wellcome Collections, London


Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by Greg Thomas

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Ancients Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Greg Thomas
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 13 Jan 2021. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]