Beginnings and Development
Blake the Interpreter
During the mid-1820s, a group of young male artists gathered around the figure of William Blake, by then in his sixties and living in relative poverty in London (he would die three years later, in 1827). These artists shared Blake's disdain for industrial and urban modernity, and his belief in the possibility of a new, spiritually infused art of landscape that could evoke an ancient, golden age of pastoral life. The most committed and prodigious of these artists were Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, and George Richmond, but they were part of a wider circle also including Francis Oliver Finch, Henry Walter, Frederick Tatham, Welby Sherman, and others. Supporters and fellow travelers included John Giles, a cousin and patron of Palmer's, Tatham's siblings Arthur and Julia - the latter of whom married George Richmond - and the older artist John Linnell, whose introduction of Palmer and Blake in 1824 precipitated the group's emergence. Linnell's daughter Hannah was also a talented artist and became the wife of Samuel Palmer.
Early Lives: Palmer, Richmond, and Calvert
The artists who congregated in Blake's apartment were mostly remarkably young, in some cases still teenagers. Samuel Palmer was born in 1805 in Newington, London, the son of a bookseller father and a mother from a cultured background, whose father had been an amateur author and composer. Palmer's childhood was filled with books, the stock of his father's trade, and wide reading was fundamental to his early intellectual development.
Though a sickly child requiring a nurse, Palmer took long walks in the countryside around London with his father. Palmer described the area between Greenwich Park and Dulwich, then still rural, as "The Gate into the World of Vision ." His mother, meanwhile, encouraged him to copy botanical and architectural drawings. After her death in 1818 he went to study with the drawing master William Wate.
Unlike the majority of the Ancients, Palmer received relatively little formal training, and never attended the Royal Academy. Critic Martin Postle notes his reluctance to undertake laborious copying work, and his belief, confirmed by his encounter with Blake, that it was unnecessary to conform to academic standards. However, Palmer developed creative friendships with several olderother artists that would prove crucial to his development.
Most significantly, at the age of seventeen, he met the painter John Linnell (1792-1882), with whom he would remain companions for the remainder of their lives, although Palmer's biographer Rachel Campbell-Johnston notes that their relationship became increasingly strained after Palmer's marriage to Linnell's daughter. Linnell's Romantic, pastoral scenes rivalled Constable's for price and reputation during the early 19th century and played a key role in guiding Palmer towards the Romantic pastoralism of his maturity. Palmer is quoted as saying: "by the time I had practised for about five years I entirely lost all feeling for art...But it pleased God to send Mr. Linnell as a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art ." As well as introducing Palmer to Blake, Linnell opened him up to the world of German and Italian Renaissance painting and mural-work, notably the work of Albrecht Dürer, Francesco Traini, Buonamico Buffalmacco and Benozzo Gozzoli. The influence of Renaissance and Late Medieval art would prove crucial to The Ancients as a whole.
George Richmond's early artistic education followed a more traditional course than Palmer's. Born in 1809 in Brompton, then a village outside London, George was the son of a miniaturist and, unlike Palmer - whose professed childhood interest was more in church history than art - was determined from a young age to become a painter.
Richmond was just fifteen when he enrolled in the Royal Academy, where the Professor of Painting and Keeper was the gothic Romantic artist Henry Fuseli, an influence on Blake and Palmer as well as Richmond. A year later, at the age of sixteen, the young artist - like Palmer - became friendly with Linnell, who probably introduced Samuel and George to each other. It was also through Linnell, at his house in north London, that Richmond first met Blake. After that meeting, the teenager reportedly walked back across the fields to Blake's home at Fountain Court, during which time Blake made such an impression on the sixteen-year-old that he determined to follow in the older man's footsteps for life, later recalling that he felt "as though he had been walking with the prophet Isaiah ."
Edward Calvert, the final member of The Ancient's core trio, was the only one born outside London: in 1799, to a soldier in Appledore, Devon. Six years older than Palmer and ten years older than Richmond, Calvert had had the most varied life experience before becoming immersed in art, including a naval career which saw him take part in the Bombardment of Algiers, a British and Dutch mission to free Christian slaves from North Africa in 1816.
Having practiced drawing during his military career, Calvert settled in Plymouth upon his discharge, working under the artist A.B. Johns, who knew J.M Constable and took Calvert to visit him on at least one occasion. Having private wealth, Calvert was able to relocate to London in 1824, where he met Samuel Palmer through his cousin, the stockbroker and Ancients supporter John Giles. Calvert was soon a student at the Royal Academy and had met both Richmond and Blake.
Around this central group coalesced a wider network of young artists, some of them also very talented, though many less committed to the vision of Blake, including the painter Francis Oliver Finch, the sculptor Frederick Tatham, the caricaturist and animal painter Henry Walter, and the mysterious engraver Welby Sherman, of whom little is known, but who reportedly fled abroad in 1836 after swindling Palmer's brother William out of £500. The scene was set for the emergence of the first brotherhood in modern British art - and it was indeed an almost exclusively male group - preempting by several years the similar ethos of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Becoming the Ancients
A significant number of the artists connected to The Ancients were introduced to Blake in London in 1824, and the emergence of the group can be pragmatically dated to that year, although it may only have truly cohered after Samuel Palmer's move to Shoreham, in rural Kent, in 1826.
It is not totally clear how the group seized upon their evocative name. Morton D. Paley notes that the coinage is sometimes attributed to the stockbroker and Ancients fellow-traveler Giles, "who constantly used to assert the superiority of the ancients in all things." However, as Paley continues, it is also likely that William Blake was a primary or secondary inspiration. His work is peppered with references to 'the ancient': from the "feet in ancient times" of his preface to Milton (better known as the hymn "Jerusalem") to The Four Zoas, in which "Albion" [Blake's England] is described as "The Ancient Man," and most significantly, the Descriptive Catalogue of illustrations which he produced in 1809, in which the word "ancient" appears thirteen times. "These are amongst many instances," Paley states, "in which Blake uses 'ancient' to suggest a primal state of harmony and power, one that can be recovered through the agency of art ." In 1824, Blake was also producing the engravings to George Cumberland's Outlines from the Ancients, and the younger artists may have seen the plates at Blake's home in Fountain Court.
The term stood for the general principle of the young artists mission: to recuperate or recover a golden age of art located somewhere in the past, connected partly to ancient Greece and Rome, but also to a Biblical, Christian pastoral antiquity, one connected to a vision of the English countryside. The ideal was to be achieved through paintings, etchings and engravings - landscapes primarily, but also portraits and genre pieces - in which a timeless spirit would be manifested. The program was never formally summed up or committed to paper, but is encapsulated by a statement of Blake's from his Descriptive Catalogue: "Painting and Sculpture as it exists in the remains of Antiquity and in the work of more modern genius, is Inspiration, and cannot be surpassed."
The Move to Shoreham
Samuel Palmer's childhood illnesses had accompanied him into adulthood. In 1824 he was suffering with asthma and bronchitis, and reportedly left London on his mother's advice for a restorative holiday. Visiting the village of Shoreham in Kent, he found a warm, verdant setting where, as the reviewer Kathryn Hughes puts it, "the rents were sufficiently low and the locals correspondingly accommodating ." After inheriting £3000 as a result of his grandfather's death in 1825, Palmer decided to use the money to settle permanently in Shoreham in 1826.
The artist first bought a run-down cottage which was affectionately christened "Rat Abbey", in reference to the groups' spiritual aims as well as their rodent co-habitants: as well as, perhaps, the influence of the Nazarenes, a contemporary German artistic group with similar aims, of whom the Ancients were aware. The Nazarenes had settled in an abandoned monastery outside Rome 16 years previously. From 1826 onwards, Shoreham became an equivalent practical and spiritual base for Palmer and his compatriots. Other members of the collective would visit frequently, including Richmond and Calvert, while the engraver Welby Sherman settled nearby. Blake is known to have visited once.
According to the writer Carlos Peacock, life at Rat Abbey was characterized by a "regime of monastic austerity," with a spartan diet and little expendable income . Nonetheless, the art historian William Vaughan describes Shoreham as The Ancients' "'earthly paradise', a rural refuge from the city." He notes the impact that the landscape and culture of the area had on their work: For Palmer the period was one of great imaginative release, during which he developed the primitivizing tendencies that he had previously gained from studying the works of medieval artists and Blake into a unique manner of his own. Richmond painted religious and mythological works of startling primitivism, while Calvert, inspired by woodcuts and engravings of the early Renaissance, produced wood engravings of rustic rituals of arresting sensuality and vigor.
Extracts from Palmer's diary, written during the early days at Shoreham, reveal the extraordinary state of religious fervor in which he worked: At Shoreham, Kent, August 30, 1826. God worked in great love with my spirit last night, giving me a founded hope that I might finish my [painting] Naomi before Bethlehem...That night, when I hoped and sighed to complete the above subject well...I hoped only in God, and determined next morning to attempt working on it in God's strength...Now I go out to draw some hops [flowers of the hop plant] that their fruitful sentiment may be infused in my figures .
The second half of the 1820s was a period of extraordinary productivity, coupled with intense group activities and discussions, long nocturnal walks , and the adoption of monastic or messiah-like dress (as in George Richmond's portrait of Samuel Palmer in "Christ-like garb" [Vaughan] from 1829 ). The group were known by the locals and dourly tolerated, Vaughan notes, although they were sometimes sardonically referred to as "the 'extollagers', a rustic stab at the word 'astrologer '," on account of their eccentricity and otherworldly appearance.
Shortly after Palmer's move to Shoreham, his father sold his book business and joined his son in Kent, renting half of a large house on the banks of the River Darwent. Samuel's nurse and brother also came to live with the family in Shoreham. The Water House, as the older Palmer's lodgings were known, was initially used to house guests who could not be accommodated at Rat Abbey, but in 1828 Samuel left the run-down cottage to join his family in their more comfortable property, remaining there until he left Kent in 1835. It was during this time that he met the artist Hannah Linnell, daughter of his mentor John Linnell, whom he would marry in 1837.
Concepts and Styles
Although William Blake had still not achieved commercial success when he encountered The Ancients in the mid-1820s, he was a prophetic, almost God-like figure to the younger group. According to Morton D. Paley, "he was compared by them to a biblical patriarch...; his two rooms in Fountain Court, Strand, were Bunyan's 'House of the Interpreter'" (a reference to a building in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in which God's word is revealed ). For Palmer, Blake was "a man without a mask; his aims simple, his path straightforwards, and his words few; so he was free, noble, and happy." Finch described Blake as "a new kind of man, wholly original, and in all things ."
At the root of this admiration for Blake was a respect for his attachment to the natural world, his sense of its visible and tangible saturation with divine force, his scorn for industrial civilization, and his fidelity to his own, unique vision. The Ancients felt this was particularly expressed in Blake's smaller, landscape works, such as his "Designs for Thornton's Virgil" (1821), illustrations to a set of pastoral works by the Roman poet Virgil produced for the schoolmaster Robert Thornton.
The wider influence of Blake is clear in the Ancients' curiously revolutionary approach to form and color during their time in Shoreham. Bodies, hills, and trees appear in exaggerated, rounded or muscular forms, in the style of Blake's rippling physiognomies. So too the rapturously bright color of much of their work, capturing and transforming the magical qualities of light and foliage, reflects the legacy of Blake's luminous prints.
The young acolytes were seemingly less engaged by what Samuel Calvert - paraphrasing his father Edward Calvert - described as "the ungovernable mysticisms of Blake's imagination - the Gothic phantasms of a SPIRITUAL cosmos ." This is presumably a reference to the complex pantheon of imaginary gods and demons with which Blake populated his artistic universe, which jarred with the somewhat less lurid, though still intense Anglican Christianity of his followers. It is also important to note that, while the human character and body played a central role in Blake's pictorial oeuvre, The Ancients were primarily focused on landscapes, in the emerging spirit of 19th century Romanticism - although Richmond certainly became an accomplished portraitist.
The art historian and authority on The Ancients William Vaughan notes that their emergence "represents the earliest example in Britain of a practice of setting up breakaway groups that became common in avant-garde circles throughout Europe in the nineteenth century." The Ancients thus represent a precursor (often unacknowledged) to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who are more commonly taken to comprise the first "avant-garde" in Britain. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelite conception of 'brotherhood' owed much to the example of Palmer et al.
As the nineteenth century wore on, groups of idealistic young artists across Europe would increasingly break away from contemporary convention and institutional structures in order to grasp at some idea of "the new." But while The Ancients preempted this cultural shift, they were more interested in reembracing a sense of the past, in which art and spirituality were more closely bound up, and which was unsullied by the encroaching materialism of the Victorian age.
In this sense, The Ancients' concept of brotherhood was religious and - indirectly - political, as well as artistic. The spiritual overtones of their pursuit are reflected in their attempt at a collective living arrangement in Shoreham, somewhat in the style of a medieval abbey or monastery, and by their adoption of shared dress.
However, Vaughan also points out that forming a collective identity, by which "The Ancients" might be recognized as such, was also commercially minded. It was a way of attracting attention, giving their creative output a stamp of identity, and hopefully generating sales. In this respect their mission was a failure, as the group achieved very little commercial success during the decade it spent in Shoreham.
Medieval and Renaissance Art
As the art historian Raymond Lister wrote in 1984, "The Ancients were not uniquely inspired young men who conjured up from their unaided imagination alone an entirely new aesthetic. Their work was based securely on the traditions of Western art...That is one powerful reason when they themselves - especially Palmer and Calvert - continue to influence artists and writers ." This tradition included the art of the Late Medieval and Renaissance eras, in particular the work of Michelangelo, Albrecht Dürer, Lucas van Leyden, Jan van Eyck, and Adam Elsheimer.
In this work The Ancients found, like the Pre-Raphaelites did in the earliest of it, an artistic vision infused with religiosity, uncorrupted by contemporary materialism and individualism, produced in a spirit of creative fraternity and harmony with the natural order of the universe. On the influence of Dürer, Palmer is reported to have said: "Let me remember always, and may I not slumber in the possession of it, Mr. Linnell's injunction (delightful in the performance), 'Look at Albert Dürer'."
As this suggests, John Linnell was particularly important as a conduit for the Ancients' art-historical knowledge. Not only was he a source of expertise but he was also able to introduce them to the collection of Northern European paintings, including many Renaissance works, held by Karl Aders, a German merchant and collector based in London. These included a copy of the Van Eyck brothers' Ghent Altarpiece, with its central panel The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1420s-32), whose "clarity of detail", "celebration of nature in all its rich detail," and depiction of the "human, natural and spiritual worlds" in harmony was, Paley notes, inspirational to Blake as well as to his young compatriots.
A Christian Arcadia in England
The rich pastoral landscapes of south-east England were central to The Ancients' artistic vision, which is why their relocation to Shoreham was so vital. The group's ideal of a rural Arcadia was, in turn centrally informed by their spirituality. But whereas William Blake's Albion is peopled by the weird deities and demons of his imagination, the Ancients' religiosity was more tethered to Christian tradition.
Despite the heretical strangeness of Blake's religious imagination, Palmer managed to home in on Blake's most conventionally Christian-themed and Biblical works in his early encounters with the older artist's output. As Paley notes, before turning to landscapes, Palmer was "drawn to figure-centered designs on Biblical subjects" under Blake's influence . This would have included Blake's Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (1795), as well as his Illustrations of the Book of Job (1806-21). Shortly after his first meeting with Blake, Palmer completed a set of sketches on subjects from the Book of Ruth, now lost, which were reportedly heavily influenced by the imagery and formal extravagance of both Blake and Henry Fuseli.
The spiritual essence of these figurative works was carried forwards into the landscapes which Palmer began to produce at Shoreham, and into the work of The Ancients as a whole. You can sense, in early Shoreham works such as Palmer's Coming from Evening Church (1830), the transference of a sensibility grounded in religious and allegorical tableaux into depictions of the contemporary English countryside. It is partly this that gives these landscapes such a strange sense of removal from their subject-matter, as if they were landscapes glimpsed through a veil of ancient enchantment.
Like their mentor Blake, The Ancients were vehemently opposed to the industrial revolution, and to the accompanying mechanization of labor and urbanization which marked the 19th century in Britain. They saw these processes as symptomatic of materialism, a spiritually degrading process by which people became detached from the spiritual essence of the landscape, of human relationships, and of their own characters.
High Tory pastoral
Although the Ancients shared Blake's infatuation with rustic life, they lacked his accompanying egalitarianism, which made him an ally of the downtrodden and a natural supporter of causes such as the French Revolution. The Ancients' political views, by contrast, veered towards a position which Palmer described as "High Tory": belief in a God-given hierarchy within human society mirroring that of the natural world, incorporating clearly separate but harmonious layers such as the aristocracy, church, and peasantry. The point of overlap between this position and Blake's radical left politics was a shared scorn for the new, mercantile worldview of industrial capitalism, which was dislodging the feudal system to which The Ancients clung and promising new forms of oppression to the working masses pitied by Blake.
Some indication of The Ancients' politics is provided by accounts of their stay at Shoreham and the reasons for its eventual end. Palmer's son A.H. Palmer once wrote that, judging from their pictures, "none of the Ancients seemed to know how reaping was done." As this suggests, the young artists had little direct contact with rural laborers, in spite of their eulogization of rural life, and seemingly had little empathy with their working conditions.
In 1830, when farm workers near Shoreham protested against the introduction of threshing machines by burning them along with hayricks and other equipment - a campaign known as the Captain Swing or Swing Riots - Palmer's reaction was furious anger and fear. He denounced the campaign as vicious thuggery in a public 1832 letter, and the events went some way to burst his Romantic vision of life at Shoreham.
Is this sense, it is important to remember that the spiritual vision infused in The Ancients' landscapes is one tied up with a sense of the human world as fixed in a divinely ordained pyramid of privilege. When that pyramid seemed to be under threat of collapse, The Ancients' worldview to some extent disintegrated with it.
Although brotherhoods of the type that The Ancients formed were unprecedented in Britain at the time, similar groups had already emerged in continental Europe. The best-known were the Barbus or Primitives in France, formed in 1798, and the Brotherhood of St. Luke formed in Germany in 1808, later known as the Nazarenes. For Vaughan, "such associations can be seen as symptomatic of a widespread social and political tendency towards the formation of associations in the wake of the French Revolution. Inspired by the clubs of the Jacobins, such organizations emphasized the replacement of hierarchy with more egalitarian practices ."
In this sense, although The Ancients' vision of collective creativity was undoubtedly inspired, it was not unprecedented. Indeed, given that they were probably aware of The Nazarenes by the time they moved to Shoreham, and also that the German brothers had taken up quarters in an abandoned monastery, The Ancients' collective living arrangement and its monastic overtones might partly have represented a homage to, or mimicry of, the Nazarenes.
Although the formal idiosyncrasy of The Ancients' work sets it apart from Naturalism or Realism, their activities are also tangentially related to the emergence of those schools from the early 19th century, as a distinct outgrowth of the larger Romantic landscape movement. That movement was flourishing in the early 19th century through the influence of Turner and Constable, both of whom, along with John Linnell, were influential on members of the group at different times, helping to instill in them a love of landscape for its own sake.
Later Developments - After Ancients
By the early 1830s, the Ancients' infatuation with ascetic rural life was waning, and visits from other members of the group to Palmer's house in Shoreham became less frequent. The group's disillusionment with the character of the rural English laborer after the Swing Campaign, exemplified by Palmer's reactionary anger, may have been partly to blame. However, Vaughan suggests that "lack of recognition was probably the primary reason for the artists dispersing", noting that "the Ancients achieved little success during the time they were active as a group ."
Other factors, such as Richmond's increasing focus on portraiture, Calvert's disillusionment with the more formally radical aspects of his youthful work, and Palmer's financial precarity, were all contingent on this underlying lack of commercial and critical appetite for their art. So, in 1835, Palmer moved back to London, to a house in St. John's Wood which he had bought with a second inheritance received in 1832. He began tutoring to supplement his artistic income.
In 1837, after Palmer married Hannah Linnell, he, Richmond, and their wives left on a two-year-long trip to Italy, at which point The Ancients, already geographically and artistically adrift, were effectively dispersed as a group. However, this break was not accompanied by the acrimony that sometimes marks the disintegration of intense artistic communities. Vaughan points out that "many [Ancients] remained close friends and continued to meet regularly, with the majority looking back on their association as the most inspirational artistic episode of their lives."
In his mature years, Palmer began to produce more formally conventional, less mystical works, partly from a desire to make a commercial success of his art, which was never fully realized. Nonetheless, he produced fine late works such as his watercolor illustrations for Milton's poems "L'Allegro" and Il Penseroso" (1864-81) and was admired by the younger artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Richmond established himself as a portraitist, painting members of the nobility as well as authors such as Charlotte Brontë, while Calvert's work began to show a marked classical influence following a visit to Greece in 1844. So too did the later work of other members of the Ancients such as Francis Oliver Finch. All of the most important erstwhile members of the Ancients, however, would look back on the hallowed days at Shoreham as the most creatively rich period of their lives.
The Ancients, with the exception of Samuel Palmer, remain a more obscure group of artists than their sometime master William Blake. But a love of their magical, light-filled landscapes and historical tableaux has gradually blossomed across the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.
During their lifetimes, and certainly during the active years of the brotherhood, most of the group achieved little success. For several decades after the deaths of the key members (Samuel Palmer in 1881, Edward Calvert in 1883, and George Richmond in 1896) interest in The Ancients remained subdued, although Palmer's connection to the Pre-Raphaelites ensured a thread of influence. The Ancients' impact on the late Romanticism of the Fin de siècle period can also be sensed. The great Irish poet of that era, W.B. Yeats, was inspired by The Ancients' imagery in several of his works, such as "Under Ben Bulben" and "The Phases of the Moon."
A gradual gathering of appreciation followed an exhibition of Ancients' work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1926. This was partly contingent on the increasing popularity of Blake at this time, as the younger artists were still largely considered his acolytes. Interest became more pronounced in creative circles during the early-to-mid twentieth century, during the "New Romantic" period in British art and literature. You can sense The Ancients' influence in works such as Graham Sutherland's Hangar Hill (1929), John Minton's illustrations for H.E. Bates's The Country Heart (1949), and the wood engravings of Reynolds Stone. Other artists influenced by Palmer and The Ancients include John Piper, the Nash brothers, and the composer Benjamin Britten, who, according to the critic Tim Barringer, requested that Palmer's Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star (1830) be reproduced on the cover of his 1944 score for Serenade.
A 1956-57 exhibition organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain set the stage for the group's wider reception across the late-twentieth century. A series of US and UK books and exhibitions buoyed The Ancients' status, though it remained dominated by the figure of Palmer, and very limited within mainland Europe. In the early twenty-first century, exhibitions such as the 2005 Palmer retrospective at the British Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and books such as Rachel Campbell Johnson's Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer (2011) have emphasized Palmer's status as that of a great English painter and sketcher of the 19th century, to be placed alongside Blake, while also emphasizing the creative richness of The Ancients' collective vision.
Do Not Miss
- The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international design movement that originated in Great Britain and had a strong following in the United States. It advocated truth to materials and traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration. It also proposed economic and social reform and has been seen as essentially anti-industrial.
- The Aesthetic Movement emerged first in Britain in the late-nineteenth century. Inspired by a rejection of previous styles in both the fine and decorative arts, its adherents were committed to the pursuit of beauty and the doctrine of 'art for art's sake'. Believing that art had declined in an era of utility and rationalism, they claimed that art deserved to be judged on its own terms alone.
- The paintings and engravings of The Ancients are amongst the most powerful works of Romantic and naturalistic art produced in Britain during the 19th century.
- The dominant movement in early photography, Pictorialism refers to manipulated images that include lack of sharp focus, using colors other than black and white, and changes on the surface of the work.
- Gothic art flourished in Western Europe with monumental sculptures and stained-glass window decorated cathedrals - marked by the pointed Gothic arch.
Content compiled and written by Greg Thomas
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Greg Thomas
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 13 Jan 2021. Updated and modified regularly