On a recent trip to Glastonbury, I visited Gothic Image bookshop in the High Street and picked up a reprinted edition of their publication, This enchanted isle by Peter Woodcock. Originally published in 2000, the book describes itself as a study of ‘the neo-romantic vision from William Blake to the new visionaries.’ Woodcock has written on art and literature and has an interest in the ‘shamanic’ tradition; in this book he traces the influence of William Blake and Samuel Palmer on later writers, artists and film-makers.
I discuss some of the supernatural connections in This enchanted isle in a posting on one of my other blogs, britishfairies.wordpress.com. Here, I want to discuss the how visual art and literature have drawn on the thoughts and imagery of Blake and Palmer.
Woodcock presents his book as a survey of the ‘lost tribe’ of British artists, writers and film-makers who worked between the two world wars and into the 1950s, who were known as the neo-romantics. They were greatly influenced by the work of William Blake and Samuel Palmer and were concerned with depicting the qualities of English landscape and culture. They embraced nature as a source, but not in a benign, sentimentalised way. Their landscapes often portrayed allegorical images conjuring up another dimension, an unseen reality which lies beyond everyday appearances (p.1). Woodcock explained that “What distinguishes neo-romanticism from traditional Romanticism is the feeling of danger, the juxtaposition of the urban with the countryside, the element of darkness, dissolution, an almost pagan reverie breaking through the ruins of post-industrialism” (p.55). The Neo-Romantics wanted to restore the magic and mystery to the world and to create a ‘visionary’ genealogy of British culture.
The book discusses over two dozen artists and writers in separate, short chapters. It is offered by Woodcock only as a taste of a vast and complex world of creativity which depicts the magical and spiritual realm of Britain. At 192 pages in length, it is not intended to be an exhaustive survey but instead aims to encourage further investigation. I found it very inspiring and I hope this posting will inspire you to explore more too.
For Woodcock, a line from the introduction to William Blake’s Jerusalem sums up the poet’s mystical conception of the British landscape: he declared that “All Things begin and end in Albion’s ancient Druid Rocky Shore.” The isle of Britain is therefore the centre of myth for Blake with layers of meaning accrued over the millennia. Indeed, throughout his poems, otherwise prosaic place names are imbued with spiritual and dramatic significance by Blake, making Albion a truly enchanted isle: he envisages “Jerusalem’s inner court, Lambeth”, Los directing his force “Along the Valleys of Middlesex from Hounslow to Blackheath” and Hand’s furnace “on Highgate’s heights and it reached to Brockley Hills across the Thames.”
For Woodcock, Blake was above all prophetic, having insights which are still of relevance today. Not only did he foresee the rise of materialism, he created his own spiritual universe in opposition to this based upon a mystical and (some would say) heretical version of Christianity which incorporated elements of alchemy and British mythology. In the preface to his Milton Blake called on other artists to unite with him:
“Painters! On you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertising boasts they make.”
Artists of the day were not inclined to reject commercialism and fashionability nor to strike out on some independent visionary quest, but some painters of the twentieth century did pay attention to the rallying cry. Moreover, in the 1960s, many of Blake’s ideas resurfaced with renewed vigour in popular culture. As Woodcock recounts, there was an explosion of interest in such beliefs as the Western Mystery tradition, paganism, druidism, divination, sacred geometry and the whole concept of the landscape of Britain as laid out in magical tradition.
If Blake portrayed an island called Albion in which angelic and demonic forces were drawn from the imagination rather than reality, then Samuel Palmer caught “an idyllic, Arcadian mood” (p.8). This especially true of his early pictures, created in the Shoreham valley in west Kent. Palmer, like Blake, was heavily influenced by Milton, but also by Virgil, Bunyan, Shakespeare and Spenser. He combined his love of the English rural landscape with a dreamlike style that emphasised foliage, hills, clouds and the moon and stars, resulting in images that are at once mysterious and inviting (see his Early morning below).
Twentieth century painter Paul Nash is, for Woodcock, a “key artist in the neo-romantic tradition. He explored aspects of the English countryside that evoked a strange, otherworldly atmosphere. He called this genius loci.”(p.2) This was what Nash saw as the ‘imprisoned spirit’ in English art. In 1934 Nash wrote that “If I were asked to describe this spirit I would say it is of the land; genius loci is indeed almost its conception. If its expression could be designated, I would say that it is almost entirely lyrical.” He elaborated on this in 1946, explaining that the spirit of a place is “something more than its natural features seem to contain.” The phrase did not “suggest that the place was haunted or inhabited by a genie in any sense … its magic lay within itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings…” As a result, then, “There are places …whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment, which cannot be analysed.” He told Gordon Bottomley in a letter that he “turned to the landscape not for the landscape’s sake but for the ‘things behind’- the dweller in the innermost.”
Nash acknowledged his links and debts to Blake and to Palmer. Of the latter Nash said that he shared his “appetite for monstrous moons, exuberance of stars.” Nash found in Palmer something magical and unreal. Of Blake, he said that he was “then, and often now, called a madman, [but he] perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion. For him, Albion possessed great spiritual personality and he constantly inveighed against Nature, the appearance of which he mistrusted as a false reality. At the same time, his poetry was immensely influenced by the country he lived in. His poetry literally came out of England.” Paul Nash’s Second World War picture ‘The defence of Albion‘ may be a nod to the poet (see below) whilst his late sunflower paintings perhaps echo Blake’s ‘Ah! Sunflower’ as well as Nash’s readings on mythology in The Golden Bough.
As Woodcock observes, “throughout his life Nash was drawn to natural sites that were imbued with folklore and mystical associations.” Nash discovered Avebury in 1933. He was fascinated by all the “signs of ancient habitation by man,” the “hallowed remains of an almost unknown civilisation.” These dramatic symbols of antiquity had a profound effect upon the artist, as he explained in 1934. “Last summer, I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stood up sixteen feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of the avenue of stones that leads to the Great Circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts its gigantic shadow. In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of the convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art, I would solve such an equation.”
Paul Nash, ‘Equivalents for the megaliths’, 1935
Nash responded to other ancient landscapes as well. These included the Vale of the White Horse and the Uffington White Horse (“more of a dragon than a horse” but with “the lineaments of a work of art), Badbury Rings, Silbury Hill, Maiden Castle and Boar’s Hill and Wittenham Clumps. About Wittenham Nash enthused that they were “part of the Berkshire Downs, an early British stronghold, once called Sinodun. Under the trees are long barrows. Below the clumps is the remains of an ancient forest. In the painter’s mind this place has a compelling magic…” He described his late landscape paintings of this latter location as ‘transcendental.’ At the time he painted them he was researching the cycles of nature in Frazer’s Golden Bough and his pictures became increasingly mythic, occult and metaphysical. In the early 1940s Nash also renewed his enthusiasm for Palmer and Calvert (he borrowed the title ‘Bright cloud’ for one of his own pictures) and he started to re-read Blake. It may be that Blake’s sunflower, “weary of time”, infused Nash’s final sunflower series.
Woodcock describes Nash’s mission as being ‘re-enchanting the land.’ He described Ivinghoe beacon as “an enchanted place”, Wittenham Clumps as “full of strange enchantment” and remarked upon the “enchantment of the Ballard (Head)” at Swanage. In 1937 Nash wrote how he found that “the landscape too seemed now possessed of a different animation.” To summarise, Paul Nash’s interest was in unseen, hidden landscapes that are visibly, physically around us and yet are not perceived or are invisible, so that there is a poetic character to the discovery of the secret of a place.
Nash in his turn had a considerable influence on others working within the neo-romantic style. Although Woodcock admits that neo-romanticism as a distinct movement petered out in the 1950s, “the imaginative doorway opened by Paul Nash still reverberates today with painters, writers and film-makers out of the mainstream, quietly pursuing the quest for ‘something beyond appearances.'” He lists the following writers as significant:
- John Michell, whose psycho-geography of ancient places connected by lines of energy revived and perpetuated mystical ideas of a hidden landscape and in turn inspired others, such as the writer Ian Sinclair.
- John Cowper Powys, a Welsh writer with a highly developed magical philosophy. He evoked in his writing a strong spirit of place and a sense of the mythic in everyday life. For example, he wrote that “the world behind all appearances is called, by the Welsh, Annwn. Annwn is not only the centre of the creativeness of mythological renewal, where Merlin dwells, but is also the land of Death.” Powys was highly sensitive to the feeling of localities and described walking in a secluded spot thus: “the spirit of the earth called out to him from the green shoots beneath his feet, so that he was filled by the genius loci and sustained by it.” His greatest work, perhaps, is the novel A Glastonbury Romance;
- Arthur Machen, a companion of Yeats and Crowley in the Golden Dawn, is remembered for his novels of Gothic horror and pagan mystery, such as The Great God Pan. Woodcock notes that his “descriptions of an unknown country, which lies invisible yet within reach of those who dare to enter it, can be chilling.” His masterpiece is The Hill of Dreams;
- Geoffrey Household- and in particular his novel Rogue Male and its responses to the ancient Dorset countryside around Marshwood Vale; and,
- Peter Ackroyd, most especially for First light, a novel based around the excavation of a Neolithic burial mound in Dorset.
Artists who continued the neo-romantic tradition during the 1930s and 1950s included:
- Graham Sutherland, who was very strongly influenced by Palmer’s intimately enfolding views, especially in his earlier pictures of Pembrokeshire (illustrated below, Cray Fields, 1925). He praised the ‘spiritual quality’ of Blake’s designs, although he was ambivalent about the poet’s ‘theological ideography.’ All the same, by deliberately harking back to Blake and Palmer, Sutherland inspired the Neo-Romantic label;
- John Piper, who was inspired by artists such as Palmer and Nash (although, he found Blake “a little frightening and inscrutable”) and by elements of the British scene- vernacular buildings, antiquarianism and old customs, archaeology and the ancient sites of Wiltshire . He suggested that drawing upon imagery of prehistory might be one way for British artists to respond to the advent of Cubism (below, Stonehenge, 1981). The work he did on the Shell Guides to England was based on Piper’s own myth of the ‘real’ England and they fed a romantic nostalgia for a pre-industrial, pre-Reformation past;
- John Minton, another devotee of Palmer, of whom contemporary Michael Ayrton (see below) wrote that “Palmer shines through him, but his work is personal nonetheless.” Rothenstein felt that Minton’s work was imbued with Palmer’s spirit. Illustrated below is his Landscape with figures;
- Michael Ayrton, who admired Palmer and argued in 1944 that it was him, “more than any other individual draughtsman, who influences the landscape drawing of the younger generation today. He was an artist in whose best work may be found the complete expression, in landscape, of Blake’s teaching and example” (below is his Greek suite- sacred place);
- Keith Vaughan was inspired by Palmer to produce tiny, dense landscapes of the Malton area. Writing A view of English painting in 1944 for Penguin, Vaughan particularly praised the intensity and visionary brilliance of Blake’s work ;
- John Craxton, another painter who drew upon the imagery and style of Palmer, as can be seen below in Llanthony Abbey, 1942. Critic Geoffrey Grigson saw in Craxton’s early pictures “vegetables growing out of Sam Palmer’s Shoreham Garden, leafage and moons out of drawings … shepherds and poets out of Palmer’s mythology.”He was also friendly with Ruthven Todd, a Blake specialist, who even went so far as to lend Craxton a Blake original.
This is by no means an exhaustive list- others that could be mentioned include one of my favourites, Eric Ravilious, as well as Paul Drury, Harold Hitchcock and Richard Eurich.
Woodcock describes neo-romanticism as being finished by the 1950s, but its inspiration persists strongly, nonetheless. Two quotations from This enchanted isle brought current musicians to mind:
- “Like mankind, nature can be cruel and sadistic” (p.2). Likewise, in Spirit of place critic Malcolm Yorke observes that the belief of Romantic artists like Fuseli that Nature could be either wilfully vicious or implacably indifferent contributed to the approach of the Neo-Romantics. Polly Harvey in her recent work has recorded her strangely ambivalent love for her home country. On the award winning album Let England Shake the song Battleship Hill comments upon the way that the battlefield of Gallipoli has recovered and how “cruel nature has won again.” In the song The last living rose Harvey celebrates her home- “Take me back to England, and the grey damp filthiness of ages, fog rolling down behind the mountains, and on the graveyards and dead sea-captains. Let me walk through the stinking alleys, to the music of drunken beatings, past the Thames river, glistening like gold…”;
- “The British have always revered the land”- Julian Cope has matured from the pop of Teardrop Explodes in the early 1980s into a complex and intelligent writer of songs and books on megaliths, as well as music. His 2007 album, YOU GOTTA PROBLEM WITH ME concludes with ‘Shame Shame Shame’, a protest song that plays out with the chant ‘Deny Your God, Revere the Land!’ He is pictured below with Silbury Hill in the background.