The Darent Valley in Kent was Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision,’ and a home for many of my childhood daydreams.
Open a book containing Palmer’s rounded hills, swelling moons, embracing trees; the inviting dip and curve of a lane – like the mind’s reach into promised discovery – and I am back there, caught again by the spirit of the place…
Once a week, every week all through my childhood, our little family car would wend its way along the road above Shoreham and through Eynsford, en route to visit my grandparents. From the back of the car, forehead resting against the window, I would drink in Samuel Palmer’s valley below, and let my imagination rove over the hills on the far side. A check-list of familiar scenes would unfold and recede – the memorial cross, carved into the chalk of the Downs in remembrance of villagers killed in World War One; the arch of the railway bridge; Eynsford ford – tugging enticingly at thoughts of bare feet, fishing nets and buckets; a hidden castle; tiled cottages with tiny doorways; a looming church tower; a school playground surrounded by fields, its trees gathered round like benevolent dinner ladies, inclining their branches to listen and keep watch.
In June 2010, three generations of our family were back there again – in the Valley of Vision. It was a hot, hot day. The sun beat down on our heads and glittered on the river. Butterflies shrugged the heat from sap-high leaves.
Our first stop for the day was Lullingstone Roman Villa – my first visit there since a school history trip back in the 1970s. My memories of that trip are of Eynsford Castle – muscular, flinty, uptight and stolid; a building blindly in league with our raucous imaginations. I remember the walk past the river, through the impressive arches of the railway viaduct…
…and towards the shed-like building which housed the Roman Villa at that time. After an hour or so spent echoing our amazement around that modern protective enclosure, we headed off for a nettle-stung wander through the woods, our teachers anxiously herding the intrepid souls who were each convinced they knew ‘the best way to go’ to catch a tantalising glimpse of Lullingstone Castle, before our return to school by train. I think I learnt more about history that day than during any lesson spent in the classroom. I felt it and touched it – saw for myself the layers that preceded, and yet somehow also surrounded, our own layer of time and earth…
…The Roman Villa has lost none of its magic this time round. It is like an ancient dream unfolding from the ground, full of the colours and form of past thoughts and footsteps. You can almost see the mind-turns of long-gone people etched in the evidence of their actions.
Four hundred years of occupation give the villa many layers all of its own. Painted water nymphs glance palely from the niches in the lower walls (a former cult room), their eyes gleaming with liquid knowledge we can only guess at. Standing on the footbridge over the river outside, it is easy to see why they are here. Easy to apprehend those ancient people’s sense of a presence of deity in the play of water and light in the river that was their lifeline.
Beneath that clear, cold water a bed of flints dices up the sunlight, damselflies glance it back at the sky like blue-green fire – and the water trembles in gentle folds, ever onwards in a renewing one-way journey.
This is a valley of flint and water – and, today, of sunlight; bright and transforming. The villa is built partially from flint; grown out of the land that surrounds it. The villa’s history is fascinating. It consists of successive additions to the building made by the many generations that lived in its walls. Here, the water nymphs, when first exposed by archaeologists, blinked in the light of the future, and were found surrounded by the collapsed rubble from the room which once stood above. When the archaeologists pieced together painted pieces amongst the rubble, they discovered a wall painting of figures engaged in Christian worship, plus painted Chi-Rho symbols – unique, unequivocal evidence of a house-church in Roman Britain.
The wall paintings are also a discovery of almost unique international importance. There are theories that, amongst the depictions of Roman legend and the literary allusions to Ovid and Virgil in the villa’s mosaics, there may also be secret allusions to Christ and Christianity, which perhaps date to a time when the villa family may have been wary of declaring Christian belief. The realities of the exact unfolding of the layers of belief here remain a challenge of interpretation. However, an adherence to a new, emerging religion is literally written into the walls, enmeshed there in the building’s fabric amongst earlier traditions and beliefs – perhaps also reflecting a mix that was still interwoven in the minds of its inhabitants.
Centuries later, a young artist, Samuel Palmer also felt a spiritual transcendence in this valley. Nature, he felt, brought him closer to God; the numinous was all around. The paintings that emerged from the years he spent in Shoreham glow with a mystical, visionary insight that locks on to the land and the significance it unfolds for him. Together with a small group of artists, which included George Richmond and Edward Calvert, Palmer formed the first brotherhood of painters in England. Known as The Ancients and based in Shoreham, this small artistic movement wanted to turn away from the industrial revolution and modernity, to return to spiritual values, connect art to nature, and to explore literary imagination and poetic rapture.
Neo-Platonism, the Bible, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Bunyan and Spenser all informed Palmer’s work. He loved Virgil (I wonder if he could have ever dreamed of those ancient, forgotten mosaics buried beneath his valley? Making hindsight connections now, it’s easy to weave fanciful thoughts of those hidden Virgilian allusions seeping up through the earth, to mingle with Palmer’s own Virgil-inspired visions in paint.) The Ancients were disciples of William Blake, finding particular inspiration in Blake’s woodcut illustrations to Thornton’s Pastorals of Virgil. In his 1825 sketchbook, Palmer wrote about his response to these woodcuts:
‘They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I found no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliance only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul…’
(A.H. Palmer, The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer).
In this tribute to Blake, Palmer seems to give a perfect description of what he, himself, achieved in his own work, revealing the bound up nature of aims, inspirations and leaps into the unique. The two men – though different in many ways – give us glimpses, through their respective art, of vibrant, questing minds somewhere out on the edges of the apparent, both peeling away layers to see what lies beyond, beneath, alongside – just out of our immediate line of sight, alive in the tensions of existence and imagination.
Continued in A Day and an Eternity in Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision’ Part Two…
– All art illustrations in this post are from Samuel Palmer Vision and Landscape (British Museum publication).