Raymond Lister. The Paintings of Samuel Palmer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 178 pp. $29.95.
Raymond Lister. The Paintings of William Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 176 pp. $29.95.
Raymond Lister has contributed two new publications to the rich body of works on Blake and his followers. The Paintings of Samuel Palmer and The Paintings of William Blake are attractive picture books directed to the general public. Each comprises a short introduction on the life of the artist, followed by seventy-five color plates arranged in a chronological sequence. The plates are accompanied by a brief commentary. Although there are no footnotes, a selected bibliography is included for further suggested reading.
These broad surveys span the entire artistic careers of Palmer and Blake. In the case of Palmer, this is particularly useful. By devoting more coverage than usual to his prosaic middle years, Lister corrects an imbalance that exists in most Palmer literature. Lister also covers the wide variety of media utilized by these two artists. Since this includes drawings and prints, in addition to paintings, the titles of both works are misleading. Perhaps “art works” would be more indicative of the myriad material covered in each book.
The brief introductions encapsulate in a very readable manner a good deal of biographical information. In his commentary on the color plates, Lister introduces the reader to the diverse literary, musical, and artistic references that enrich the works of both artists. Although attuned to a general audience, his discussion of Blake’s works also refers to various interpretations which prevail in current scholarship. As he justly notes in his remarks on Blake’s “The Dance of Albion” (pl. 10), “Perhaps all these readings are valid, for one of the sources of Blake’s strength is the multiplicity of meaning in much of his work.” Without footnotes, there is, however, no way for the uninitiated to tell what is borrowed from other sources and what is a fresh interpretation.
On the whole, Lister has done a fine job of presenting the richly nuanced art of both men in a manner which will be easily accessible to the general reader. This broad approach has distorted the material in some instances. In the introduction, for example, there is too much emphasis on biographical anecdote, rather than the intellectual and artistic content of Blake’s and Palmer’s work.
The format also has necessitated an overly simplistic explanation of some aspects of their work, in particular the social side. Indeed, Lister’s explanation of Palmer’s scenes of labor, such as “The Harvest Moon” (pl. 25), tell us more about his own nostalgic projections than about Palmer’s intent: “One can imagine the constant talk, the satisfaction of working in a group, and the well-earned simple but gratifying meal during the afternoon, washed down by cider; and at the end of it all the jollity and feasting of harvest home.”
The restricted format also results in some strange bedfellows. For example in his remarks on Palmer’s “A Hilly Scene” (pl. 10), Lister has thrown together, willy-nilly, allusions to Gothic architecture, illuminated manuscripts, Milton, Schubert, and Keats within a few brief sentences. The discussion of Palmer’s “The Sleeping Shepherd” (pl. 32), piles up references to Graeco-Roman sculpture, a play by John Fletcher, nocturnes by Chopin and John Field, and a passage by Walter Pater.begin page 21 |
For the most part, Lister is careful to note related works (and their location), but there are some inconsistencies in his procedure. In a few cases, he fails to cite closely allied studies. For example, in his discussion of Blake’s “Pestilence” (pl. 2), he refers to the versions of this composition in Steigal Fine Art at Edinburgh, the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and an American private collection, but no mention is made of the pencil drawing of “Pestilence” in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery (published in Blake (winter 1984-85): 132-40).
Although adept, Lister’s discussion of Palmer’s and Blake’s techniques is limited by the restrictions imposed by the audience to which it is directed. Some of the basic data necessary for a scholarly reading is not included. For instance, he does not identify the state of the print he reproduces in Palmer’s “The Lonely Tower” (pl. 70), although he emphasizes the difference in quality between earlier and later impressions. He could have supplied this information by citing the entries in his own publication, Samuel Palmer and his Etchings. The addition of Butlin’s catalogue numbers would also make Lister’s Blake book of greater use to the scholar.
Since these are picture books, they rely primarily on the quality of the copious color reproductions. With few exceptions, the color is good, ensuring the popular success of both publications.