"We were brothers in art, brothers in love, and brothers in that for which art and love subsist - the Ideal - the Kingdom within."
1 of 7
Edward Calvert
"About this time [I was introduced] to William Blake. He fixed his grey eyes upon me, and said, 'Do you work with fear and trembling?' 'Yes indeed,' was the reply. 'Then,' said he, 'you'll do."
2 of 7
Samuel Palmer
"Forced into the country by illness, I lived afterwards for about seven years at Shoreham, in Kent, with my father, who was inseparable from his books, unless when still better engaged in works of kindness. There, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes visited by friends of congenial taste, literature, and art and ancient music wiled away the hours, and a small independence made me heedless, for the time, of further gain; the beautiful was loved for itself."
3 of 7
Samuel Palmer
"Only paint what you love in what you see, and discipline yourself to separate this essence from its dumb accompaniments, so that the accents fall upon the points of passion."
4 of 7
Edward Calvert
"Boldly dare to omit the impertinent or irrelevant, and let the features of the passion be modulated in fewness."
5 of 7
Edward Calvert
"Not a touch without its meaning or its significance..."
6 of 7
Edward Calvert
"Art...rises heavenward and should ever culminate in the 'beauty of holiness'."
7 of 7
Francis Oliver Finch

Summary of Ancients

Bejeweled with color, saturated with spiritual fervor, the paintings and engravings of The Ancients are amongst the most rapturous works of Romantic art produced in Britain during the 19th century. The Ancients were a group of young artists based in the south of England who cohered around the inspirational figure of William Blake. Also inspired by classical, Biblical, and Medieval and Renaissance imagery, the group was active for around a decade, meeting mostly at the house of their leading member Samuel Palmer in Shoreham, Kent before the ties of collective creativity gradually loosened. Their influence can be sensed across a wide sweep of Romantic art, from the Pre-Raphaelites to twentieth-century artists such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The Ancients formed the first "brotherhood" in modern British art, an indirect influence on the many modernist and avant-garde groupings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dressing in long, monk-like robes and committing to a shared program of artistic and spiritual labor, their visible adherence to a shared cause was echoed in the pronouncements and artistic output of any number of later movements, although their ideals were rooted in a vision of antiquity rather than an avant-garde grasping at the new.
  • The Ancients were one of the most significant movements in British Romantic landscape painting. They rose to prominence at a time when that school was flourishing thanks to artists such as Turner and Constable. But whereas those painters' works precipitated a turn towards Naturalism and Realism in the depiction of the natural world, the spiritual intensity of The Ancients and the influence of Blake gave their work a proto-Expressionist quality of formal and tonal distortion which was entirely without equal.
  • Although somewhat neglected in their lifetime, during the twentieth century the work of The Ancients, and particularly Palmer, inspired a new generation of Romantic landscape artists. Painters such as Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper, and John Minton, saw in The Ancients' work the same combination of Romantic richness and compositional daring that they were attempting to muster.

Overview of Ancients

Samuel Palmer, <i>In A Shoreham Garden</i> (ca. late 1820s or early 1830s)

The Ancients produced color-filled landscapes and evocative, gothic engravings and etchings. Inspired by William Blake, their work has an almost psychedelic richness and intensity which has appealed to generations of artists and art lovers. However, with the exception of their leader Samuel Palmer, they remain more obscure than the artists they influenced, notably the Pre-Raphaelites and Romantic modernist painters such as Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, and John Piper.

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.

Important Art and Artists of Ancients

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.

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 ."

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.

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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
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First published on 13 Jan 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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