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The Moon before we got there: Samuel Palmer’s The Dell of Comus at Brighton Museum

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As many of us mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, curator Alexandra looks at how artist Samuel Palmer’s fascination with the moon can be seen in this painting on display in Brighton Museum.

This month it will be 50 years since humans first set foot on another world, the moon, our nearest celestial neighbour. It was a one of the greatest human achievements to date and gave us chance to look back at ourselves, our marvellous blue Earth sitting in the darkness of the universe. Reason then for me to reflect on this event half a century later, and to look for moon-related art in our city’s collections.

Samuel Palmer’s The Dell of Comus (1855). Brighton Museum and art Gallery, 2019

One stood out for me: a rarely seen painting by the Romantic artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), who became obsessed with the moon from an early age. In 1824 the painter John Linnell (whose daughter he later married) introduced him to the visionary poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827), whose influence is obvious in Palmer’s work. His sketchbook from the same year is filled with moon images and notes, such as ‘Sky, cool neutral twilight colour / Moon brilliant silver […] And the whole landscape lustrous / With the morning twilight’. A small moonlit nocturne by Linnell is also in our collections. We have a delightful small watercolour by Linnell in our collection, which depicts a nocturnal landscape dramatically lit by a full Moon.

Moonscape by John Linnell, 1877

Palmer’s moons are often unnaturally huge and seem to be bumbling along the horizon, shining a strong silvery light on to pastoral scenes, idealised villages, people going to church, illuminating sceneries so idyllic they almost seem unreal. He often depicted a full moon, and sometimes sickle moons with earthshine visible.

Samuel Palmer’s The Dell of Comus (1855) (detail showing the Moon in top left corner).

To Palmer the moon was symbolic of God’s benevolent presence, but there is also a pagan feel to many of his works. The artist was known to enjoy walks by moonlight, something he had in common with many contemporary poets, writers and painters, who sought inspiration from the moon, or used it as a key motif in their picturesque or sublime landscapes, romantic poems or gothic novels. It is possible that Palmer was so interested in moonlight because he feared its disappearance with the advent of artificial lighting. This has indeed happened: we managed to reach the moon in 1969, but we lost pure moonlight along the way, certainly in urban areas.

To mark the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing we are displaying Palmer’s The Dell of Comus, a large watercolour and gouache painting, in Brighton Museum. Painted in 1855, it is one of many of his illustrations of works by the 17th century poet John Milton (1608–1674), whose work Palmer greatly admired. It is one of three large watercolours for Milton’s masque Comus (first performed in 1634), in which a young unnamed ‘Lady’ gets lost in the woods and, while waiting for her brothers to return with food, is captured by Comus and his debauched followers, who attempt to seduce her and break her virtuous spirit.

In our painting Palmer illustrates a passage where Thyrsis, the ‘Attendant Spirit’, disguised as a shepherd, watches a wild and raucous gathering of Comus and his crew:

This evening late, by then the chewing flocks

Had ta’en their supper on the savoury herb

Of knot-grass dew-besprent, and were in fold,

I sat me down to watch upon a bank

With ivy canopied, and interwove

With flaunting honeysuckle, and began,

Wrapt in a pleasing fit of melancholy,

To meditate my rural minstrelsy,

Till fancy had her fill. But ere a close

The wonted roar was up amidst the woods,

And filled the air with barbarous dissonance.

Samuel Palmer’s The Dell of Comus (1855) (detail showing Comus’ party)

Comus’ party takes place during a full moon, which illuminates the scene from the top left corner. Look closely, and you will see an unidentified ghostly figure standing in a vertical ray of moonlight. Could this be the real shepherd, or perhaps the unnamed ‘Lady’ of the masque?

Samuel Palmer’s The Dell of Comus (1855) (detail showing the Moon and mysterious figure). Brighton Museum and art Gallery, 2019

New photography of the work has also revealed that Palmer drew faint concentric circles around the moon, possibly to establish the gradation of the moonlight he so loved. Palmer influenced the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers, especially with his detailed and highly realistic depiction of vegetation, something that is very prominent in our painting.

Alexandra Loske, curator and co-author (with astronomer Robert Massey) of the book Moon: Art, Science, Culture.

This is a longer version of an article previously published in Viva Brighton Magazine.

Samuel Palmer’s The Dell of Comus is on display on the upper floor of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (until approx. January 2020) and Alexandra will give a Bitesize Museum talk about the painting and the Moon in Romantic art on  on Tuesday 8 October 2020 (free with admission).

More by Alexandra on the Moon

BBC World Service – The Forum: The Moon from Earth. Rajan Datar talks to Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University in the UK; Anthony Aveni, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy, Anthropology, and Native American Studies at Colgate University in the US; and Alexandra Loske.

BBC World Service – The Real Story:The future of space exploration. In July 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon. It was a culmination of human and technological achievement. But fifty years after that historic moment, what’s the current state of space exploration? Join Celia Hatton and guests as they discuss the future of space exploration.

Mission to the Moon – A Space Boffins/The Naked Scientists podcast, presented by Richard Hollingham and Sue Nelson. Recorded at the Royal Astronomical Society in London, guests include Dr Robert Massey and Dr Alexandra Loske, as well as Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman, former European astronaut Thomas Reiter and Caroline Geraghy.

Astrotalk UK: Episode 86 – Moon: Art, Science, Culture. Alexandra Loske and Robert Massey talk with Gurbir Singh about the impact of the Moon on the fine arts, literature, mythology and how science and culture overlap.

For the actual anniversary of the Moon landing Alexandra and Robert Massey will be at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank (18-21 July). Bluedot 2019 celebrates fifty years since the Moon Landings with a spectacular line-up combining music, science, cosmic culture and more beneath the Lovell Telescope. Their talk will be streamed live from the festival.