We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Ancients (act. c.1824–c.1835) was an association or brotherhood of young London artists—mostly students at the Royal Academy—who turned from the conventional art of their own times to emulate that of the middle ages and early Renaissance. Its formation represents the earliest example in Britain of a practice of setting up breakaway groups that became common in avant-garde artistic circles throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. Members of the group produced intense, spiritually inspired landscapes and imaginative figure compositions that are among the most original and enduring works of art of the Romantic era.

The Ancients were inspired by the work and personality of William Blake, and were later to provide some of the most important first-hand accounts of the painter–poet in his later years. The group's leading members were the landscapist Samuel Palmer, the portraitist and history painter George Richmond, and the printmaker Edward Calvert. Other artists included Francis Oliver Finch, Frederick Tatham (1805–1878), Henry Walter (1799–1847), and Welby Sherman (fl. 1827–1836). There were as well some non-artist family supporters and sympathizers, notably Palmer's brother William (1810–1866), his cousin John Giles (1810–1880), and Tatham's brother Arthur (1809–1874), an undergraduate at Oxford who later took holy orders. The slightly older painter John Linnell was close to the Ancients but never a full member. The group's name appears to have derived from Giles's ‘repeated claim that ancient man was superior to modern man’ (Lister, Samuel Palmer, 52) and it was being used by members by late 1824: in September, for example, a letter from Palmer to Linnell concluded with a greeting to Linnell's children (‘and love to the little ancients’; Letters of Samuel Palmer, 1.9) .

The Ancients achieved little success during the time they were active as a group. The importance and originality of their work only became evident to a wider audience retrospectively, and lack of recognition was probably the principal reason for the artists dispersing in the early 1830s. However, many remained close friends and continued to meet regularly, with the majority looking back on their association as the most inspirational artistic episode of their lives. As Edward Calvert later put it: ‘We were brothers in art, brothers in love, and brothers in that for which art and love subsist—the Ideal—the Kingdom within’ (Calvert, 17).

While unprecedented in England, artistic brotherhoods had begun to emerge in continental Europe around 1800. The best-known early examples were the Barbus or Primitifs in France (c.1798) and the Lukasbund (brotherhood of St Luke) in Germany in 1808, which later became known as the Nazarenes. Such associations can be seen as symptomatic of a widespread social and political tendency towards the formation of associations in the wake of the French Revolution. Inspired by the clubs of the Jacobins, such organizations emphasized the replacement of hierarchy with more egalitarian practices. As well as forming a brotherhood of equals, such groups typically promoted more primitive forms of art that contrasted with the ‘materialism’ of contemporary practice. In the case of the Barbus the model was the art of ancient Greece. For the Nazarenes—as for the Ancients and the later Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—it was that of the middle ages. Such groups were also given to political identification, though this was as likely to be of the right as the left. In the case of the Ancients the tendency was towards the right, with Samuel Palmer proclaiming himself a ‘high tory’. This may have been one of the reasons why Linnell, a political radical, never became fully integrated with the group.

While inspired by idealism, the formation of artistic groups is also a means of gaining attention. It is symptomatic of this that such brotherhoods tended to favour ‘cognitive dressing’—that is the wearing of a particular and usually archaic form of dress. The Nazarenes, indeed, gained their nickname on account of their ‘Christ-like’ appearance, wearing flowing robes with long hair and beards. Certain members of the Ancients adopted a similar strategy, as is evident in George Richmond's portrait of Samuel Palmer in Christ-like garb, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830 and now in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

It seems likely, in fact, that the decision to form the Ancients was inspired by knowledge of the German Nazarenes, since that group had achieved international success by the 1820s and their activities were widely reported in the London press. The tendency to adopt medieval and early Renaissance art as an alternative source of inspiration to academic practice was stimulated by John Linnell. A devout Baptist, Linnell fervently believed in the study of nature as a form of religious worship. Although unwilling himself to stray too far from naturalistic representation, he drew the attention of Palmer and his friends to the refreshing directness of the landscapes of Flemish and German artists of the late middle ages and early Renaissance, notable Van Eyck, Dürer, and Lucas van Leyden. Equally important was his introduction of Palmer to William Blake in 1823. Then nearing the end of his life, Blake epitomized the idea of the spiritual artist of principle and personal conviction. The Ancients named Blake the Interpreter after the character in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Like Blake they were also inspired in their art by a deep love of literature, particularly Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and English pastoral and metaphysical poetry.

Though formed in London, the Ancients became closely associated with the Kent village of Shoreham. For a time this became their ‘earthly paradise’, a rural refuge from the city. Samuel Palmer moved there with his father and brother about 1826. Some members of the group, including Welby Sherman, also settled there. Others, notably Richmond and Calvert, came for extended visits. Such periods were marked by intense group activities, the discussion of art and literature, and long nocturnal walks. The latter caused them to gain a reputation locally for eccentricity. They became known as ‘extollagers’—a rustic stab at the word ‘astrologer’ (Palmer, The parting light, 230). For Palmer the period was one of great imaginative release, during which he developed the primitivizing tendencies that he had previously gained from studying the works of medieval artists and Blake into a unique manner of his own. Richmond painted religious and mythological works of startling primitivism, while Calvert, inspired by woodcuts and engravings of the early Renaissance, produced wood engravings of rustic rituals of arresting sensuality and vigour.

Palmer remained at Shoreham until 1835, but visits by other members of the group became less frequent after 1830. Richmond concentrated on building up a portrait practice in London and Calvert, a man of independent means, seems to have lost confidence in the more radical aspects of his work. Palmer himself became disillusioned by what he saw as the undermining of traditional rural life by the modern world. He was also experiencing financial difficulties and in 1835 moved back to London, where he built up a tutoring practice to supplement his income.

The reputation of the Ancients revived in the wake of renewed interest in William Blake in the later nineteenth century. Palmer and several other members of the group provided information for the first major biography of Blake by Alexander Gilchrist (1863). Gilchrist, in turn, included an account of their activities (though not their name) in a chapter on Blake's ‘youthful disciples’. Interest in the Ancients increased as biographies of Palmer and Calvert appeared in the 1890s, particularly in Pre-Raphaelite and symbolist circles. Among those to become fascinated by them was the poet W. B. Yeats, who planned to write a monograph on Calvert and included references to him and Palmer in his works, notably ‘The Phases of the Moon’ and ‘Under Ben Bulben’. In 1926 a major exhibition, ‘The followers of William Blake’, at the Victoria and Albert Museum brought together the group's most radical work and provided a source of inspiration for the emerging generation of British neo-romantics, notably Graham Sutherland and John Piper. In more recent years the Ancients have been censured by some critics for having promoted a view of Blake that underplayed his political radicalism. However, the group remains notable both as the first example in Britain of an artistic avant-garde, and for the innovative boldness and visionary lyricism of its best work.

William Vaughan

Sources  

S. Palmer, The parting light: selected writings, ed. M. Abley (1985) · K. Andrews, The Nazarenes (1964) · L. Binyon, The followers of William Blake (1925) · S. Calvert, A memoir of Edward Calvert, artist (1893) · M. Easton, Artists and writers in Paris: the Bohemian idea, 1803–1867 (1964) · A. Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, ‘Pictor ignotus’, 2 vols. (1863) · Catalogue of an exhibition of drawings, etchings and woodcuts by Samuel Palmer and other disciples of William Blake (1926) [exhibition catalogue, V&A] · G. Grigson, Samuel Palmer: the visionary years (1947) · R. Lister, Edward Calvert (1962) · The letters of Samuel Palmer, ed. R. Lister, 2 vols. (1974) · R. Lister, Samuel Palmer and ‘the Ancients’ (1984) [exhibition catalogue, FM Cam., 9 Oct–16 Dec 1984] · L. Morowitz and W. Vaughan, Artistic brotherhoods in the nineteenth century (2000) · A. H. Palmer, The life and letters of Samuel Palmer (1892) · A. M. W. Stirling, The Richmond papers (1926) · W. Vaughan, German Romanticism and English art (1978) · W. Vaughan, ‘“Brothers in art, brothers in love”: the Ancients as an artistic community’, Samuel Palmer, Vision and landscape, ed. W. Vaughan (2005)