The Chamber Idyll
In the center of the image, a nude male figure sits on the edge of a bed, one leg resting on the floor. He looks up at a female figure who stands between his legs undressing, untying the strings of her diaphanous chiton (an undergarment) (Lister, Samuel Palmer 85). The bed is draped with a variety of web-like clothes and a large knotted pillow. Fruit and vegetables are scattered under and around the bed, a full basket resting at its foot. The chamber is part of a cottage whose wooden beams frame the image; this border also includes a walking stick, a scythe, a gourd, and a few other tools. On the left, moonlight shines through a window whose right pane is open onto a large bound book. On the right, the sheaf-like roof of the chamber slopes down to the corner of the bed, enclosing the room from the night outside. Next to the cottage a flock of sheep slumbers in a pen, and a single bull stands beneath a tree. A rural countryside with trees and bushes slopes up and away from the viewer beneath a starry sky.
Copyright 2009, Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Ruth C. Wallerstein Endowment Fund purchase
Width (in centimeters):
His work having little appeal in his day, William Blake was relatively unknown. However, he was discovered and revered by the Ancients, a circle of young, male artists who privileged the work of the "ancients" over modern man (Lister, Edward Calvert 16). Blake met John Linnell in 1818, who then introduced him to Samuel Palmer in 1824 and to Edward Calvert in 1825. Palmer and Calvert, along with George Richmond, were the most prominent artists of the Ancients. They revered Blake as a heroic figure who called for spiritual art in an age of materialism.
Blake's engravings for Thornton’s translation of Virgil (The Pastorals of Virgil), a commission obtained through Linnell, were a major influence on the Ancients, persuading them to turn to engraving as an art form. The illustrations had an especially profound impact on Calvert, who wrote that “[t]hey are done as if by a child; several of them careless and incorrect, yet there is a spirit in them, humble enough and of force enough to move simple souls to tears” (qtd. in Lister, Edward Calvert 18).
Calvert in particular was drawn to Blake’s method of wood engraving, as well as his idyllic subjects and pastoral mood. He also imitated the diminutive size of Blake's Virgil engravings, and even defined his notion of the artist in relation to these latter works:
With nothing am I more impressed than with the necessity, in all great work, for suppressing the workman and all the mean dexterity of practice. The result itself, in quiet dignity, is the only worth attainment. Wood-engraving, of all things most ready for dexterity, reads us a good lesson. (qtd. in Binyon, 16)Although only seven of Calvert’s woodcuts are known, they are exemplary of this quiet dexterity and artistry. Unlike Blake’s engravings, Calvert’s possess a peculiar, expressive quality that was subtle and sensitive. In particular, he gives the landscapes that compose the backdrops to his subjects a level of detail that “cohere[s] in a visionary yet intimately realised scene” (Binyon 17). However, after taking the art to these new heights, he inexplicably abandoned engraving and turned to painting, mostly working on classical pastorals. Calvert’s pastoralism—unlike that of his fellow Ancients, such as Samuel Palmer—was inspired by pagan idylls rather than by religious works (Brown). Though short-lived, Blake’s influence on Calvert was intense and productive, effecting what Raymond Lister calls Calvert's "period of illumination" and culminating in his last and arguably best print, The Chamber Idyll (Edward Calvert 21).
William Blake (1757-1827)
Blake was trained as an engraver in London. Although trained and apprenticed outside of the Royal Academy system, he often exhibited his works, particularly his historical and biblical watercolors, at the Academy. In 1787, Blake embarked on his most important works, radically breaking away from tradition with his innovative illuminated printing; this printing was the primary mode in which he published his prophetic poems. He also continued as an engraver, producing illustrations for works by Milton, Bunyan, Dante, and Virgil.
The Bride (Edward Calvert, 1828)
This copper engraving depicts a nude figure (similar to the female subject of The Chamber Idyll) in a pastoral setting. She walks beside a lamb, held by a ribbon; they are overshadowed by a tree at the center of the image. On the right, across the stream that divides the image, a nude male figure walks in profile away from them.
The Ploughman (Edward Calvert, 1829)
This wood engraving depicts a nude male behind a plough pulled by two horses. Three nude figures dance in the center background of the image; the engraving is intricate with an abundance of entwining foliage, shadow, and a few other human and animal figures that merge subtly with the forest. The plough image here is echoed in The Chamber Idyll.
The Pastorals of Virgil (trans. Robert Thornton, 1821)
Thornton's school edition of this text, also known as Thornton's Virgil, was printed with woodcuts by William Blake.
A Memoir of Edward Calvert Artist by his Third Son (Samuel Calvert, 1893)
This text was accompanied by reproductions of Edward Calvert's paintings and sketches.
This intimate domestic scene portrays two lovers who, because of their profound absorption in each other, are simultaneously spectator and spectacle.
This image is unique in terms of spectatorship: it offers an intimate scene in a private setting, and there is no spectacle to distract the two lovers from gazing at each other. The spectacle for the viewer, then, is the encounter of the two lovers themselves, consequently positioning us as potential voyeurs. However, this voyeurism is undercut by the artistry of Calvert’s tiny wood cut (3 in. x 1 5/8 in.), which frames the couple as an aesthetic spectacle; this aesthetic "framing" occurs literally as well, as the wooden beams bordering the image transform the intimate scene into the framed subject of a painting. Calvert is extremely detailed in his depiction of the pair of lovers, as well as in the surprising texture he gives to the idyllic chamber within and the pastoral landscape without. Moreover, the division between the interior and exterior of the chamber highlights the position of the viewer as inside rather than outside—a guest rather than a voyeur. With this repositioning of the viewer, the lovers are celebrated for their aesthetic nudity and their devoted intimacy. They are framed as an artistic spectacle rather than as illicit subjects.
However, in spite of this invitation to examine the subjects closely, it is difficult to track the gaze of the lovers: the man’s uplifted face seems to look above, even past the woman’s downturned head. Their line of sight is mismatched, directed at each other’s bodies just as the viewer’s gaze is immediately drawn to their nude figures and sensual positioning. This visual connection between the viewer and the bodies of the subjects—echoing their own, sensually directed attraction—is reinforced by a tendency to disregard the rest of the picture despite its detailed objects.
It is, however, the objects of the household within and the livestock of the pastures without that make the chamber idyllic and pastoral. The detail that Calvert invests in the fruit littering the floor makes The Chamber Idyll a “fragrant little wood-engraving” (Lister, Edward Calvert 87). The fruit and sheaf—which Raymond Lister identifies as apples and lavender, respectively—stimulates the viewer’s senses and situates him physically in the pastoral. Meanwhile, the barnyard scene outside, though populated by a flock of sheep and a lone bull, is strangely silent and tranquil. This sense of repose for both man and animal is further conveyed by the plough which stands idle on top of the distant hill. Consequently, the image portrays a pastoral rather than a georgic scene. By setting a romance in a pastoral, Calvert enables a quiet sort of studied spectatorship that celebrates love and the body, freeing the viewer from potential voyeurism and recreating us as emancipated spectators.
Binyon, Laurence. The Followers of William Blake: Edward Calvert, Samuel Parker, George Richmond, & Their Circle. London: Halton, 1925. Print.
Brown, David Blayney. “Calvert, Edward.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford UP, 2007-13. Web. 8 July 2013.
Lister, Raymond. “Calvert, Edward (1799-1883).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, Sept. 2004. Web. 8 July 2013.
---. Edward Calvert. London: Bell and Sons, 1962. Print.
---. Samuel Palmer and "the Ancients." Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Print.