Samuel Palmer Part 1. The Early years, portraiture and the rural idyll

The Prospect by Samuel Palmer (1881)
The Prospect by Samuel Palmer (1881)

My featured artist today is one of the great English landscape painters, draughtsmen and etcher of the nineteenth century.  He was a major player in the art of Romanticism.  His landscape works were special, conjured up by his inventive and far-sighted imagination.   There was a magical feel about his work.  Palmer was not just an ordinary every day painter; his works were poetical and he himself, through his art, seemed to have the ability of a mystical seer. Let me introduce you to Samuel Palmer.

At the time of Samuel Palmer’s birth there was a worrying tension brought on by conflict.  It was a troubling time.  It was a time of tumult in Europe.  Sixteen years earlier France had been affected by the storming of the Bastille and the fall of the rich and the nobility of the ancient regime.  Initially, there was probably a delighted sense of schadenfreude in the minds of many in England, including the “establishment” at the fall from grace of what they perceived was the cruel and greedy French aristocracy but soon that enthusiasm dwindled with the thought that such revolutionary behaviour may cross the English Channel.  In 1793, twelve years before Samuel was born France declared war on Britain, a war which would last more than two decades.  Although the battlefields were not in England Napoleon Bonaparte used another weapon against the British by blockading European ports and by so doing deprive Britain of lucrative trade.  The war however proved fortuitous to Samuel’s family who were hatters and hats were in great demand since the government, to add to their much needed war chest, had imposed a hair powder tax and this ended the era when elegantly puffed and powdered coiffures which were once de rigueur, now could not be afforded.  The fashion was now for the “topper”, the nickname given to top hats.

Portrait of Samuel Palmer by Henry Walter (1819)
Portrait of Samuel Palmer by Henry Walter (1819)

Samuel’s father, also named Samuel, had set forth to study to become a surgeon but his squeamish nature put an end to that dream and he ended up in his father, Christopher Palmer’s, millinery business.  Samuel Snr. was somewhat of a dreamer and this along with his love of books led him to forego the safe and lucrative job as a hatter to set himself up as a bookseller.  This decision did not go down well with his family as the trade of a bookseller seemed a lowly trade not fit for a “gentleman”.  Samuel Snr. was, besides being a dreamer, a very determined person and cared little about status and the financial position of his family.

Samuel Palmer Snr. met and fell in love with Martha Giles and they married in October 1803.  Samuel Palmer, their first child, was born in Newington, London on winter Sunday morning, on January 27th 1805.  The couple lived in Surrey Square in Newington, which at the start of the nineteenth century, was a semi rural area populated with lush gardens, fields and orchards.  It was a haven for those who loved the countryside; a love young Samuel would have all his life.  It was a time when survival at birth was somewhat of a lottery with a third of babies not surviving to see their first birthday and amongst the poor and deprived the survival rate would drop even further.  However Samuel Palmer was lucky in as much as he was born into a prosperous middle-class family.

Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825) Pen and ink and wash, mixed with gum arabic, varnished,
Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)
Pen and ink and wash, mixed with gum arabic, varnished,

Samuel was not a healthy child and his mother and grandmother would often take him to the Georgian seaside resort of Margate in the hope that sea air would improve his health.  This once fishing town was a favourite of Turner.  It was during his boyhood stays in Margate that he would listen to his grandmother’s tales of ghosts and restless spirits who wandered around the town.  Stories of such apparitions would remain with Samuel and would interest him all his life.  His mother’s continued concern about her son’s physical health led her to employ a live-in nurse, Mary Ward, who set about improving his health by improving his diet.   It was also this lady who was to have such an influence on the young boy.  Unlike most servants who were illiterate Mary was well read with the Bible and Jacob Tonson’s pocket illustrated book of Milton’s poems being her favourites.  She, like Samuel’s father, loved books and would often read Milton’s poems to Samuel.  When Mary died she bequeathed the book of poems to Samuel who would carry it round with him wherever he went.  Of Milton’s poems, Samuel wrote:

“…I am never in a “lull about Milton”…….nor can tell how many times I have read his poems… He never tires….I do believe his stanzas will be read in heaven…”

Samuel gained a brother in 1810 with the birth of William, who was to be the only other surviving child of Samuel Snr. and Martha.  Samuel Palmer did not have many boyhood friends as he was more than satisfied to immerse himself in his books, including works by Dickens, which featured the English capital.  It was a trait, which delighted his father.  Samuel would often go for walks on Dulwich Common with either his father or his nurse during which they would often read to him as they strolled the countryside.  His love for reading and the joy books brought him can be seen in one of his letters (The Letters of Samuel Palmer – Raymond Lister, 1974) in which he wrote:

“…There is nothing like books of all things sold incomparably the cheapest, of all pleasures the least palling, they take up little room, keep quiet when they are not wanted and, when taken up, bring us face to face with the choicest men who ever lived at their choicest moments…”

Samuel, maybe because of his poor health, tried to avoid the necessity of going into the heart of London with all its pollution from coal fires and the often dank fogs emanating from the Thames.  He was a lover of the countryside and being of poor health abhorred the polluted city life.

In May 1817, at the age of eleven, Samuel was sent to Merchant Taylors’ public school.  This was a prestigious institution founded back in 1561 but for Samuel it was a nightmare.  Samuel who had been cosseted by both his mother and nurse and had a quiet solitary home life, which suited his nature, suddenly was thrust into a maelstrom of lively and loud boys in which a pale-faced asthmatic boy fared badly.  Samuel disliked the public school system with all it entailed and in another of his letters he wrote:

“…the fag crawls to be kicked, and, in his turn, kicks the fag who crawls to him………it perfectly represents and so admirably prepares for the requirement of public life for what is statesmanship but successful crawling and kicking….”

His time at Merchant Taylors lasted only six months as his pleading to come back home was answered in the Autumn of 1817.

The death of Samuel’s mother in 1818 came as a harsh blow to her thirteen year old son.  He struggled to cope with the loss and shed many tears.  The loss of his mother came at the same time as he and his father considered what career he should follow.  Samuel favoured becoming an author.  He had already written some prose and poetry and although the latter never attained the quality required to have them published his stylistic prose gave him hope of a fulfilling career.  However it was not to be as his father believed, because of his son’s early talents as a draughtsman that the visual arts should be the career his son should follow.  The family’s decision that Samuel should follow a career in art was thought to have been down to a belief that it was what his mother would have liked her son to do.

Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. by J W Turner (1819)
Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. by J W Turner (1819)

The family employed William Wate, a run-of-the-mill landscape artist, to tutor Samuel.  In 1819, when Samuel was just fourteen, he made his first visit to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.  He was amazed by the colour in Turner’s painting of the Entrance of the Meuse and fascinated by Turner’s Liber Studiorum, a series of his landscape and seascape compositions which were published as prints in etching and mezzotint, has been once described as perhaps comprising of ‘the pith of all that is best in his life and work’.

At this time Palmer was just a developing artist who was still learning the basic skills of art through Wate’s tuition.

Samuel Palmer a Self-Portrait (1826)
Samuel Palmer a Self-Portrait (1826)

I recently attended a portraiture workshop at which the guest artist and presenter talked about how the portrait he would produce would not necessarily be a photographic image of the sitter but how he envisaged the model.  With those words still in my head I gaze at Samuel Palmer’s self portrait which he completed around 1826 when he was twenty years of age.  Is this how he envisioned himself?  There is something quite disturbing about this self-portrait.  Palmer gazes directly towards us but it is a blank stare as if he is looking through us.  The question that immediately springs to mind is what is he thinking about.  What is going on in his mind as he looks into the mirror?   It is not an image one would associate with an aspiring artist who is looking forward to the future.  What is troubling him?  Look at his physical appearance.  He has not readied himself for the painting.  It is more of a “this is who I am, take it or leave it” stance.  He is unshaved.  His thick hair looks uncared for.  The collar of his shirt is crooked but he knows all this as he puts brush to canvas.  Maybe he wants us to disregard his physical appearance and concentrate on what could be on his mind.  We are looking at the face of a troubled dreamer.  We are looking at a man whose vivid imagination would influence his art and those who view some of his imaginative paintings will be transported into a magical world which in her book Mysterious Wilderness, The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer, the author Rachel Campbell-Johnston describes the artist and some of his works:

“…It is a place in which magical shines through the material, in which nature and heaven are intertwined, in which God in all his mildness blesses man’s harvests and the darkness of night can be innocent and day.  This is not the haunt of any workaday painter.  It is the home of the artist as mystic and seer and poet…”

The Shearers by Samuel Palmer (1834)
The Shearers by Samuel Palmer (1834)

One of his best known works is The Shearers which he completed in 1835.  It is a painting which is rich in colour.  There is the juxtaposition of golden sparkling light and gloomy shadow.  I have already said the Palmer was looked upon as a seer and this painting was his vision of paradise.  Raymond Lister in his book, Catalogue Raisonné of the works of Samuel Palmer describes the work and a similar one entitled The Sleeping Shepherd which uses the same setting of the entrance to the barn we see in the above work:

“…A group of richly textured and abundantly coloured paintings of this period includes some of Palmer’s greatest and most attractive work. Such work reached its ultimate expression in The Shearers and The Sleeping Shepherd…”

Geoffrey Grigson, in his 1960 book Samuel Palmer’s Valley of Vision, wrote of the work:

“…Great richness of technique was used to realise The Shearers. In this Palmer combined oil and tempera so as to render every nuance of texture from the light on the distant hills and in the sky to the detailed depiction, almost Dutch in its realism, of the group of implements on the right. There is also an advance in the drawing of the figures, the shearers and their helpers; rarely if ever before this had Palmer portrayed figures so convincingly in movement…”

The setting of the painting is the great barn,  the doors of which are open and we look out at the scene before us.  The doors and the roof beam in some way form a frame for the painting.  A group of six people work in the shade of the trees outside the barn, three men and three women can be seen in the mid-ground.  The men are in the process of shearing the sheep whilst the women collect and bag the wool.  In the background we see an expanse of rolling hills which are lit up by the rays of the sun which light up the beautiful countryside.  Samuel Palmer never forgot his walks with his father over the hills and through the fields of Dulwich.   The idea for the painting must have been in his mind years earlier because he once wrote about his plans for depicting such a scene:

“…A group of different sex and age reaping, might be shewn in the foreground going down a walk in the field toward the above cottage island, and over the distant line that bounds this golden sea might peep up elysian hills, the little hills of David, or the hills of Dulwich or rather the visions of a better country which the Dulwich fields shew will to all true poets…”

Still life detail
Still life detail

In a way the painting is not just a rural landscape scene but part is also a still-life work in the way Palmer has painted the farming equipment inside the barn which we see on the right hand side along with a wide brimmed straw hat which the artist’s son, Alfred, said was one of his father’s most cherished possessions and an item which would appear in many of Samuel Palmer’s works.

In my next blog I will continue to look at the life of Samuel Palmer and explore the help he received from the landscape artist and portraitist John Linnell and  how he was so influenced by William Blake, the poet and painter who was an influential figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.