Samuel Palmer was seventeen years old when he met the painter John Linnell and they would remain friends for life, a period stretching almost sixty years, albeit on occasions their relationship was somewhat strained during Palmer’s marriage to Linnell’s daughter. Linnell was born in London in 1792. His background was very different to the middle-class prosperity of Palmer’s family. His father, although a respectable carver and gilder, was not a wealthy man and whereas Palmer, who lived in the semi-rural outskirts of London, and was indulged and pampered by his parents, Linnell had to survive the murkiness of the depressing bleak streets of Bloomsbury. Linnell was a landscape artist and portrait painter who found himself constantly in competition with the great John Constable. At the time Linnell met Palmer the latter had rather lost his way artistically. Palmer wrote honestly about his worries regarding his art:
“…by the time I had practised for about five years I entirely lost all feeling for art … But it pleased God to send Mr. Linnell as a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art…”
John Linnell inspired Palmer. He offered artistic advice and instruction. He took him to art galleries and introduced him to other artists, most notably William Blake who was to have a profound influence on Palmer.
Linnell’s mentoring of Palmer was of great importance as it was Linnell who brought to the attention of Palmer the artists of the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods, such as Albrecht Dürer, and the fourteenth century muralists, Francesco Traini, Buonamico Buffalmacco and Benozzo Gozzoli who were responsible for decorating the cemetery, Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, Italy.
This magnificent building was said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Fourth Crusade in the 12th century. An inscription near the right gate tells us that the construction of the Camposanto started in year 1277 and finished in the late 15th century.
Another influence on Palmer around this time was the works of art of Henry Fuseli. The National Gallery in London was not built until 1824 so Palmer would spend time at the Dulwich Gallery (opened in 1817) copying the works of the Masters and was fortunate to be allowed to view the private collection of the German merchant and insurance agent Carl Aders which included many works by artists of the Primitives movement. However one of the greatest influences on Palmer was William Blake. Blake was introduced to him by Linnell in 1824, who at the time, because of his art work, was viewed by many of the art establishment as an obscure and impoverished figure and thought to be just a harmless madman. Palmer had always been a visionary and this was enhanced once he entered the world of William Blake
In 1824, Palmer’s health once again deteriorated. He suffered from asthma and bronchitis, and so he decided to follow his mother’s old remedy of leaving London and heading to the South Coast. He visited the Kent village of Shoreham, and two years later he moved there permanently, buying himself a small run-down house, which he called Rat Abbey maybe because of his fellow dwellers in the old building! A short time later, his father sold up his book selling business and left London and joined his son in Shoreham. He rented half of a large house with the name Waterhouse which was situated on the banks of the River Darent. Samuel Palmer’s nurse, Mary Ward, and his brother William joined Samuel snr. and also came to live there. The Water House proved to be of use to Samuel as it often housed visiting guests and fellow artists when there was no room at Rat Abbey. Finally in 1828 Samuel Palmer left his small house and went to live with his father at Water House and stayed there for the rest of his time in Shoreham and it was during those heady days in Shoreham that Samuel first encountered John Linnell’s daughter Hannah whom he would later marry. Palmer loved his new home and we can witness his contentment shown in his autobiographical letter published in The Portfolio art journal of that time. He wrote:
“…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 …”
It was during his time in Shoreham that he founded, along with George Richmond and Edward Calvert, an artistic group of painters that were all inspired by William Blake. The group were known as The Ancients or the Shoreham Ancients. They were an artistic brotherhood who would meet both in Shoreham at Palmer’s home and at Blake’s apartment home in London. This like-minded group of painters were followers of William Blake and were attracted to archaism in art, a style which has the deliberate intention to emulate a style of the past to suit contemporary vision. With the exception of Palmer, most of the members of the “brotherhood” were former students of the Royal Academy, who had broken away from the confines of academic teaching and concentrated on their idealized vision of the past.
The Ancients were in existent around the same time as another art group was formed in Rome by some nineteenth century German painters. They were known as the Nazarenes a derisory title which was used against them by detractors because of the biblical manner in the way they dressed and their Christ-like long hair and beards. Samuel Palmer used to wear revivalist-type clothes and in a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London we see him with long hair and a full beard wearing a round-necked pleated smock under a coat. It was during this time that critics believe that Samuel Palmer created his best works of art. They were small landscapes which were almost composed of just a single colour using watercolour or ink. The depictions enforced Palmer’s religious belief which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God and all the food derived from the fields were gifts from God.
An example of a Samuel Palmer painting of this time and type is one he completed in 1825 entitled The Valley Thick with Corn which is part of the six so-called Oxford Sepias, a group which now belongs to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The six pictures were completed between 1825 and 1835 at a time when Palmer found inspiration in the landscape around his home village of Shoreham. The area was inspirational for him and it allowed him to produce, what some believe to be, some of the greatest English pictures of the 19th century.
The Valley Thick with Corn is a beautiful brown ink pen drawing which has been finished off with a layer of varnish. This coating has aged over the years and has now given the work a rich yellow-brown finish. The setting for the painting is undulating cornfields. The darkness of the picture suggests it is late evening with the full moon rising over distant rounded hills and a tall thin church spire. A horse drawn cart can just be made out in the top left of the picture, as it trundles up a steep track. In the foreground we see an elderly bearded man dressed in what looks like Elizabethan clothes lying on the ground surrounded by ears of corn. He is stretched out and rests on his elbow. On his lap lies an open book so he could be reading, albeit he looks as if he has fallen asleep. Behind and to the right of him we see two cows slowly making their way through the cornfields. To the left, in the mid ground, we see upright sheaves of corn which have been harvested and awaiting collection and behind them are sheep tended by the shepherd who sits under a tree and plays music to them on his pipes.
In 1829 Palmer completed his work entitled In a Shoreham Garden. It is a wonderful work at a time which is looked upon as the height of Palmer’s achievements. The picture is a small watercolour heightened with gouache on stiff smooth cardboard often referred to as Bristol Board. The work, measured just 28 x 22 cms and remained in Palmer’s own collection, no doubt in memory of Shoreham, the village he had loved so much. It now resides in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. It is full of light and colour with the dominating feature being an apple fruit tree in full blossom on the end of a path within a walled garden. The tree is loaded with flowers. In fact, besides the side of a wooden building in the right foreground the picture is an abundance of colourful flowers, bushes and trees which reach up to the sky. In the background we see a lady wearing a long flowing red dress gazing out to something out of view to the right of the painting. It is thought that the painting was a scene from the garden of his and his father’s Water Garden house. It is now part of the V&A collection.
What is thought to be a companion piece to In a Shoreham Garden is one of his other 1830 works, The Magic Apple Tree.
Around 1830, Palmer also completed a work entitled Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star. It was a small painting measuring just 19 x 30cms. The painting is now considered one of Palmer’s finest moonscape paintings. We see a man carrying a staff, dressed in a long smock and wearing a wide brimmed hat walking through a cornfield with his dog. In the foreground there are again sheaves of corn. The sky is dark, lit up by a waxing sickle moon and an evening star, which could be, because of its brightness, the planet Venus. The light emitting from the moon is probably much stronger than it would be for such a moon but it serves to illuminate the land. There is no documentation to tell us the location of the scene but the rolling hills we see was characteristic of the Shoreham area.
In 1835, after ten years in the Kent village, Palmer left Shoreham and went to live back in London. He had hoped to earn some money by selling some of the work he had accumulated whilst at Shoreham and he also hoped that he would be able to make some money by teaching art in the capital.
Samuel Palmer and Linnell’s eldest daughter, Hannah, married on 20th September, 1837 after an engagement which lasted several years. Linnell had always been supportive of the match unlike his wife who was somewhat opposed to the liaison. Samuel Palmer, funded by his new in-laws, and his new wife Hannah set off on their honeymoon to Italy in October 1837, a journey which would last two years and one that Palmer’s mother-in-law was vehemently opposed to..
A later painting by Samuel Palmer, one of his largest watercolours measuring 94 x 130cms, may have come from sketches he made during the honeymoon. It was exhibited in 1864 and entitled Dream in the Apennine. The depiction is a view of Rome as seen from the south-east. It is now owned by the Tate in London. When it was first exhibited it came with a note which read:
“…Suddenly, at a turn in the mountain road, we looked for the first time on that Plain; the dispenser of law, the refuge of philosophy, the cradle of faith. Ground which Virgil trod and Claude invested with supernatural beauty was sketched – but with a trembling pencil...”
In the foreground we see a young girl peering over the edge of a stone wall at the fast flowing river below. She is throwing stones into the valley below. There are goats standing behind her which may well be in her charge. Behind and to the left of the girl we see a fully laden cart being pulled by a pair of mighty oxen which are being controlled by a young man. A small child rushes towards the cart to add a few more bunches of flowers to the already filled large wicker baskets. In the distance, on the plain we can see the Eternal city and the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
The last work of Samuel Palmer which I am looking at was an etching which he completed in 1879 entitled The Lonely Tower. The scene before us was first exhibited as a watercolour at the Watercolour Society by Palmer in 1868. Along with the watercolour there was a quotation from Il Penseroso (The Serious Man), a poem by Palmer’s favourite poet, John Milton.
“…Or let my lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in some lonely tower,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes…”
Palmer and his family were living at Furze Hill House in Reigate and from his study he could look out towards Leith Hill and the folly, built in 1765 which is at its summit. It could be this that he saw when he painted The Lonely Tower. It is a depiction of a remote hilltop tower standing on the edge of a cliff with its single light shining out against a darkening sky. It is now the remains of what once had a greater purpose. We see a crescent moon against a horizon which is filled with clouds and stars which sparkle brightly. Below and to the left of the light we see a man struggling to get his ox-cart up a steep track. On the opposite side of the deep ravine we see two shepherds gazing up at the light and the night sky. Flying over the ravine we see a barn owl. It is such an atmospheric and haunting picture. The Irish poet W B Yeats referred to the work in his poem Phases of the Moon:
“…He has found, after the manner of his kind,
Mere images; chosen this place to live in
Because, it may be, of the candle-light
From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist
Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;
And now he seeks in book or manuscript
What he shall never find…”
This was by far the most evocative of Palmer’s late works.
Hannah and Samuel’s first son was born on January 27th 1842. He was named Thomas More Walter George Palmer, Thomas More, after the famous fifteenth century statesman and philosopher who was councillor to Henry VIII, and George after Samuel’s good friend George Richmond. He was a boy who grew to be a studious young man during which time he survived many boyhood scrapes whilst in Grammar school prior to going to Oxford University. Sadly his father’s dream that his son would get to Oxford was dashed when the young man’s health deteriorated in 1859 and eighteen months later, after a long and painful illness, died on July 11th 1861. He died at the tender age of nineteen. Both Hannah and Samuel were devastated. Samuel Palmer never got over his loss. In his work The Lonely Tower the Great Bear star constellation depicted in the sky in the background is said to be as it was on the night his son died and as he looked skyward in grief. It was forever engraved on his mind.
The couple had another son Alfred Herbert Palmer who was born in 1860. He went on to publish a biography of his father The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer in 1892.
Samuel Palmer died on May 24th 1881 aged seventy-six. Palmer’s father-in-law and mentor John Linnell died six months later. Palmer’s wife Hannah died twelve years later and the two are together in a cemetery in St Mary Magdalene churchyard in Reigate. A strange twist to this story is the fact that in 1909, many of Palmer’s Shoreham works were destroyed by his surviving son Alfred, who burnt a great quantity of father’s sketchbooks, notebooks and original works. His reasoning behind the destruction was that he believed that nobody would not be able to make head nor tail of the material and that he wished to save it from a more “humiliating fate”. Alfred Herbert Palmer died in 1931.
There is so much about Samuel Palmer I haven’t included in the two blogs but I hope that there is enough in them to tempt you to read more about the artist and I recommend an excellent book which will tell you all you about the great man. It is written by Rachel Campbell-Johnston the chief art critic and poetry critic for the Times. The book is entitled Mysterious Wisdom. The Life and work of Samuel Palmer.