The Bellman. Samuel Palmer, RWS 1805-81. 1879. Etching, printed on laid paper, with watermark, 7½ x 9 ⅞ inches (19.2 x 25 cm); sheet 9 x 14⅛ inches (23 x 36.1 cm). Fifth state (of seven), one of 60 impressions in the de luxe edition, published by The Fine Art Society, 1879, with the stamp of C.W. Dowdeswell, verso. Provenance: Private Collection by descent; bought from The Fine Art Society in the nineteenth century. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by Gordon Cooke

In 1863 Palmer received a letter from Leonard Rowe Valpy, a solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn, whose clients included John Ruskin. Valpy proposed to buy a watercolour by Palmer, Twilight: the Chapel by the Bridge, shown in the winter exhibition of the Old Water-Colour Society, if the artist would consider lowering the light from the chapel windows. Palmer agreed that they ‘glare a little and should rather glimmer’. This unusual first contact between artist and buyer led to a commission from Valpy in 1864 to paint a series of watercolours inspired by two early poems by John Milton ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. The Milton series was the crowning glory of the last phase of Palmer’s life, and two of the greatest subjects also became the basis for two of his greatest etchings. Both were inspired by lines from ‘Il Penseroso’:

Or the Belman’s drousie charm,
To bless the dores from nightly harm:
Or let my Lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in some high lonely Towr
Where I may o& out-watch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes.

The Bellman was the 'rst print by the artist published by The Fine Art Society, and it would have been through an introduction from Valpy that this came about. Valpy also wrote an essay for the catalogue of the memorial exhibition and was, with the artist’s son, author of Samuel Palmer, a Memoir, published by The Fine Art Society in 1882

. The artist had known the lines from Milton which refer to the bellman since childhood, and he had already realised a vision of a figure entering a village as darkness settles in The Weary Ploughman. The image suggests a symbolic interpretation as well as the description in the poem, but most importantly for Palmer it brought back memories of Shoreham. He wrote to his friend, the artist and critic Philip (P.G.) Hamerton about the etched version:

I am very glad that you like my Bellman … It is breaking out of village-fever long after contact – a dream of that genuine village where I mused away some of my best years, designing what nobody would care for, and contracting, among good books, a fastidious and unpopular taste.

In a letter to Leonard Valpy of 20 October 1864, Palmer wrote that the Milton project might be expanded to include prints, although it would be '(een years before this came about:

The Etching dream came over me in this way. making my working sketches a quarter of the size of the drawings, and was surprised and not displeased to notice the variety – the di!erence of each from all the rest. I saw within a set of highly-finished etchings the size of Turner’s Liber Studiorum; and as "nished as my moonlight with cypresses; a set making a book – a compact block of work which I would fain hope might live when I am with the fallen leaves.


Cooke, Gordon. Samuel Palmer, His Friends, and Followers.Exhibition Catalogue. London: The Fine Art Society, 2012. No. 15.

The Fine Art Society, London, has most generously given its permission to use information, images, and text from its catalogues in the Victorian Web. This generosity has led to the creation of hundreds and hundreds of the site's most valuable documents on painting, drawing, sculpture, furniture, textiles, ceramics, glass, metalwork, and the people who created them. The copyright on text and images from their catalogues remains, of course, with the Fine Art Society.

Lister, Raymond. Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Samuel Palmer. Cambridge, 1988. pp. pp.246–247 E11 v/VII.

Last modified 25 May 2014