The Early Ploughman. Samuel Palmer, RWS 1805-81. 1861. Etching, signed in pencil “Samuel Palmer,” lower right, printed in black ink on laid paper, 5⅛ x 8 ¾ inches (13.1 x 19.8 cm); sheet 7 x 10½ inches (17.7 x 26.7 cm). Seventh state (of nine). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by Gordon Cooke

The Early Ploughman’s history began when Palmer was living in Kensington and he worked on the plate intermittently for the rest of his life, 'nally re-biting it in January 1880. In the intervening years it was published in P.G. Hamerton’s Etching and Etchers, in 1868 (in the fourth state), and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873 (a seventh state printed by Frederick Goulding) as ‘The morning spread upon the mountains’ (1296).

The Early Ploughman and The Weary Ploughman are companion pieces and the compositions mirror one another. In the first the ploughman returns home and the full moon marks the direction of his journey. He walks past a large chestnut tree as his oxen lead him down to a village buried in a valley, smoke rising from chimneys. An impression was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865 (876) together with one of The Rising Moon (872), then called ‘Evening pastures’; The Early Ploughman then had a title derived from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in Country Churchyard, ‘The ploughman homeward plods his weary way’.

It was Frederick Griggs who proposed the title now used, and it neatly acknowledges the association with Gray and the relationship with The Early Ploughman. In this, the ploughman and his team come from the opposite side of the composition, cutting the first furrow as the first sunbeams light the landscape. A screen of cypress trees fills the right hand side of the composition and a woman carrying water walks across the 'eld, and the inspiration for the subject seems to have been Italian rather than English.

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.


Cooke, Gordon. Samuel Palmer, His Friends, and Followers.Exhibition Catalogue. London: The Fine Art Society, 2012. No. 23.

Lister, Raymond. Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Samuel Palmer. Cambridge, 1988. pp.244–245 E9 vii/ix.

Vaughan, William, Elizabeth E. Barker, Colin Harrison Samuel Palmer 1805–1881: Vision and Landscape. London, 2005.

Last modified 25 May 2014