Palmer was William Blake's most important follower and a member of the "Ancients." His most intense works, a series of tiny landscape paintings and drawings, were produced in Shoreham, Kent, which he first visited in 1825 and where he lived between 1827 and 1832.
Palmer was the son of a bookseller and first studied art under William Wate, a minor drawing master. In 1822 he first met John Linnell, the landscape painter, who introduced him to his friend Blake, encouraged him to look at Dürer's prints and stimulated the visionary qualities of his work. A further vital influence was Blake's illustrations to Thornton's Virgil (1821), which Palmer described as 'visions of little dells and nooks and corners of paradise'. It is probable that the linear designs of his early work attempt to emulate the qualities of northern renaissance woodcuts. After 1826 he developed a freer and more tonal manner. While he lived in Shoreham, artist friends visited him, including Edward Calvert, George Richmond [whose portrait of him is shown above right], Francis Oliver Finch and Frederick Tatham. They formed a sort of artistic brotherhood and called themselves the "Ancients," because of their shared admiration for early renaissance art and their belief in the superiority of ancient over modern humanity. Palmer's visionary sensibility began to fade around 1832. He moved to London and during the 1830s travelled in England and Wales producing topographical watercolours in a more traditional manner. In 1837, he married Hannah Linnell, daughter of his mentor, and spent an extended honeymoon in Italy, after which he practiced as a watercolour painter and teacher. He was elected Associate of the Old Watercolour Society in 1843 and Member in 1854. At the end of his life he recaptured the visionary qualities of his art in a group of etchings after Milton. Raymond Lister's exhibition Samuel Palmer and "The Ancients" was held at the Fitzwllliam Museum in Cambridge in 1984 and provides further biographical and bibliographical information about this major artist. — Hilary Morgan
Palmer’s later career and reputation
The last period of Palmer’s career was marked by growing critical appreciation for the poetry of his idyllic landscapes. This followed the commission from Leonard Rowe Valpy, John Ruskin’s lawyer, to paint a series of watercolours based on Milton’s early poems, “L’Allegro” and “Il Peneroso.” Palmer had been planning this landscape cycle for some time, and needed only the impetus of a patron to start. A succession of watercolours and etchings resulted.
However it was not until the twentieth century that he came to be fully recognised as one of the great and most original English landscape artists. In the years following the deaths of Constable and Turner, it was Palmer, not his father-in-law John Linnell, who changed British art. Although Linnell was prolific and perhaps the most commercially successful British artist of the nineteenth century, then considered with Turner to be the greatest of their age, it is Palmer whose visions and innovations have stood the test of time. As a visionary artist, he made landscapes created from the close observation and experience of nature distilled in his memory and imagination. The tradition of Pastoral art follows his example. Kenneth Clark saw Palmer as the English Van Gogh. There are several similarities between these two eccentric recluses, both profoundly religious, seeking to uncover a spiritual presence in nature. Palmer wrote that "the painter’s and the poet’s struggles are solitary and patient, silent and sublime." — The Fine Art Society 2014
Lister, Raymond. Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Samuel Palmer. Cambridge, 1988.
Morgan, Hilary and Nahum, Peter. Burne-Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Century. London: Peter Nahum, 1989.
Vaughan, William, Elizabeth E. Barker, and Clive Harrison. Samuel Palmer, 1805-1881: Vision and Landscape. London: Lund Humphries, 2005.
Last modified 20 December 2001