Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)
Born 1805 off the Old Kent Road in London, Palmer was the son of a bookseller and Baptist lay preacher. He was thought “too fragile” for school, and educated at home by his parents; the Bible, Milton and Virgil provided him with subjects throughout his life. He began to draw (mostly church buildings) at a young age, and exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere at the age of fourteen. He was advised by the painter John Linnell, later his father-in-law, to take classes on drawing the figure, which he did at the British Museum School (later the Royal College of Art).
Linnell introduced him to William Blake in 1824: “He fixed his grey eyes upon me, and said, ‘Do you work with fear and trembling?’ ‘Yes, indeed,’ was the reply. ‘Then,’ said he, ‘you’ll do.’ “
Over the next two years Palmer spent increasing amounts of time at Shoreham in the Kent countryside, finally moving there completely. The Shoreham years, which lasted until 1835, produced his best work, of which the Cornfield by Moonlight we reproduce is an excellent example. The years began with a strongly ‘primitive’ period under the influence of Blake (and early German prints); he then moved to a richer style, lyrical and visionary. Most of these works were only shown to a few friends; living cheaply he was able to produce work without thought of sale.
Shoreham became the centre for the Ancients, a group, almost a ‘brotherhood’, of artists who were followers of Blake in different ways. Edward Calvert and George Richmond were the most significant other figures in the group. Only Palmer lived in Shoreham permanently.
In the 1830s Palmer began to need an income from his work, and was also becoming disturbed by changes in the countryside, and conflict between his vision of life there and the increasing troubled reality of rural life. In 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act, he published “An Address to the Electors of West Kent” in support of the Tory candidate. He believed the Act would not benefit life in the countryside.
In 1835 he returned to live in London, in Lisson Grove “then the heart of a clean, bright, and wholesome region, which is far other than its present condition” (according to his son in 1881). Calvert and Linnel lived close nearby, and in 1837 he married Linnell’s daughter, who was herself a good artist. He had made long trips through the West of England and Wales in 1835-7, producing more conventional landscapes. After the wedding the couple spent two years in Italy.
His current work gained more public acceptance during the 1840s and 1850s, but he had to supplement his income by teaching. He moved to Kensington, then still partly countryside, and later to Redhill in Surrey. In his final years his art became again more intense, and he returned to his Shoreham subjects, which were now treated with a high Victorian romanticism.
After his death in 1881 his son destroyed huge amounts of material, both art and writing, much of it from his Shoreham period.
Although the art of his later years had some influence at the time, his early work did not become generally known or appreciated until the following century, during which its reputation grew steadily. By 1949 Kenneth Clark (who had bought the picture we reproduce in the 1930s) could write that Palmer had “almost too pervasive an influence on recent English painting” (Landscape into Art).