Artist Samuel Palmer: Entranced by Nature

“The Lonely Tower” by Samuel Palmer (before 1881); watercolor, gouache, and gum arabic on board. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. © The Huntington

Rural romantic

“A Memoir of Samuel Palmer,” by Samuel Palmer, A.H. Palmer, and F.G. Stephens (Getty Publications, 96 pp., $10.95)

by Bondo Wyszpolski

In addition to its often meaty and handsome art catalogues, the Getty has since 2018 been releasing a series of low-priced, small-format paperbacks under the general title of “Lives of the Artists.” To date, there have been 21 announced, with the majority focused on artists who are very well known, such as Raphael and Rubens, Van Gogh and Rembrandt. But as the series expands, and let us hope that it will, lesser-known artists are joining the pack, and that’s a good thing. For example, it’s easier to find a monograph devoted to Michelangelo than to Artemisia Gentileschi, the latter volume being one of the newer additions. Also new is “A Memoir of Samuel Palmer,” a British Romantic landscape painter who lived from 1805 to 1881, and who came of age when Turner and Constable were the big fish in English art.

Palmer was born in South London, his father “a dreamy bookseller and fervent lay preacher,” in the words of William Vaughan, who wrote the introduction. Not surprisingly, then, the Bible and the works of John Milton were influential during Palmer’s earliest years.

Cover image, detail from “Self-Portrait,” by Samuel Palmer (c. 1824-25); black chalk, heightened with white, on buff paper. Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

As a young man, Palmer was a member of The Ancients, an artist group or circle that, like the Nazarenes in Italy (many of them from Germany) and the Pre-Raphaelites in England, looked to an earlier time in the history of art to find their inspiration. However, a big moment occurred for Palmer when, in 1824, fellow landscape painter John Linnell introduced him to William Blake. As Palmer was later to write, “No lapse of years can efface the memory of hours spent in familiar conversation with that great man.”

Every dog has his day, and it’s the same with artists. For Palmer, that “day” may have been the years from 1827 to 1835 spent painting in the Kent village of Shoreham. The bucolic, pastoral scenes that have come down to us could be considered a portrait of rural England before the onslaught of urban industry—the latter as described in novels by Charles Dickens. Or, as Edward Lucie-Smith writes in “Symbolist Art,” Palmer’s “visionary inspiration endured for only a few brief years, until the Golden Age which the artist had created in his own mind was snuffed out by the naturalism of the times he lived in.”

In that sense, it was a gentler Romanticism than, say, Turner’s or Delacroix’s, with a pantheistic and mystical flavor. As quoted by David Cecil in his book “Visionary & Dreamer” (a dual biography of Palmer and Edward Burne-Jones), Palmer said: “Genius is the unreserved devotion of the whole soul to the divine, poetic arts and through them to God; deeming all else, even to our daily bread, only valuable to us as it helps us to unveil the heavenly face of Beauty.”

During the early 20th century, Palmer’s artistic sensibility was retrieved by noted English artists such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper. On these shores, the mood is reminiscent of Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Although Palmer had his sights set on being recognized for his paintings, he found greater success as a watercolorist and etcher. The picture at the top of this article, “The Lonely Tower” (before 1881), consists of watercolor, gouache, and gum arabic on board, but better yet (for Southern Californians) the work is owned by the Huntington in San Marino, and in less onerous times is on public display.

In 1881, Palmer’s youngest son, Alfred Herbert Palmer, wrote a brief “Life of Samuel Palmer,” which was published in the catalogue that accompanied the retrospective of Palmer’s work at the Fine Art Society. Although planned earlier, the retrospective was held just after Palmer’s death.

“A Memoir of Samuel Palmer” concludes with a thoughtful appraisal by F.G. Stephens called “Notes on Some Pictures, Drawings and Etchings by Samuel Palmer exhibited at the Fine Art Society.” For Stephens, who had been the art critic for “The Athenaeum” for more than 40 years, Palmer’s work brought to mind the poetry of Keats and Tennyson, which is understandable when you see those huge luminous Moons that appear often in a Palmer landscape.

Stephens, in his essay, discusses numerous paintings at length, such as “The Bright Cloud” (c.1833-34), “The Skylark” (c.1833 and later), “A Golden City” (1873), “The Comet of 1858” (1858-59), and, yes, “The Lonely Tower.” However, several works he mentions are listed as “untraced.” They may one day resurface, or they may be as lost in the mists of time as that “Golden Age” which Palmer enjoyed for a very few but very special years in the Kent village of Shoreham. ER

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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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