Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palmer, Samuel (1805-1881)

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PALMER, SAMUEL (1805–1881), poetical landscape-painter, the son of a bookseller, was born in Surrey Square, St. Mary's, Newington, on 27 Jan. 1805. A delicate and very sensitive child, he was not sent early to school. His nurse, Mary Ward (afterwards his servant), was a woman of superior mind, and his father taught him Latin and Greek, and encouraged a love for the Bible and English literature, especially the older poets. Later he was sent to Merchant Taylors' School; but his father soon removed him, in order that he might study art, for which he had shown some inclination. When he was nearly thirteen years old he lost his mother, a shock from which he is said not to have recovered for many years. It was now settled that he was to be a painter. He received his first lessons from an obscure artist named Wate, and in 1819 was fortunate enough to have three of his landscapes accepted at the Royal Academy, and two at the British Institution. One of the latter (either ‘Bridge Scene’ or ‘Landscape—Composition’) was bought by a Mr. Wilkinson for seven guineas. In this year his address, given in the Royal Academy Catalogue, was 126 Houndsditch, but next year it was 10 Broad Street, Bloomsbury.

Palmer exhibited sparingly at the Royal Academy in 1820, and from 1822 to 1826, and at the British Institution in 1821 and 1822. During this period he formed the acquaintance of John Linnell [q. v.], his future father-in-law, who gave him valuable counsel and instruction in art. Linnell introduced him to John Varley [q. v.], William Mulready [q. v.], and William Blake (1757–1827) [q. v.] The introduction to Blake took place in 1824, when Blake was about halfway through his illustrations to Job. Though Blake was sixty-seven years old, and had but three more years to live, his imagination and power of design were at their highest, and had a profound influence upon Palmer. Their intercourse lasted about two years when there was a temporary breakdown in Palmer's health; and partly on this account, and partly in order to make designs from Ruth, he, accompanied by his father, left London for Shoreham, near Sevenoaks in Kent, where he remained for about seven years at a cottage named ‘Waterhouse.’

A small competence enabled them to live with extreme frugality in the simple enjoyment of a country life, passed in the midst of beautiful scenery and cheered by congenial companionship. Among their friends and visitors were George Richmond (now R.A.), Edward Calvert [q. v.]—both ardent admirers of Blake—a cousin named John Giles, and Henry Walter, an animal-painter. This little society went by the name of ‘The Ancients.’ The days were spent in painting and walking, the evenings in reading English poetry and music, and they were fond of nightly rambles. Palmer at that time played the violin and sang, but he afterwards gave up the practice of music to devote himself more exclusively to painting. At Shoreham he painted in oil, and made many water-colour sketches from nature and studies in poetical landscape, mostly in sepia and ivory black. The subjects were principally pastoral or scriptural, and were treated in a spirit of primitive simplicity akin to that of Blake's wood-engravings to Thornton's ‘Pastorals,’ which had also a strong influence on E. Calvert. In these years of poetical musing in the presence of nature, seen by the light of his favourite poets, the ideal of his art was formed. The only works exhibited from 1827 to 1832 were ‘The Deluge, a sketch,’ and ‘Ruth returned from Gleaning,’ which appeared at the Royal Academy in 1829. In 1832 his address in the Royal Academy Catalogue is 4 Grove Street, Lisson Grove, a small house bought with a legacy, and here he settled in this or the following year.

A sudden activity marks this period. In 1832 he took a sketching tour in North Wales, and sent seven works to the Royal Academy, in 1833 six, and in 1834 five, as well as a like number to the British Institution. About this time he paid his first visit to Devonshire, a country the scenery of which, with its ‘heaped-up richness,’ gave him all he desired in landscape. This visit is marked by a ‘Scene from Lee, North Devon,’ which appeared at the Royal Academy in 1835, and the exhibited drawings of the next two years tell of a visit to North Wales.

In 1837 Palmer married Hannah, the eldest daughter of John Linnell. The marriage, in deference to the views of his father-in-law and to his after regret, was performed at a registry office. His friend George Richmond having taken to himself a wife about the same time, the two couples went off together to Italy, where Palmer and his wife stayed two years. Mrs. Palmer made copies from the old masters for her father, and also sketched from nature. Some of her Italian views were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840 and 1842. They seem to have spent most of their time in Rome, but made some stay at Naples. Palmer's first contribution to the Royal Academy after his return was ‘Pompeii, the Street of the Tombs’ (1840), which was followed by other Italian drawings in 1841 and 1842. In the latter year a son was born to him. He had confined himself almost, if not entirely, to water-colour while he was abroad; and though he resumed painting in oils after his return from Italy, and never lost the desire to work in that medium, he practically abandoned it after 1843, when he was elected an associate of the (now Royal) Society of Painters in Water-colours. After this he left off exhibiting at the Royal Academy and the British Institution, and contributed only to the exhibitions of his society. In the first year or two he exhibited many Italian drawings, delicate in colour and carefully drawn, but not strongly distinguished from the work of other men. Henceforth his subjects were mostly English pastorals—aged oaks and cornfields, gleaners and nutting-parties, gipsy-dells, and rising storms—or belonged to the classes of ‘Romantic,’ ‘Classic,’ or ‘Ideal.’ Among the latter were illustrations of the ‘Pilgrim's Progress’ and Spenser, and such designs as ‘St. Paul landing in Italy,’ ‘Robinson Crusoe guiding his Raft up the Creek,’ ‘Farewell to Calypso,’ or ‘Mercury driving away the Cattle of Admetus.’ In 1855 he exhibited for the first time a drawing from Milton, ‘The Dell of Comus,’ which was followed by two other illustrations from the same masque in 1856. His favourite effects were twilight, sunsets, and moonlights; and once he went out of his usual course to record in a striking drawing an unusual phenomenon, ‘The Comet of 1859, as seen from the skirts of Dartmoor.’

During these years he eked out his slender income by giving drawing lessons. In 1843 he again visited North Wales. In 1845 he was at Margate, and spent some time at Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire. In 1846 he made some drawings, which were engraved on wood, for the illustration of Dickens's ‘Pictures from Italy.’ In 1847 he lost his only daughter (born 1844), an event which he felt intensely, and which caused him to leave Lisson Grove for Kensington (1A Victoria Road) in the spring of 1848. In December of this year his father died. At Victoria Road and at 6 Dover Place, Marlborough Place, Kensington, whither he moved about 1850, he commenced the practice of etching. Among his neighbours and friends in that locality were T. O. Barlow, R.A., and C. W. Cope, R.A.—the former an engraver, and the latter as clever with the etching-needle as the paint-brush. He was elected a member of the Etching Society in 1853, his probationary etching being a beautiful little plate called ‘The Willows.’ Ten out of Palmer's thirteen etchings were executed at Kensington.

In 1854 Palmer was elected a full member of the Water-colour Society, to which he continued to contribute from two to eight drawings annually. In 1856 he undertook nine illustrations to Adams's ‘Sacred Allegories.’ In 1857 he sketched in Cornwall, and in 1858 and 1860 in Devonshire. On sketching excursions, with no luggage but one spare shirt, and associating much with the country folk, he travelled a great deal on foot, and often walked throughout the night.

He still found it hard to make a living, and grew despondent and tired even of his work, and in 1861 he sustained a very severe blow in the death of his eldest son at the age of nineteen. He removed from London, and after a year's stay at Reigate, took up his residence at Furze Hill House, Mead Vale, Redhill, where he spent the remaining twenty years of his life. Although he did not produce much, partly through failing health and partly from his excessive care and deliberation, it is to this period that his finest work belongs.

It was due to the sympathetic suggestion of a stranger, Mr. L. R. Valpy, that Palmer found a field in which he could exercise all his finest faculties and employ them to realise the dreams of a lifetime. This was a commission for drawings in illustration of ‘L'Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso,’ two of those ‘minor poems’ of Milton, a brass-clamped copy of which, given to him by his nurse on her death-bed, he had carried with him wherever he went for twenty years. ‘I never,’ he once wrote, ‘knew such a sacred and home-felt delight as when endeavouring, in all humility, to realise, after a sort, the imagery of Milton.’ Fortunately the growing infirmities of his body seem to have been accompanied by an increase in the clearness and completeness of his imagination, and though he took long about these drawings, fearing to part with them till they had received those ‘final gossamer touches and tendernesses’ which he compared to the ‘few last sunglows which give the fruits their sweetness,’ they may be regarded as the supreme expression of the man and the artist. Brilliant, rich, and powerful in colour, they are finished to a degree seldom attained, and yet, despite their elaboration, contain no touch unfelt or useless. These were all exhibited at the Water-colour Society in the following order: ‘The Lonely Tower,’ ‘A Towered City,’ and ‘Morning,’ 1868 (winter exhibition), ‘The Curfew,’ 1870 (summer), ‘The Waters Murmuring,’ 1877 (summer), ‘The Prospect’ and ‘The Eastern Gate,’ 1881 (winter), and ‘The Bellman,’ 1882 (summer). The last two were perhaps the finest of all.

Among other fine drawings belonging to this period were: ‘The Brother come Home from Sea,’ ‘The Chapel by the Bridge,’ ‘The Golden Hour,’ ‘Lycidas,’ ‘A Golden City’ (a dream of Rome), ‘Tityrus restored to his Patrimony,’ and ‘Sabrina.’

At Redhill he again took up his etching-needle and added three more plates (‘The Bellman,’ ‘The Lonely Tower,’ and ‘Opening the Fold’) to the ten he had finished at Kensington. Palmer delighted in etching even more than in painting, and his plates are like his drawings—visions of tender poetry, powerful and subtle in illumination, and finished to the last degree. For the Etching Club, besides his probationary plate, ‘The Willow,’ he executed seven plates. These were published by the Club: ‘The Vine’ (two subjects on one plate), in 1852; ‘The Sleeping Shepherd,’ ‘The Skylark,’ and ‘The Rising Moon,’ in 1857; ‘The Herdsman’ in 1865, ‘The Morning of Life’ in 1872, and ‘The Lonely Tower’ in 1880. ‘The Herdsman's Cottage,’ a sunset scene, was published as ‘Sunrise’ in the ‘Portfolio’ for November 1872; ‘Christmas’ in ‘A Memoir of S. Palmer,’ 1882; ‘The Early Ploughman’ in Hamerton's ‘Etching and Etchers;’ ‘The Bellman,’ by the Fine Art Society, in 1879; and ‘Opening the Fold’ in the artist's ‘English Version of the Eclogues of Virgil,’ published posthumously in 1883.

On this work of translating and illustrating the Eclogues he had been engaged for many years before his death. Of the illustrations, only one had been completely etched. Four more were in progress and were completed by his son, Mr. A. H. Palmer. The five plates, with photographic reproductions of the remaining designs, were published with the translation.

During his later years his circumstances were easier, his prices higher, his commissions constant, and little occurred to disturb the even tenor of his life. He saw few visitors, and seldom left home except now and then to pay a visit to Mr. J. C. Hook (now R.A.) at Churt, but spent most of his time in musing and meditating over his designs and reading his favourite authors. One of the very few new friends he made was Mr. J. Merrick Head of Reigate, his legal adviser and executor, who possesses several choice examples of his art.

After a life distinguished by its innocence, its simplicity, and its devotion to an artistic ideal for which he sacrificed all worldly considerations, Palmer died on 24 May 1881.

Palmer was one of the most original and poetical of English landscape-painters, and almost the last of the ideal school of landscape, which, based mainly on the pictures of Claude, was represented in England by Wilson and Turner, and many others. Claude, Turner, Blake, and Linnell had a distinct influence in developing Palmer's genius, but his work stands apart by itself. As a man he was loved by all who knew him. His circle of acquaintances was small, but his friendships were deep. His religious convictions were strong, his opinions on other points conservative in character, and often founded on slender knowledge, but they were always the result of much reflection. The warmth of his feeling and a genuine vein of humour added vivacity to his conversation and correspondence. His translation of the ‘Eclogues of Virgil’ is unequal and diffuse, but shows true poetical feeling and contains some beautiful passages; but his best prose (as in the preface to this volume, and his delightful letters, many of which have been published) is superior to his verse. A collection of Palmer's works was exhibited shortly after his death by the Fine Art Society, and seventeen of his finest drawings were lent to the winter exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1893.

[Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer by A. H. Palmer; Samuel Palmer: Memoir by A. H. Palmer; Notes by F. G. Stephens on Exhibition of Palmer's works at the Fine Art Society in 1881; Shorter Poems of John Milton, with illustrations by Samuel Palmer and preface by A. H. Palmer; Roget's ‘Old’ Water-colour Society; Gilchrist's Life of William Blake; Story's Life of John Linnell; Life of Edward Calvert; An English Version of the Eclogues of Virgil by Samuel Palmer; Athenæum, 4 June and 5 Nov. 1881; Portfolio, November 1872.]

C. M.