Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 3, 2006
William Vaughn, Elizabeth E. Barker, and Colin Harrison Samuel Palmer, 1805–1881: Vision and Landscape Exh. cat. Burlington, Vt.: Lund Humphries, 2005. 256 pp.; 233 color ills. $80.00 (0853319324)
British Museum, London, October 21, 2005–January 22, 2006; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 7–May 28, 2006

Samuel Palmer, 18051881: Vision and Landscape is much more than a handsome catalogue for a splendid exhibition of the same name. It is a significant contribution to the steadily growing literature about the artist. Essays by eight different scholars place Palmer within his historical context, while detailed entries about each of the 164 exhibited works—these pictures and more, all excellently reproduced in color—give the catalogue a refreshingly visual focus. That so many authors have been asked to contribute to the publication speaks to several important characteristics of the artist’s career. Contrary to the familiar image of Palmer as a follower of William Blake and a near-recluse who lived and worked away from London, he was intimately involved in the art world of his time. He also worked in at least two very different artistic styles, a variety of mediums, and his career spanned two, if not three, artistic generations at a time of immense creativity in British landscape painting. The catalogue covers all these aspects of Palmer’s career.

William Vaughan, who has published extensively on nineteenth-century British and German art, wrote a large part of the catalogue as well as selected and organized the exhibition. His introduction offers both a survey of Palmer’s career and a discussion of the uniqueness of his artistic vision. Palmer is one of those artists who “give[s] us a new way of seeing. . . . He painted familiar scenes—trees, sheep, villages, the night sky, fields with ripened crops—but in a way that had never been done before.” This new vision made Palmer a “major innovator” and “very much a child of his time.” Like William Wordsworth, Palmer found profound meaning in the idea of nature as “the repository of a primal state that was being threatened by the material advances of mankind” (11). Like the Nazarenes, he found medieval art to be a vital source of artistic and spiritual inspiration (12). Also like them, he was part of a brotherhood of artists, a group called the Ancients, who worked together in the Kent village of Shoreham (12–13 and 17–21). There Palmer created the landscapes for which he is best known today. In them, he “celebrated the wonder of nature, though he also indicated a sense of mystery and a mood of contemplation.” Constant reading of, especially, Virgil and Milton inspired the visual poetry of these pastoral landscapes (13).

“‘It pleased God,’ wrote Palmer [in 1822], ‘to send Mr. Linnell as a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art’” (11). The watercolorist John Linnell, who was to become Palmer’s father-in-law in 1837 (14), encouraged the young artist to look at fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Northern art. He also introduced him to the painter, poet, and visionary William Blake in 1824 (12). Despite Blake’s “having endured a lifetime of poverty and neglect,” he “exemplified the concept of the artist promoted by the Romantics: the creative genius valued above all for the uniqueness of his vision, a quality quite different from the everyday perceptions of most people.” Blake’s example provided Palmer with lifelong inspiration as the model of an artist entirely dedicated to describing his inner vision (11). Unlike Blake, though, Palmer was interested in describing scenes from nature. In this respect too, Linnell made an important contribution to Palmer’s style with the example of his own “sharply observed landscapes that tore aside the conventions of picturesque composition then in vogue.” Furthermore, like Wordsworth and Blake, Linnell believed that the workings of the divine could be seen in nature (11).

Palmer’s deep and enduring relationship to literature is the subject of an essay by David Blayney Brown. Reading poetry was a central activity for Palmer. It was his “inner life of faith and books [that] decided what he saw and how he saw it.” Specific motifs that Palmer used throughout his life—“the skylark, the lonely tower, the poet by a haunted stream”—came from Milton (23). Palmer explained in a letter to his son that Virgil’s Georgics “teach the wisdom of all life and the mysteries of intellectual discipline under the veil of agriculture . . . so that the veil itself is glorious—the diamond is set in gold.” This belief explains “why Palmer avoided contemporary reportage in his landscape painting, and preferred to symbolize eternal harmonies.” It also explains his plan, never realized, to illustrate his own translation of Virgil’s Eclogues (25). His final project consisted of a commission for eight large watercolors of subjects from Milton’s pastoral poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Started in 1864, Palmer finished the last one in the months before he died. They represent “his last reinvention of himself by means of the literary works that he prized so highly” (26-27).

A political pamphlet written by Palmer in 1832 may give another dimension of meaning to the   idyllic quality of his pastoral views. As analyzed by David Bindman, Address to the Electors of West Kent suggests it is the very timelessness of Palmer’s landscapes that reveals his political opinions (30). The pamphlet, like letters from the period, shows him to have been passionately, idealistically High Tory, arguing for traditional values in the countryside as an answer to the social and religious unrest throughout the country, including around Shoreham (31). It also was affected by Palmer’s response to the French revolution of 1830 (32).

Palmer’s watercolors from the Victorian period—large, ambitious, and not well-known today—are the subject of an essay by Scott Wilcox. After 1842, Palmer no longer exhibited at the Royal Academy. Instead he showed at the annual exhibitions of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours, to which he was elected a full member in 1854. It was here that John Ruskin noticed his work, remarking in Modern Painters in 1846 that his “studies of foreign foliage [i.e., Italian] especially are beyond all praise for care and fullness. . . . [H]is feeling is as pure and grand as his fidelity is exemplary” (43). Palmer’s landscapes from mid-century are filled with detail as well as brilliant color and light. Even while his forms and subjects seem like those of the “Grand School,” Palmer’s color is more akin to younger artists such as Holman Hunt (44). By the 1870s, however, Palmer’s style seemed to be a remnant of a vanished age. “It is good in these days of literal prose,” wrote a reviewer in the Art Journal, “to see [in a painting by Palmer] an Arcadian shepherd, lute in hand, whiling away the weary hours with plaintive melody” (45). They suggest Claude’s pastoral landscapes, but also those by Turner, whose work had been an important influence on Palmer from the beginning of his career. “As the splendour of the representation of natural phenomena called to mind Turner’s painting, so did Palmer’s linking of such phenomena with literary subject matter and with classical landscape traditions.” By the time of his death in 1881, however, Palmer was “almost the sole adherent” of this style (46).

Palmer used idiosyncratic and complicated artistic methods. Thus the two essays about his technique are especially welcome. One, by Alexandra Greathead, concerns Palmer’s early years; another, by Marjorie Shelley, is about the later work. In Palmer’s early works, Greathead discovered, “it was not so much the materials that were unusual, but the way in which he used them.” Although some of the lack of conventionality of Palmer’s methods may have been the result of his limited artistic training, his “novel techniques and use of materials suggest that he felt none of the constraints to conform that his trained contemporaries may have felt” (35). By the Victorian period, according to Shelley, Palmer used technical innovations of the time along with the finest paints and papers. He combined the “transparent wash manner that prevailed throughout the century—the way he was trained and the way he taught—and the more modern technique of opaque watercolor. Persisting from Shoreham were tempera-like painting and finely hatched brushwork” (37). Concern for how his watercolors would look on the walls of an exhibition, particularly in poor light, caused an especially complex handling of paint (38). In Palmer’s own words, a drawing “could not be too much finished,” and a watercolor intended for exhibition should “make the getting in exactly resemble OIL painting” (40; emphasis in original).

Palmer and printmaking is the subject of an essay by Elizabeth Barker, one of the organizers of the exhibition. Despite his great achievements with etching, Palmer did not take up printmaking seriously until the very end of the 1840s, although his friendship with Blake, Linnell, and others had made him familiar with splendid examples decades before (47). In 1850, Palmer was nominated for membership in the Etching Club, a social and professional organization that met monthly over supper (49). United by shared ideals, the artists in the club represented the first community Palmer had been part of since the dissolution of the Ancients in the 1830s. Although he only completed thirteen etchings over three decades, and nearly all of them during the few years before he died, Palmer developed a beautiful and distinctive style using chiaroscuro and a “tracery of shimmering lines” (50). Palmer, like other artist-etchers in Britain, struggled to find printers who understood his ambitions for the plates. In 1858, the renowned French printer Auguste Delâtre came to a meeting of the Etching Club and subsequently drew proofs from some of Palmer’s plates. He was the first of only a few printers, including Palmer’s son A. H. Palmer, who had a technique that suited the subtlety of the designs (51).

The history of Palmer’s reputation is discussed by both Vaughan and Colin Harrison, the latter of whom played a major role in preparing this catalogue. Nearly forgotten within a few years after his death in 1881, Palmer was virtually unknown at the time of the major retrospective in 1926, organized by Martin Hardie at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Surprisingly, this show was the first time a significant number of the watercolors from Shoreham had been exhibited publicly. The exhibition was an immense success, and Palmer was discovered as a neglected Romantic genius (56). This was the figure who inspired modern British artists, notably Graham Sutherland and Paul Drury (57). This also was the person written about by John Piper, Kenneth Clark, and Geoffrey Grigson, who together established Palmer as a major figure of nineteenth-century British art (58–59). However, Palmer’s commitment to visionary rather than naturalistic landscapes and his conservative political views made him less interesting to art historians who studied the social and political dimensions of the visual arts. Most recently, the later watercolors and etchings have received new attention (16).

Two-thirds of Samuel Palmer, 1805–1881: Vision and Landscape consists of entries by Vaughan, Barker, and Harrison about each of the 164 works in the exhibition. The high quality of both the scholarship and the reproductions makes this section a comprehensive account of Palmer’s work. It also presents a welcome opportunity to understand his pictures within the rich context of nineteenth-century British landscape painting. Extensive references to contemporary artists and publications as well as the careful attention paid to the physical and visual characteristics of each work make this section of the catalogue immensely rewarding. Any reader will find new and interesting information. Thus, the publication marks yet another important turn in the discovery and rediscovery of Palmer’s art.

Marjorie Munsterberg
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Art, The City College of New York