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Samuel Palmer
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Newington (London)
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Redhill, U.K.
An English landscape painter and etcher, Samuel Palmer is remembered for the visionary landscapes he painted while in his twenties, the etchings he created later and the watercolors Palmer created late in his life inspired by John Milton’s (1608-1674) poetry. Born in 1805 in Newington (south London), Palmer was the son of a bookseller whose forbearers had been prosperous merchants. He suffered through a sickly childhood and was largely educated at home, particularly through the efforts of his well-read and intelligent nurse Mary Ward (d. 1837), who became a more important influence after Palmer’s mother died in 1818. His father had encouraged his son’s drawing, and by the age of thirteen Palmer was studying with the drawing master William Wate (d. 1832). It would be the only formal artistic training Palmer received. Palmer exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and the British Institution in 1819; one of the oils shown at the latter venue was sold. One of the paintings shown at the Academy’s exhibition was J. M. W. Turner’s (1775-1851) marine scene, “Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces” (London: Tate Gallery), which made a strong impression on Palmer. Around 1820 he met the watercolor artist Francis Oliver Finch (1802-1862), who encouraged Palmer’s art, and in 1822 introduced him to John Linnell (1792-1882), who urged Palmer to study Renaissance masters and ancient sculpture. Palmer also was influenced by the works of William Blake (1757-1827), and was introduced to the older artist in 1824 by Linnell. Around this time Palmer, Finch, George Richmond (1809-1896) and others formed a group who called themselves the “Ancients,” based on their veneration of “ancient man.” Palmer’s asthma and bronchitis had led him to spend time in the village of Shoreham in the Darent River Valley of Kent. With one of the other Ancients, Frederick Tatham (1805-1878), in 1826 he rented an old cottage in Shoreham they dubbed “Rat Alley.” His father, younger brother and Mary Ward also moved to Shoreham. The location provided the inspiration for Palmer’s paintings of an idealized countryside. He lived there until 1832, when he bought a London house, but continued to spend time in Shoreham as well as traveling to locations in western England and Wales. In London he began establishing himself as a drawing master. By 1833 he had become interested in Linnell’s daughter Hannah (1818-1893), thirteen years his junior. They were married in September 1837, and four days after their wedding departed for Italy in the company of Richmond and his wife. They lived in Italy for two years, traveling to Florence and Naples but spending most of their time in Rome. Hannah had a commission from her father to copy Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and works by Raphael (1483-1520) in the Vatican. Palmer sketched and painted, but sold only one work while in Italy. Hannah eventually became ill, forcing Palmer to finish her father’s commissions, although Linnell’s scathing letters to Palmer on a variety of subjects, including religion, soured their relationship. After returning to London, Palmer gave lessons in watercolor painting to support his family, including his son Thomas born in 1842. A daughter born in 1844 died at the age of three. A second son, Alfred, was born in 1853. Many of his works from the 1840s seem less inspired when compared to his Shoreham works; he apparently intentionally changed his approach in hopes of achieving greater commercial success. His first book illustrations were for “Pictures from Italy” by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Palmer was elected an associate member of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1843, but was not made a full member until 1854. He created his first etching in 1850, “Willow” (Lister E1) and was elected to the Etching Club as a result. Palmer created ten etchings through 1861, many of which rival his Shoreham work, and three more late in life. His personal life brought many difficulties, as his estrangement with his father-in-law continued and relations with his wife grew poor, although they later reconciled. He quarreled with his older son, who suffered from scarlet fever in 1859 and then died in 1861. The Palmers then moved to Redhill, a small town in Surrey, south of London. The distance from London limited his teaching, but he continued to paint and to translate Virgil’s “Eclogues” into English, a project he has started in 1854. A sale to the solicitor Leonard Rowe Valpy (1825-1884) led to an 1864 commission from Valpy for eight watercolors illustrating Milton’s poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” which Palmer worked on until his death. His other large project was to make etchings to publish with his translation of the “Eclogues.” Palmer completed only one of the five etchings; the others were completed by his son Alfred. When the translation was published posthumously in 1889 eight of Palmer’s drawings were reproduced as well. Palmer had died at his home in 1881. (TNB 8/2015) Selected bibliography: Campbell-Johnston, Rachel. Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer. London, New York and Berlin: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011. Lister, Raymond. Samuel Palmer: His Life and Art. Cambridge, London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Vaughan, William. Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall. New Yaven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by the Yale University Press, 2015.