Samuel Palmer  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Samuel Palmer (born Newington, London, January 27 1805 - died Redhill, Surrey, May 24 1881) was an English landscape painter, etcher and printmaker. He was also a prolific writer. Palmer was a key figure in English Romanticism and produced visionary pastoral paintings.


Early life

Palmer, who was born in Newington, London in a street off the Old Kent Road, was the son of a bookseller and sometime Baptist minister, and was raised by a pious nurse. Palmer painted churches from around age twelve, and first exhibited Turner-inspired works at the Royal Academy at the age of fourteen. He had little formal training, and did not have a formal schooling.

The Shoreham years

Through John Linnell, he met William Blake in 1824. Blake's influence can be seen in the works he produced over the next ten years or so, which are generally reckoned to be his greatest. These works were of landscapes around Shoreham, near Sevenoaks in the east of the county of Kent. He purchased a run-down cottage, nicknamed "Rat Abbey", and it was there that he lived from 1826 to 1835, depicting the area as a demi-paradise, mysterious and visionary, and often shown in sepia shades under moon and star light. There Palmer also associated with the group of Blake-influenced artists known as The Ancients (including George Richmond and Edward Calvert). They were among the few who ever saw the Shoreham paintings since, as a result of attacks by critics in 1825, he only ever opened those early portfolios to selected friends.

Palmer's somewhat disreputable father – Samuel Palmer senior – also moved to the area, his brother Nathaniel having offered him an allowance that would "make him a gentlemen" and so restore the good name of the family. Samuel Palmer senior rented half of the Queen Anne-era 'Waterhouse' which still stands by the River Darent at Shoreham and is now given the slightly grander-sounding name of 'Water House'. Palmer's nurse, Mary Ward, and his other son William joined him there. The Waterhouse was used to accommodate overflow guests from "Rat Abbey". In 1828 Samuel Palmer left "Rat Abbey" to join his father at Water House. He lived there for the rest of his time in Shoreham. Later in the Shoreham period he fell in love with the fourteen year old Hannah Linnell, who he would later marry.

Mature life

After returning to London in 1835, and using a small legacy to purchase a house there in Marylebone, Palmer produced less mystical and more conventional work. Part of his reason in returning to London was to better sell his work and earn money from private teaching. He had better health on his return to London, and he was recently married to Hannah daughter of John Linnell. He had known Hannah since she was a child, and when they married she was nineteen, he thirty-two. He sketched in Devonshire and Wales at around this time. His peaceful vision of rural England had been disillusioned by the violent rural discontent of the early 1830s, his small financial legacy was running out, and so he decided that he needed to produce work which was more in line with public taste if he was to earn an income for himself and his wife. In this he was also following the advice of his father-in-law. Linnell, who had earlier shown a remarkable understanding of the uniqueness of Blake's genius, was not as generous with his son-in-law, towards whom his attitude was authoritarian and often harsh. Palmer began to turn more to watercolour, then gaining great popularity in England. To further a commercial career, in 1837 the couple embarked on a two-year honeymoon to Italy, made possible by money from Hannah's parents. In Italy Palmer's palette became brighter, sometimes to the point of garishness, but he made many fine sketches and studies that would later be useful in producing new paintings. Yet, on his return to London, Palmer sought patrons with only limited success. For more than two decades was obliged to work as a private drawing master, until he moved away from London in 1862. To add to his financial worries, he had returned to London to find that his dissolute brother William had pawned all of his early paintings, and Samuel was obliged to pay a large sum to redeem them. By all accounts Samuel was an excellent teacher, but the work with uninspired students inevitably reduced the time he could devote to his own art.

The later work

From the early 1860s he gained some measure of critical success for his later landscapes, which once again had a touch of the early Shoreham work about them – most notable of these is the etching of The Lonely Tower (1879). He had become a full member of the Water Colour Society in 1854, and its annual show gave him a yearly goal to work towards.

His best late works include a series of large watercolours illustrating Milton's poems L’allegro and Il Penseroso and his etchings, a medium in which he worked from 1850 onwards, including a set illustrating Virgil.

Palmer's later years were darkened by the death in 1861, at the age of 19, of his beloved elder son Thomas More Palmer – a devastating blow from which the father never fully recovered. He lived in various places later in his life, including a small cottage and then an unaffordable villa both at Kensington, then a cottage at Reigate. But it was only when a small measure of financial security came his way at last, that was he able to move to Furze Hill House in Redhill, Surrey, from 1862. Nevertheless he could not even afford to have a daily newspaper delivered to Redhill, suggesting that his financial circumstances there were still tight.

Samuel Palmer died in Redhill, Surrey, and is buried, with his wife, in Reigate churchyard.


Samuel Palmer was largely forgotten after his death. In 1909, large amounts of his Shoreham work were destroyed by his surviving son Alfred Herbert Palmer, who burnt "a great quantity of father's handiwork ... Knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt; I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate". The destruction "included sketchbooks, notebooks, and original works, and lasted for days". It wasn't until 1926 that Palmer's rediscovery began through a show curated by Martin Hardie at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Drawings, Etchings and Woodcuts made by Samuel Palmer and other Disciples of William Blake. But it took until the early 1950s for his reputation to really start to recover, stimulated by Geoffrey Grigson's 280-page book Samuel Palmer (1947) and later by an exhibition of the Shoreham work in 1957 and by Grigson's 1960 selection of Palmer's writing. His reputation now rests mainly on his Shoreham work, but some of his later work has recently received more appreciation.

The Shoreham work has had a powerful influence on many English artists since being rediscovered. Palmer was a notable influence on F.L. Griggs, Robin Tanner, William Larkins, Graham Sutherland, Paul Drury, Eric Ravilious, the glass engraving of Laurence Whistler, and Clifford Harper. He also inspired a resurgence in twentieth-century landscape printmaking, which began amongst students at Goldsmiths' College in the 1920s. (See: Jolyon Drury, 2006)

In 2005 the British Museum collaborated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art to stage the first truly major retrospective of his work, timed to coincide with the bicentenary of Palmer's birth. The show ran from October 2005 – January 2006, and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March - May 2006.

Palmer's style was frequently crudely mimicked by the art forger Tom Keating.


  • Lister, Raymond (1988). ''Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Samuel Palmer. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Lister, Raymond (1986). The Paintings of Samuel Palmer. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Herring, Sarah (1988). "Samuel Palmer's Shoreham drawings in Indian ink: a matter of light and shade". Apollo vol. 148, no. 441 (November 1998), pp. 37-42.
  • Drury, Jolyon (2006) Revelation to Revolution: The Legacy of Samuel Palmer - The Revival and Evolution of Pastoral Printmaking by Paul Drury and the Goldsmiths School in the 20th Century.

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