Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) was the elder son of a London bookseller, raised by a devout nurse who read him the Bible and Milton as a boy. He began drawing churches and abbeys at age 12, and at 14 exhibited landscape drawings at the Royal Academy. By 1822 he had met the wealthy, overbearing and hyperreligious oil landscape painter John Linnell (1792-1882), who took him to meet William Blake in 1824; Palmer was deeply impressed by Blake's woodcut illustrations to Thornton's edition of The Pastorals of Virgil. Like Blake, Palmer had visionary experiences as a child, and Blake intensified his mystical sensibility. In 1827, for reasons of ill health, Palmer moved with his father and nurse to "his valley of vision," Shoreham (near Sevenoaks, Kent), and entered a long period of sustained inspiration and artistic discovery. He became the central figure in a group of artists, including Edward Calvert (1799-1883), John Varley, Linnell and others, who called themselves "The Ancients" (c.1825-35) because their talk and aspirations focused on ancient poets and painters. His health improved, Palmer returned to London in 1835; he sketched in Devonshire and, with Linnell and Calvert, in Wales in 1836. He married Linnell's daughter Hannah in 1837, and spent two years in Italy perfecting his drawing and painting in a topographical style; but on return to London he settled into a wearying and unremunerative routine as a drawing master to untalented pupils, relieved by trips for landscape painting to Devon, Cornwall and North Wales. He was elected to the Old Water-Colour Society in 1843, and in 1848 moved to Kensington (London) to be closer to the countryside. After the death of his eldest son in 1861 Palmer's mood darkened, exacerbated by economic worries related to his acquisition in 1862 of an expensive country villa in Redhill (Surrey), where Linnell had retired. His youthful poetry returned in an ambitious series of etchings made to accompany his own translation from the Latin of Virgil's Eclogues. Unfinished at Palmer's death, the etchings were completed and published by his son A.H. Palmer in 1883.

The group known as "The Ancients" anticipated the later Pre-Raphaelites in their attempt to reconcile creative imagination with a literal representation of nature's facts. They shared an admiration of Blake and met with him in London for evening entertainments of music and poetry. Palmer's earliest major works from his Shoreham years, painted in solitude and in company with The Ancients, are among the most lyrical in modern art. A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star (c.1830, 20x26cm) is a famous examples of Palmer's enchanting style. The composition was first freely outlined in ink, which ties the whole drawing together in a network of swooping dark lines, loops and delicate stipples. Transparent and opaque colors were laid on, often in Blake's favorite scheme of blacks, golds and deep reds, and with a full value range and poetic sense of light (the blurred outlines of the moon and Venus, the textured night sky, the blood red hills and golden reflections on the wheat all contribute to the effect). The triangle of shadows from the walking figure and lefthand haystack point to a moon over the wheat field, not far removed in the sky; such oddities just make Palmer's Shoreham paintings more enchanting. Without overt religious symbolism, painted in a childlike and humble style, and charged with brilliant, thickly layered color, the Shoreham works convey a profoundly joyful and mystical grasp of the world. Yet they were largely unknown in Palmer's lifetime. He had already been scorned by critics for two paintings hung at the Royal Academy in 1825, and he was well aware of the ridicule heaped on Blake, so the paintings from his Shoreham years were consigned to his "curiosity portfolios," which he only opened in private and to select friends.

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Although his brightly colored paintings are better known, The Bright Cloud (c.1833, 23x31cm) is a fine example of the many monochrome (sepia ink) drawings that Palmer also completed in the years 1826-33. These paintings focus on the technical problem of composing in lights and darks, which Palmer apparently discovered in his study of Blake's etchings and woodcuts. The whole composition is built from rounded, convex forms, from the billowing clouds to the crowned trees and sloping hillside down to the curving backs of the reclining shepherd and his flock of sheep. Yet a tension of contrasts lies just below the surface. The bent, slender tree, the gusty texture of the sky and the piling up of enormous clouds suggest a strong wind in the air, though the flock and peasants rest peacefully; the clouds are brightly lit, although the flock and forest lie in oblique shadows. These subtle contradictions create an uncanny sense of mystery, even though peace emanates from the landscape. Not until Charles Burchfield do we encounter a major artist whose vision combines naturalism and mystery with a similar effect.

In 1832, what Palmer called his "primitive and infantine feeling" for landscape began to fade, and he moved back to London a few years later, working with Linnell. He married Linnell's daughter in 1837 and spent two years in Italy on an extended working honeymoon. The honeymoon served to distance the couple from the overbearing and quarrelsome Linnell, and also to afford Palmer the opportunity to perfect a new style of painting, based on intense naturalism and careful rendering of detail. Accurate drawing became his preoccupation and goal. His View From the Villa d'Este at Tivoli (1839; 34x50cm), painted toward the end of this trip, shows the conventionality that results. His colors are now strongly skewed toward a secondary triad palette of mute oranges, violets and greens, a poeticized version of the subdued palettes common to the 18th century topographical tradition. And the drawing, handling of aerial perspective and picturesque grouping of trees and buildings are also imitative of the late topographical style. Although Palmer produced in this period several fine landscapes and pastoral scenes with a gentle sense of air and light, it is disconcerting to see how far he abandoned his uniquely lyrical early style for a vision not significantly different from the many 19th century "late topographers." (Burchfield's midlife swerve into "regionalist" painting is again a parallel with Palmer.)

By the late 1850's, Palmer began to work back towards brilliant colors and his earlier heightened sense of poetry — partly under the influence of the bright colors used by Linnell, William Holman Hunt and others, and partly out of a desire to please the public and sell more paintings. Following the Pre-Raphaelite painters, his palette became more prismatic and saturated, the color intensity achieved by painting with bodycolor on paper prepared with pure Chinese white. But he also returned to the by now outmoded idealized landscapes in the style of Claude and Poussin. At first these works were greeted with hostility and incomprehension, but by the 1860's works such as Sunset (1861, 27x39cm) were being hailed as masterworks. A critic noted in 1877 that Palmer was the only successor to J.M.W. Turner in attempting "the higher poetical landscape" rather than "literal transcripts from nature." The vivid colors carried through the wispy clouds and across the grassy knoll where two shepherds sit lend the scene a preternatural beauty. With an eye to the literal observation of nature advocated by John Ruskin, Palmer wrote in 1875: "Geological drawing is not art drawing, though the later includes as much of it as may be wanted.... Claude and Poussin knew what to omit: they addressed not the perception chiefly, but the IMAGINATION, and here is the hinge and essence of the whole matter."

The two most current overviews of Palmer's works include Samuel Palmer, 1805-1881 by D.B. Brown et al. (National Gallery of Scotland, 1982) and the recently reprinted Samuel Palmer and 'The Ancients' by Raymond Lister (Cambridge University Press, 1984). As always, there is a very useful overview in Martin Hardie's Water-Colour Painting in Britain: II. The Romantic Period (Batsford, 1968), now out of print.