In addition to being known as a painter of English romantic pastorals, Samuel Palmer was also an accomplished printmaker and writer. The son of a bookseller, Palmer developed a passion for poetry at an early age, in part through the influence of his nurse Mary Ward. By the age of 13 he had begun taking drawing lessons with William Wate, but he did not complete a formal artistic training.
The landscape painter John Linnell introduced him to the art of Dürer, Lucas ven Leyden and Giulio Bonasone. But he was above all influenced by the art and writings of William Blake, which Linnell introduced him to in 1824. Through Blake’s vision of pastoral innocence and his own passionate response to nature, Palmer found inspiration for an intense and highly personal style.
His most remarkable works were produced at the village of Shoreham in Kent, which he discovered probably in 1824. Due to ill health, he moved to the village from London in 1826. Though he was visited there by a group of artist friends (who called themselves ‘the ancients’) he worked in isolation, experimenting with his own unconventional techniques and formulating a personal vision which is at once naïve and profound in poetic sentiment.
This period came to an end in 1832, when he moved back to London. After drawing expeditions to Wales in 1835 and 1836, he married Linnell’s daughter in 1837 and set off on a honeymoon to Italy, where he remained for two years.
Back in London his efforts to find a market for his work necessitated a shift to more conventional lines. He was elected an associate of the Old Ware Colour Society in 1842 and became a full member in 1854. In 1849 he also taught himself etching in a deliberate effort to revive the visionary intensity of his early years, becoming a member of the Etchings Club in 1854 and publishing a series of fine prints. In 1857 he produced The sleeping shepherd, in which he recaptured the enchanted spirit of his earlier Shoreham period by evoking an idyllic earthly paradise. He chose an impression of this print to represent his etchings at the Art treasures exhibition in Manchester in 1857.
Palmer’s greatest etching, The lonely tower 1879, with its wondrous sky lit by the low sickle moon and glistening with the Great Bear constellation, was inspired by lines from John Milton’s poem Il Penseroso (1645):
Or let my lamp at midnight hour
Be seen in some high lonely tow’r,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes, or unsphere
The spirit of Plato to unfold
What worlds or what vast regions hold
The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook
The tower depicted in the etching stands on Leith Hill in Surrey. It was full of personal and tragic associations for Palmer since it was close to where his eldest son, Thomas More, died in 1861. The tower was also visible from the studio at Palmer’s house at Mead Vale, where he had relocated with his family the following year. Palmer died in 1881 and his work was largely forgotten until the mid twentieth century when his Shoreham works found a renewed appreciation for their contribution to English romanticism.