Friday 24 May 2019


On this day in 1881 the great painter and etcher Samuel Palmer died, a sad and disappointed man, in his house at Redhill (a rather ugly Gothic affair of curious design – I had a look round it once). He had never got over the death of the son (Thomas More Palmer) in whom he had reposed all his hopes and aspirations, and his career had never risen much above the getting-by stage – in painful contrast to that of his hugely successful father-in-law, John Linnell. As Palmer lay dying, he would sometimes reach out to touch an old cigar box on the table beside him; this contained the copperplates for his unfinished set of Virgil etchings, the last great project of his life. When the end came, Palmer died peacefully, with his old friend and fellow 'Ancient' George Richmond (with whom he delighted in drinking libations of goose fat every Christmas) kneeling in prayer by his bedside. He was buried in Reigate churchyard on a showery morning. A skylark was singing.
  At the time of his death, it looked as if Palmer's work would be forgotten by all but a small circle of admirers. His other son, Alfred Herbert, dutifully completed and published the Virgil etchings, and, a decade later, brought out a dull and dutiful Life and Letters in two volumes. Then, over several days in 1909, Alfred Herbert systematically destroyed large quantities of his father's notebooks, sketchbooks and pictures, mostly dating from his 'visionary' early years. 'Knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt,' wrote A.H. in justification, 'I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate.' Happily, despite this conflagration, enough of his early work survived to demonstrate Palmer's unique artistic vision, and to inspire the revival of his reputation that did eventually begin in the 1920s with an exhibition of drawings, etchings and woodcuts at the V&A. The revival continued after the war with Geoffrey Grigson's study of the artist, followed by more exhibitions and, eventually, a shelf of books. Palmer's extraordinary early work had a dramatic impact on Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper and many others. Since then, the best of Palmer's later work has also come to be appreciated, and we now have a more rounded view of his art. The disappointed man who died on this day in 1881 has finally got his due.
 (Above: the late etching Opening the Fold).

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