15 MARCH 1975, Page 14


Sir Geoffrey Keynes on the sad life of a painter

Literature concerning Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) has been of slow growth, beginning in 1882 with a short Life by his son, Herbert, who published ten years later a rather longer Life with a large collection of letters. Little further attention was paid to Palmer, except as one of the 'followers' of William Blake, until he was suddenly 'discovered' as one of the great exponents of pastoral romance when a collection of his works was lent by his son for exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1926. Since then his qualities have been more fully recognised, the chief critical works being Geoffrey Grigson's Samuel Palmer. The Visionary Years, published in 1947, and Palmer's Valley of Vision, published in 1960. Grigson, however, had little value for any of Palmer's work produced after 1832, although R. G. Alexander had drawn attention to the high merits of his etchings in a detailed catalogue of the prints in 1937. this being followed by Lister's Palmer and his Etchings in 1969.

Herbert Palmer, himself a somewhat eccentric character, emigrated to Vancouver, B.C., in about 1910, taking with him the greater part of the Linnell family papers, collected by Palmer's father-in-law, John Linnell, and incorporating Palmer's letters and other documents. With the help of this material he intended to revise radically A. T. Story's Life of Linnell. 1892, and his own life of his father. He spent many years compiling notes from these sources in thirty-four exercise books, and claimed in letters written to me in 1926 that he was the only living person capable of giving a true picture of his grandfather, Linnell, whom he greatly disliked, and of his father, from first-hand knowledge; but he died in 1930, his books not even begun. The borrowed documents were never returned to England and were forgotten. It so happened that I visited

Vancouver in 1956 and was instrumental in securing the return of the whole collection to the Linnet] trustees, together with the priceless Palmer sketchbook of 1824 (now in the British Museum) and the pile of Herbert's exercise books. This material has provided an opporz unity for revealing a fresh view of Palmer's life and of his relations with John Linnell, and this has been taken up by Raymond Lister, who has provided an intimate picture of Palmer's life and character — although he warns his readers that the story will be of almost unmitigated tragedy, and indeed the book makes painful reading.*

Samuel was born in a south London suburb to parents, who, though affectionate, were ' unspeakably incompetent and ineffectual. Samuel Palmer senior, a convinced Particular Baptist', was a bookseller in a small way but was almost incapable of making up his mind about anything except his religious beliefs; he was certainly not capable of earning a livelihood from his bookshop or his other occupations. Young Samuel was a sickly child, brought up with hardly any companions of his own age or with any knowledge of the rough world he was to live in. His father's shop provided book knowledge, but he had little formal education. From birth the place of his feckless mother (who died when he was thirteen) was taken by a devoted nurse, deeply read in the Bible and Milton. Thus the future artist grew up as a rather soppy little prig, who proclaimed himself a freethinker at the age of fourteen, but soon afterwards conceived a passionate devotion to the Church of England, which he kept to the end of his life. A brief spell of two terms at Merchant Taylors' School was more than the sensitive boy could bear and he returned home to begin drawing, for which he had an early aptitude. He was given some training by an obscure landscape painter named Wate, and even sold a picture for seven ,tiineas when he was fourteen, though this was too encouraging a beginning, for he was seldom able to sell a painting for the rest of his life.

In 1882 Palmer, aged seventeen, first met John Linnet], then a successful painter aged thirty, and possessor of a character as strong as Palmer's was weak. He quickly perceived that Palmer had promise as an artist and encouraged him by telling him to study Durer, Michelangelo, Bonasoni and antique sculpture. In 1824 he introduced him to William Blake, and between these two Palmer

* Samuel Palmer A Biography Raymond Lister (Faber and Faber £6.25)

suddenly burst into artistic flames, producing the inspired visionary drawings and paintings of the Shoreham period. But although Blake's influence was wholly good Linnell's was devastating. This powerful, ruthless and avaricious man Lister describes as "a bustling, loudspoken and raucous voiced character". He soon came to dominate Palmer completely, who reacted at first by worshipping and then by fearing him. The more he worshipped, the more Linnell despised him for his feebleness until their relations resembled those of "a rabbit and a python." Linnell had to his own satisfaction turned painting into a commercial success and so despised all the more the hopelessly unsuccessful Palmer. He did help him with money, though largely because Palmer, against his wishes, had married his eldest daughter, Hannah.

Palmer's supremely happy and productive Shoreham days became overshadowed by Linnell's sarcastic contempt and ceaseless bullying. In addition, Linnell's views of religion were unusual and violent. He was an unorthodox Baptist who regarded the superstitions of the Church of England with "implacable ferocity." Here at least Palmer stood firm and refused to be bullied into changing his faith. A distressing episode which almost caused a physical breakdown in both Samuel and Hannah soon after their marriage was the two years spent in Italy. With apparent generosity Linnell made it possible for the couple to make their sojourn abroad for the advancement of their art and experience, but then he insisted on their spending most of their time in the drudgery of copying works of art in Rome or in colouring his own engravings of the Sistine murals. They were nominally paid for their labour, but it was a pittance that he gave them, and they lived largely on money lent them by their friend George Richmond. It is not surprising that, under Linnell's influence, Palmer's self-confidence, never strong, was utterly destroyed. Failure and unhappiness became his settled lot, until in his last years, when he and Linnell were no longer on speaking terms, he regained some of the satisfaction in his art of which he had so long been deprived, this being in the form of the etchings which can be regarded as a substantial contribution to the best of British art.

Raymond Lister has used the wealth of material put at his disposal with skill and insight. It is primarily a study in the psychology of two opposed characters and, as 1 said at the outset of this review, it makes painful reading. The biographer seems to have believed that it was his duty to concentrate on biography with no more than occasional references to his subject's output as an artist. His account might have had a better balance if he. had ventured on more evaluation of , Palmer's work between 1832 and 1863, when he began making his etchings for Virgil and Milton. He lived largely for these years by teaching young ladies how to make pretty watercolour landscapes, which was most unsatisfying. It now seems to be more just to admit that, in spite of everything that he suffered, he did make some paintings of great beauty during these years and that Grigson's sweeping condemnation of his work after 1832 should be questioned.

Sir Geoffrey Keynes has compiled William Blake's Illustrations to the Bible and has written, among many books, William Blake, Poet, Printer, Prophet.