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Pages from the letters by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)

Little appreciated in his lifetime, Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) is now acknowledged as one of the most innovative and influential British artists of the nineteenth century. Inspired by the visionary genius of William Blake, Palmer took landscape painting beyond the confines of naturalism to create a ‘Christian pastoral’, a vision of nature and the countryside that is imbued with a transfiguring spiritual significance. His The Magic Apple Tree (painted at Shoreham, Kent, c. 1830) was the centrepiece of our exhibition Watercolour: Elements of Nature in 2015. 

 

Palmer’s early career as one of the ‘Ancients’ (a self-styled artistic brotherhood who gathered around William Blake during the last three years of his life) has been much studied, but the last twenty years of Palmer’s life are often portrayed as a time of quiet reclusion in the aftermath of his elder son’s death, described by Palmer as ‘the catastrophe of my life’. That view of Palmer’s later years is now being challenged. A series of letters recently acquired by the Fitzwilliam (with funds from the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum) demonstrates that during these later years, he retained an extraordinary zest for life and for his work. Characterised by self-effacing humour, and a deep seriousness tempered always by sense of the absurd, the letters date from March 1865 to March 1881, shortly before Palmer’s death. They are signed S. Palmer, Samuel Palmer, S.P., Nogo, Mr Fearing, Blind Infancy, Vanity of Vanities, Nobody, and A good-for-nothing-little-baby-scamp who is ashamed to sign his name.

 

The new acquisition consists of over forty letters from Palmer to two brothers that he had known as children: the Revd John Preston Wright and Thomas Howard Wright. Palmer maintained a fond, avuncular relationship with both men as they assumed adult life as a clergyman and an Oxford don. Idiosyncratic but never aloof, the letters are peppered with capitals, exclamation marks, crossing outs and postscripts, and speak of a man still brimming with ideas and a burning desire to communicate, a man to whom both Wright brothers turned for advice and counsel. Palmer had met the Wright brothers, then boys, when he moved to Furze Hill House in Redhill, Surrey, shortly after his son’s death. He saw them during university vacations and spent long evenings with them, their conversations ranging over every imaginable subject, as in these letters. In his biography of Palmer, Raymond Lister states that the visits of John Preston Wright at Furze Hill especially 'were among Palmer's greatest consolations'. 

 

The series represents Palmer in many moods, from the philosophical to the playful. They touch on a wide range of subjects including religion, the ‘dearly-longed for’ Blake Exhibition of 1876, music, a visit to Coleridge's house in Highgate, loneliness, and poetry; they allude to William Blake ("...was misled by erroneous spirits..."), Milton, Wordsworth, Crabbe Robinson, Shakespeare and others; and contain a wide range of meditations on art, life and philosophy ("...all the best poets are out of the body while they write though the bodily hand holds the pen. Yet on referring to most superhuman passages, we find the words simple: so placed however under the Divine frenzy that one word does duty for many. So in real music the simplest change of key, occurring at the right time in the right place, effects everything - as the 'Shadows brown' in Handel's setting of Il Penseroso are solemnized in a moment by descending one semi tone upon the adjective: going into the key of the 4th, if I remember rightly...").

 

This acquisition builds on the Museum’s existing very important Palmer holdings in the Archive of John Linnell (1792-1882), acquired in 2000 with contributions from The Friends of the National Libraries, the Pilgrim Trust, the Charlotte Bonham-Carter Charitable Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund. A major artist in his own right, Linnell was an important contact for contemporary artists now seen to be among the most significant figures of their era, including William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites. Linnell’s impact on Palmer’s work was transformatory, and Palmer later wrote that ‘It pleased God to send Mr Linnell as a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art’. Palmer married Linnell’s daughter Hannah, and the Linnell Archive at the Fitzwilliam Museum includes about 150 letters from Samuel Palmer, the majority to John Linnell (including those written by Samuel and Hannah while on honeymoon in Italy) along with notebooks, memoranda and other documents.

 

The Fitzwilliam Museum also has rich holdings of letters, account books and other archival material for other major artists, notably Joshua Reynolds, John Constable, George Romney, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris, and is exceptional among fine art museums in being able to represent both the artistic oeuvre and documentary heritage of artists from its own collections.

 

The Palmer letters and other holdings, visual and documentary, can be made available to researchers, by appointment, in the Graham Robertson Study Room at the Museum.