Palmer was a precocious young artist and submitted work to the Royal Academy in 1819 aged fourteen, which was accepted. He was inspired first by J.M.W. Turner and then by William Blake, who became the dominant force in his life and art. Both worshipped imagination, but where Blake created a symbolic creation out of his own being, Palmer was at his best in close association with nature at her most picturesque moments. His central position is in British landscape art, which was always highly individual and showed an artist constantly absorbed in his subjects. In later life, particularly in his etchings, the intensity of his earlier vision returned.
Well known for the drawings he produced from 1826-35 in Shoreham. He also produced a large series of etchings, which, similar in style to his paintings, were narrative scenes of nature. Despite his acceptance in earlier life, Palmer grew to loathed the Academy’s subordination of emotion and he was a precursor to the eccentric group of rebels known as the Pre-Raphaelites.
Ruskin praised him in Modern Painters and F.G. Stephens, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, made the first critical assessment of Palmer’s early work in the catalogue of the memorial exhibition held at The Fine Art Society in 1881. In his essay Stephens compared the young Palmer to Keats and the later one to Tennyson.
The comparison with two poets is significant, as in his art Palmer responded to the landscape like a poet, and indeed poetry was often his inspiration, Milton especially. It was not his intention to record the appearance of the landscape but to convey the experience of it, and a sense of how it affected him. Thus his paintings and etchings were highly original, a departure from the landscape tradition.
For a man who was a devoted member of the Church of England and conservative in many of his views, it is interesting that he so admired the radical William Blake, who held many contrary opinions. It seems equally contradictory that Palmer should have founded The Ancients in 1824, pursuing an ‘alternative’ lifestyle in the rural village of Shoreham in Kent. It was one of the earliest of the artistic groups which grew up in the nineteenth century: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood followed in 1848.
The contradictions in Palmer’s views and actions may explain, as well as his works themselves, his continued relevance. He was both modern and traditional, innovative and inspired by the past. He in turn has inspired many artists who followed him, including Paul Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland, who described him as ‘a sort of English Van Gogh.’ In fact in 1949 Kenneth Clark was moved to say that Palmer had been ‘almost too influential.’
Both as a painter and as a printmaker Samuel Palmer rekindled interest in pastoral art, a genre which had become largely unfashionable in his time.