Samuel Palmer and the Valley of Vision

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), a landscape artist and writer who befriended William Blake through their joint acquaintance with John Linnell. Born in London, he had no formal schooling and was largely self-taught as a painter, demonstrating the influence of Joseph Mallard William Turner in some of his earliest paintings.

After meeting Blake in 1824, he became associated with the Ancients, sometimes called the Shoreham Ancients because of Palmer’s residence in the village, and his art of the following years was greatly inspired by Blake. He married Linnell’s daughter, Hannah, though relations with his father-in-law were not always happy, and from the 1830s his art became more conventional, though his later landscapes met with critical success. After his death, his reputation declined, although from the 1920s onwards his Shoreham paintings inspired a number of artists such as Graham Sutherland and Ruthven Todd.

Although the exact date when Palmer first met Blake is not known, the meeting was of profound significance to Palmer, who later wrote to Alexander Gilchrist:

I can never forget the evening when Mr. Linnell took me to Blake’s house, nor the quiet hours passed with him in the examination of antique gems, choice pictures, and Italian prints of the sixteenth century… His eye was the finest I ever saw: brilliant, but not roving, clear and intent, yet susceptible; it flashed with genius, or melted in tenderness. It could also be terrible. Cunning and falsehood quailed under it, but it was never busy with them. It pierced them, and turned away. (Gilchrist 302)

Palmer began to visit Blake regularly in 1824, quickly becoming friends with the older artist, and Palmer’s son wrote of him that “No one else was affected by Blake in the same way, to the same extent, or so permanently” as his father (cited in Bentley, 403). Blake probably first accompanied Palmer to the house of the young artist’s grandfather in Shoreham around September 1825, and over the following years Palmer most began to demonstrate the influence of Blake’s art, in particular after Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil, in a series of paintings such as Landscape, Girl Standing (1826), Coming from Evening Church (1830), and Harvest Moon (c. 1833).

After Blake’s death, Palmer, along with Linnell, became one of the most important sources of information about Blake to a later generation, spending many evenings in discussion with the Gilchrists. In a letter reprinted by Gilchrist, Palmer summed up his feelings thus:

Blake, once known, could never be forgotten… He was energy itself, and shed around him a kindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the ideal. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter. (Gilchrist, 301)

It was Palmer who described Blake as “a man without a mask” although, like Linnell, he was not averse to abetting Gilchrist in suppressing those aspects of Blake which could have been unacceptable to the Victorian public. Nonetheless, he maintained memory of the artist in the decades following Blake’s death when there was no interest among a wider public, and in the twentieth century his adaptation of Blake’s vision became an equally important influence to a new generation of neo-Romantic artists.

(Citations taken from Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake. Edited by Ruthven Todd. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1945. Image: Coming from Evening Church, 1830, Tate Britain.)