Turner to Monet
Palmer’s landscapes are among the major achievements of the British genre in the first half of the nineteenth century. Though he was admired especially for his early intensely visionary landscapes, Palmer’s later work is more conventional, showing greater concern both for naturalism and looking to the acknowledged seventeenth-century masters of landscape painting.
In Summer storm near Pulborough, Sussex black clouds have gathered, the wind has risen and driving rain is already falling, though there is a glimpse of distant sunshine. In the foreground a herdsman gestures to prevent his sheep stampeding off the road; his wife follows carrying a child on her back and beside her is an unhappy yet faithful dog. To the left, near a steadfast windmill and a ruined church, women scurry to retrieve their washing. At the edge of the darkness a horse-drawn wagon and a rider stoically proceed towards a farmhouse visible beyond the mill. Within the darkness, sunlight illuminates the travellers, the roadside stream and bridge. The streaming skirts of the woman, the flapping washing, flitting birds, waving trees and mounting clouds emphasise the force of wind and rain. In this way the artist builds and weaves tension and drama into his landscape.
Palmer’s low-lying composition with its domineering clouds owes much to seventeenth-century Dutch Realism, which was a growing influence in the development of British landscape in the first half of the nineteenth century. Turner, Glover and Palmer himself, all of them loyal to the Italian landscape tradition, also relied on Dutch models for naturalistic depiction of weather. In its naturalism and weather effects, however, Palmer’s painting also owes much to Constable’s realism. Summer storm near Pulborough, Sussex is not only a study of weather. It is has religious resonances, pilgrims with their flock of sheep, possibly heading into a deluge.
Palmer began his training in watercolour painting at the age of thirteen. While still in his teens, he met the landscape and portrait painter Linnell who introduced him to the prints of Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden and, in 1824, to the ageing visionary William Blake. Palmer was deeply religious and he began to paint small, almost biblical, dreams of a pastoral paradise. He became the leader of a group of young artists known as the ‘The Ancients’ who were devoted to the Blake’s work.1Palmer, even more than his fellow Ancients, deliberately turned his back on nineteenth-century progress. In 1837 Palmer married Linnell’s daughter Hannah and the couple embarked on what was to become a very influential two-year stay in Italy, where the artist fell under the spell of the past Roman landscape painters Gaspard Dughet, Nicolas Poussin, Salvator Rosa and, above all, Claude Lorrain. The influence of those masters, and of Italian scenery, was to remain with him for the rest of his life, filtered through the Romanticism of his great contemporary, Turner.2
1 For a catalogue of works produced by Palmer and the Ancients, see Raymond Lister, Samuel Palmer and ‘The Ancients’, Cambridge: Fitzwilliam Museum & Cambridge University Press, 1984.
2 Ron Radford, Island to empire: 300 years of British art 1550–1850, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005, pp. 268–71.