The painter Graham Sutherland played a large part in the revival of interest in Samuel Palmer (1805-81) in the 1920s and 1930s and it was he who later referred to Palmer as “a sort of English Van Gogh”. The appellation has been decried as far-fetched, but there is more than a grain of truth in the comparison between the Dutchman who gave up his career in the church and turned to art as an alternative form of preaching, and the Englishman who tried his whole life to balance the claims of art and religious commitment, without ever feeling he succeeded.
It was Palmer’s early work, made during his residence at Shoreham in Kent between 1826 and 1835 that caused all the excitement for Sutherland. The youthful exuberance of the Shoreham period can be understood as a sort of late-flowering Romanticism, but Palmer’s attempt to paint moral landscapes suited to the Victorian age proved too subtle, too sophisticated, once the shock tactics of the Pre-Raphaelites Hunt and Millais had redefined the painting of modern rural life. The response of the 19th-century public was, by and large, mirrored in the 20th century, leaving a large portion of Palmer’s later output unseen and unloved.
Apart from a handful of favourite early fantasies, made when he was still trying to understand and respond to the art of William Blake, much of Palmer’s art remains relatively little-known. William Vaughan, the lead curator of the bicentenary exhibitions in London and New York in 2005 and 2006, is well placed to offer fresh insights into the totality of Palmer’s fractured and uneven output in his Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall. He does this with an alternating focus on the artist’s life and work spread over an epic 25 chapters. The benefits to be anticipated from a single critical stance (in contrast to the dozen authors who contributed to the exhibition catalogue) unfortunately do not materialise. There is a wealth of contextual material, much of it already familiar, yet all too rarely is there a true spark of illumination, opening the eyes of the patient reader to hitherto unsuspected perspectives.
For all Vaughan’s persuasive advocacy, Palmer remains elusive, paradoxical, frustrating. The works themselves are gorgeous, intricate and seductive; they do not yield easily to analysis and for many, I suspect, that is their greatest charm. For this reader, at least, Vaughan is too fair, too thorough, too concerned to argue Palmer back into the centre ground, when it is his very quirkiness, the “wonted outrageousness” he himself admitted as a young man and never really grew out of, which makes him such an appealing figure. Even so, Vaughan has been wonderfully well served by his publishers, who have embellished the book with a host of enlarged details. They are a pleasure in themselves, and, pored over at length, cannot fail to suggest new approaches to an artist about whom this volume provides a handsome introduction, but certainly not the last word.
• Timothy Wilcox is an independent scholar and curator. He wrote the introduction for Great British Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in 2015
Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall
Yale University Press, 412pp, £50, $85 (hb)