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Samuel Palmer
1805–1881

A wooded landscape

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Medium
Black chalk, watercolour and white heightening on buff paper
Size
14 × 20 ¾ inches · 360 × 527 mm
Notes
Drawn c.1849
Collections
  • The artist;
  • Alfred Herbert Palmer ( 1853-1931), son of the artist;
  • Walker’s Galleries, Bond Street.
Literature
  • To be included by Colin Harrison in his revised catalogue raisonné of the works of Samuel Palmer.

This previously unpublished work is an unusually large and ambitious drawing made by Samuel Palmer at a key moment in his career. Probably made whilst he was staying in Clovelly in north Devon in 1849, the complex and richly handled monochrome sheet shows the way in which Palmer responded to landscape as his career became increasingly focused on watercolour painting and printmaking. The highly sophisticated exploration of the walk of trees in black chalk and the articulation of the architecture of the foliage points to Palmer’s continued interest in the close study of nature. Throughout his career Palmer produced vivid tree studies, from the great watercolours of oaks in Lullingstone Park, commissioned by John Linnell, to The Willow, made in c.1850 which Palmer turned into his first etching the same year. Drawn with remarkable assurance and filled with characteristic emotion, this striking sheet is an important rediscovery and adds to our understanding of Palmer’s development around 1850.

The 1840s saw Palmer as a married man, desperately attempting to build a successful business as a painter to support his growing family. Based in London, Palmer took on a number of paying pupils whilst focusing his artistic attention on producing works for exhibition. As William Vaughan has noted, it was during the 1840s that Palmer’s work took on a new sense of ‘drama and simplification’, as he tried to find a commercial mode for his landscape painting.[1] Palmer had recently been elected to the Old Watercolour Society (1843) and was intent on using the forum of the annual exhibitions to find a formula which would make his pictures financially successful. Palmer began to travel widely to collect material for his Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, the Lake District, and Wales, he used on the spot sketches as the basis for his exhibition works.

In July 1849 Palmer was in Devon and wrote to an unidentified friend, probably the painter George Richmond:

‘Woods and woody hills must be juicy and rich; real TREE COLOUR, not anything picture colour. Detached, elegant trees sometimes stand out into the glade; and above the woody or arable hill-tops, a bit of much higher hill is sometimes visible, [all] heaving and gently lifting themselves, as it were, towards the heavens and the sun. It is of no use to try woody hills without a wonderful variety of texture based on the modeling.’[2]

This letter gives a sense of the intensity with which Palmer assimilated the landscape. Whilst colour is absent from this highly finished monochrome ‘watercolour’, Palmer has approached it in a characteristic way. Like so much of Palmer’s work, the drawing, whilst elaborate and richly worked in parts, conceals none of its stages of development. It shows the bold ‘first lines’ that mapped out the whole composition – the spidery black chalk marks which delineate the branches and give the underlying structure to the trees. Over this framework Palmer has built up washes of watercolour and over this applied touches of white gouache to give the sense of light filtering through the canopy. The focus of the composition is the masterfully handled clump of trees to the left and the path glimpsed through the wood, the bank to the right and screen of trees are barely suggested, preserving this drawing’s sketch-like quality. At about the same date as this drawing, Palmer made a similar study of a Willow now in Manchester City Gallery, it was published by Palmer as an etching in 1850, suggesting that the present work, with its suggestive concealed path may also have been intended as a subject for one of his early etchings.

This boldly worked and exceptionally well preserved drawing passed from Samuel Palmer to his son A. H. Palmer, it was sold by Walker’s Galleries in Bond Street in the 1940s and is published here for the first time. 

References

  1. William Vaughan, Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall, New Haven and London, 2015, p.274.
  2. Ed. Raymond Lister, The Letters of Samuel Palmer, Oxford, 1974, I., p.473.