Samuel Palmer made this bold, fluid study at a key moment in his career in the decade after his marriage and permanent move to London when he was searching to find a commercial mode for his landscape painting. The loosely painted study in oil was made at Box Hill in Surrey, twenty miles from London, and relates closely to a highly finished watercolour now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This unexpectedly free study demonstrates how innovative Palmer remained during his career; its relationship to a finished watercolour also raises important questions about his use of medium.
Writing in 1847, the year before he made the present study, Samuel Palmer noted:
‘I must… strike out at once in a new style, SIMPLE SUBJECT; BOLD EFFECT, BROAD RAPID EXECUTION’
William Vaughan has noted that this statement correlates with a new sense of ‘drama and simplification’ in Palmer’s work, as he tried to find a commercial mode for his landscape painting. 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 continued to transform conventional subjects into visionary concepts. Seeking subjects in many areas, especially Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, the Lake District, and Wales, he used on the spot sketched as the basis for his exhibition works. Palmer’s son described his father’s general sketching apparatus on these expeditions:
‘There were no costly umbrellas, elaborate boxes, or well-filled portmanteaus. A narrow deal case, or, at other times, a capacious sketching portfolio, slung round the shoulders with a strap, held a good supply of paper, with two large but very light wooden palettes, set with clots of colour a quarter of an inch thick, upon a coat of enamel formed of flake-white and copal. A light hand-basket held the remainder of the more bulky materials, with the lunch or dinner, and a veteran camp-stool which had survived the Italian campaign. A quantity of capacious pockets were filled with sharp knives, chalks, charcoal, crayons, and sketch-books; and a pair of ancient neutral-tint spectacles carried, with a little diminishing mirror, specially for sunsets, completed the equipment.’
The present, highly energised study appears to have been an on the spot sketch, made by Palmer in preparation for a large finished watercolour. Palmer’s teaching commitments in the 1840s meant that he stayed in London longer into the summer than he wanted. He was in Surrey in September 1844, staying in Guildford, when he reported to his eldest son, Thomas More Palmer: ‘I went so fast in the steam-coach! How you would like it! Here are high hill, and the birds sing in the trees.’ Palmer seems to have visited Surrey throughout the 1840s attracted by the ‘high hills’ in particular. The present study is handled in a surprisingly free and Turnerian manner, showing the sweep of Box Hill itself, rendered in a block of light green and the panoramic view beyond only hinted at. The purpose of Palmer’s study was to capture the silhouette of trees on the hill. Executed in rapid strokes of fluid oil, the study is a remarkably bold image demonstrating Palmer’s versatility of technique. Palmer used the oil study and a more finished watercolour of the same view to produce an exhibition watercolour now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, Landscape with a Woman Driving Sheep. As in his 1848 treatment of Tintagel, Palmer injected a degree of narrative into the finished watercolour, converting the bold colouristic approach of his on the spot oil sketch into a visionary composition of a drover in a sweeping landscape.
The importance of the medium of watercolour to Palmer in the 1840s meant that he was prepared to produce a rapid on the spot sketch to help in the preparation of a finished watercolour; an unusual reversal of techniques. This may explain why Palmer wrote dolefully to his father-in-law, the hugely successful landscape painter John Linnell, that his watercolours were like apples which: ‘will not come ripe till a great deal of time first and last has been spent on them.’
- Quoted in William Vaughan, Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall, New Haven and London, 2015, p.274.
- A. H. Palmer, ‘The Story of an Imaginative Painter’, The Portfolio: An Artistic Periodical, 15, 1884, pp.148-149.
- Ed. Raymond Lister, The Letters of Samuel Palmer, Oxford, 1974, I., P.429.
- Raymond Lister, Catalogue Raisonné 1988, p. 157, nos. 435-6.
- Quoted in: Elizabeth E. Baker, ‘Sketches and Idylls (1840-c.1865)’ in eds. William Vaughan, Elizabeth E. Baker and Colin Harrison, Samuel Palmer 1805-1881: Vision and Landscape, Exh. cat., New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art), 2006, p.192.