This exquisitely finished, jewel-like watercolour was made in the last year of Samuel Palmer’s life and demonstrates his enduring ability as a landscape painter. The subject-matter is a neat distillation of the themes that drove his work throughout his career.
The panoramic format, richly worked in watercolour shows a peaceable, productive landscape at the close of day, in the foreground a gleaner and goat-herd return home along a limpid river, the sun has dipped behind a distant town illuminating the sky with a technicolour sunset. In the mid-ground Palmer includes a small group of cottages, a trail of smoke emanating from chimneystacks suggesting warmth and comfort. This carefully constructed landscape embodies many of the central themes that Palmer explored throughout his working life.
At the date Palmer was painted this watercolour he was also in the midst of completing a sequence of watercolours that had been commissioned by the solicitor and collector Leonard Rowe Valpy. Valpy had invited Palmer to paint something that appealed to his ‘inner sympathies’, and Palmer responded that he had long considered making a series of illustrations to Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. The project occupied Palmer for the last eighteen years of his life and included three of his most enduring compositions: The Prospect, now in the Ashmolean, The Bellman and The Lonely Tower. This watercolour, whilst not specifically illustrating a Miltonic scene, belongs in spirit and style to this group. As with the Milton watercolours, Palmer has worked on thick London board, which was best suited to take the accumulated layers of pigment that Palmer applied to build up his compositions.
This watercolour neatly captures Palmer’s ‘inner sympathies’, showing, as it does, a rural landscape at the close of day with a gleaner meeting a goat herd returning home. The landscape acts as a compendium of Palmer’s familiar scenery, from the downland of Sussex on the left, to the wooded hill, reminiscent of Box Hill on the right and the glimpse of coast in the far distance, but most evocatively is the village in the foreground, a memory of Shoreham. Whilst apparently not illustrating a specific text, this watercolour plays with all the tropes of Palmer’s Miltonic compositions: luminous lighting, dramatic vistas and lovingly described landscape. Like Palmer’s Miltonic works, the London board has been densely and boldly worked, with layer upon layer of pigment articulated in places by touches of scratching out.
The watercolour is apparently unpublished, although given its state of finish, it is likely to have been prepared by Palmer for exhibition. Lister records at least two exhibited works with titles that could be the present work. The first, ‘River Banks at Even’ was exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society in 1878 (no.238) and then at the Fine Art Society in 1881 (no.41), although this has been tentatively identified with the late watercolour in the British Museum entitled Classical River Scene. More likely it is a work entitled ‘Landscape – Evening’ which was shown at the Fine Art Society in 1881 (no.11) where it is recorded as belonging to the decorative painter R. Townroe.