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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeeWeb ExhibitionsHarvey-LeeSamuel Palmer Introduction

A SERIES of three related, sequential EXHIBITIONS

POETRY MADE VISIBLE: The complete etchings of Samuel Palmer

An introduction to the Etching Club and full list of the Club’s publications.
A selection of etchings by Palmer’s fellow members of The Etching Club.
A small selection by contributors to English Etchings, c1881.

The neo-romantic pastoral tradition in the 20th & 21st centuries.

A related catalogue is available, please see Catalogues, 'The Poetic Impulse'


The Complete Etchings of
Samuel Palmer

(Newington, south London 1805 – 1881 Redhill, near Reigate, Surrey)

The Poetic Impulse -

an Introduction to Palmer as a Printmaker

Palmer received what he called his “first movements of poetic impulse” as a child of four, watching, with his nurse, the shadows cast by elm branches steal across his room as the moon rose, when she fixed the moment for him for ever by quoting a couplet from the poet Edward Young’s paraphrase of the Book of Job

Vain man, whose vision of a moment made,
Dream of a dream and shadow of a shade.

(In a letter to Louisa Twining, 1860, in his son, Alfred Herbert’s, The Life & Letters of Samuel Palmer p4 & p227)

Samuel Palmer. Self Portrait c1826. Courtesy Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The young Samuel Palmer, c1826.
A self portrait drawn at Shoreham.
Black chalk, heightened with white, on buff paper.

(Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum/Bridgeman Art Library)

Born at the outset of the 19th century Palmer’s life spanned both the Romantic and Victorian periods and his work is redolent of the artistic concerns of those times in both the pre-eminence of landscape and in literary & narrative genre. It also transcends its time and still speaks powerfully to a modern audience.

The texts Palmer selected to ‘illustrate’ are open to imaginative interpretation. He did not create literal transcriptions, but evocations of the atmosphere and ethos of the original literary content resulting in deeply poetic landscapes. Equally, as he sketched before a 'real' landscape his mind made associations between the elements he was seeing and familiar lines of poetry.

The son of a bookseller, Palmer was widely read. Delicate in health, his education was mainly gathered through reading books at home. In particular he developed a life-long love for the poetry of Milton, Virgil, Shakespeare, the Bible, which would provide the inspiration and titles for many of his greatest images.

As a child of thirteen Palmer’s parents decided that as he enjoyed sketching, he was destined to be an artist. They gave him engravings to copy and engaged a drawing master, William Wate.

Though not at that time a printmaker, from his earliest years printmaking was an important part of Palmer's ambience. In the early decades of the 19th century it was an activity closely allied to the book trade, the majority of prints being published in books. George Cooke, the younger of the brothers who engraved Turner’s Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (published 1821) lived round the corner from Palmer’s father’s bookshop and used to visit to talk about art. Turner prints were a formative influence, particularly Turners own etched and mezzotinted landscape series collectively known as the Liber Studiorum, issued 1807-1819.

J.M.W. Turner: ‘Woman with a Tambourine’.
J.M.W. Turner: ‘Woman with a Tambourine’.
One of his
Liber Studiorum mezzotints, 1807.

In 1819, aged only fourteen, on his first visit to the Royal Academy (at which he too was a very young exhibitor) Palmer had been bowled over by the colour in Turner’s painting of the Entrance of the Meuse... Turner’s Liber Studiorum was still in his thoughts forty-five years later when Palmer wrote to his patron Valpy suggesting a parallel etched series of the commissioned Milton watercolours to be published as a book.

He must have known too the bound collection of reprints of Two Hundred Etchings by the old masters, including Rembrandt and especially pertinent to Palmer, Claude, which was first published in 1816, with a later edition in 1825.

Claude: ‘Shepherd & Shepherdess conversing’, c1651.
Claude: 'Shepherd & Shepherdess conversing', c1651.
A later impression, as issued in 1816 in
200 Etchings.

Palmer’s “poetic impulse” was further nurtured when in 1822 John Linnell (his future father-in-law) took on the role of his artistic mentor. Linnell, both a painter and aspirant engraver, had befriended the elderly William Blake and suggested him to Dr Thornton (the Linnell family doctor) as illustrator for the new edition of Thornton’s schools’ version of The Pastorals of Virgil, published in 1821.

William Blake: ‘Colinet departs in Sorrow’.
William Blake: 'Colinet departs in Sorrow'.
Wood engraving, 1821, illustration to the
First Eclogue for
Dr Thornton's school's edition of the
Pastorals of Virgil.

The tiny Blake wood engravings of the First Eclogue moved the seventeen year old Palmer profoundly.

They are visions of little dells, and nooks and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I found no word to describe them…There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world.
(Life & Letters… pp15-16)

When Linnell first took Palmer to visit Blake in person, in October 1824, on the table was the copper he had just been working on, of the first plate Thus did Job continually for Blake’s engravings of The Book of Job, another Linnell commission. “How lovely it looked by lamplight, strained through the tissue-paper!” (A Gilchrest “The Life of Blake”, for which he consulted Palmer)

William Blake: ‘Thus did Job continually’.
William Blake: 'Thus did Job continually'. Proof engraving, 1825, Pl.1 of The Book of Job.

Of all Blake’s Job engravings Thus did Job continually is the image that correlates with those of the Ancients in their Shoreham days, with its ‘inhabited’ pastoral landscape setting, the ranks of sheep, the rising or setting sun, the crescent moon and star.

Palmer began visiting the Kent village of Shoreham in 1824, the year he and his friends formed their brotherhood, calling themselves ‘The Ancients’, looking back to the example of medieval religious art; Palmer was deeply religious, as well as revering William Blake. Of similar ‘primitive’ sympathies to the slightly earlier “Nazarenes” (formed in Vienna in 1809) the Ancients anticipated the Pre-Raphaelites.

Palmer: ‘The Valley thick with Corn’.
Palmer: 'The Valley thick with Corn'.
Brown ink and gum arabic, varnished. A Shoreham '
sepia', 1825.
(Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum/Bridgeman Art Library)

The Ashmolean Shoreham sepia drawings date from visits to Shoreham in 1825 and the following year Palmer settled in the village, where the Ancients and even Blake came to visit. It was Blake who drew Palmer’s attention to the flicks of white on Claude’s painted foliage that sparkled like dew, an analogy which would inform his future approach to etching.

Though at this period Palmer still showed little interest himself in practical printmaking, several of the Ancients did make prints. George Richmond engraved The Shepherd while staying with Palmer in 1827; and Palmer sketched him at work engraving. At the same period Edward Calvert began his wood engravings, inspired by the medium as well as the imagery of Blake’s illustrations for Dr Thornton. That Palmer too did attempt a few rough blocks at this time is recorded by A H Palmer in his 1882 Memoir of his father. (Wood engraving lends itself to domestic art, being necessarily small scale, determined by the slow-growing box tree, and not requiring acid for ‘cuttting’ or a press for printing, as etching would. Wood engravings can be printed with the pressure of a back of a spoon.) The recently re-discovered Ionides album includes, in addition to impressions of Blake’s Virgil pastorals and wood engravings by Calvert and fellow ‘Ancient’ Welby Sherman, a few crudely cut wood engravings (the only known impressions) that relate to the ‘blacks’ that Palmer was painting then at Shoreham and to the erotic themes of Calvert, and which may well be by Palmer.

Palmer: ‘The Flock and Star’. Indian ink and wash.
Palmer: 'The Flock and Star'. Indian ink and wash.
A Shoreham '
black', c1831-32.
(Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum/Bridgeman Art Library)

Palmer did retain one small wood block, Harvest under a Crescent Moon, c1828, designed by him but thought to have been cut by Welby Sherman, which is only known in impressions printed in 1920 when A H Palmer sent the block to Martin Hardie at the Victoria & Albert Museum, who arranged to have an edition of 50 printed. Palmer employed Sherman to engrave his painting Evening (a shepherd with his flock outside a tree-backed cottage with an opening to a distant landscape lit by a crescent moon) in mezzotint. Though the plate was lettered as published by Palmer in 1834, only three impressions from the plate are known, all today in London museums. Two had remained with Palmer till his death and one came from the Linnell family. There is also a single monotype attributed to Palmer (now in the British Museum, provenance by descent through the Richmond family) of Two Men with Oxen ploughing a Field, of uncertain date.

From 1832, Palmer began to make return trips to London and bought a house in Lisson Grove, though he only finally left Shoreham permanently in 1835. By that date the visionary intensity of his youth was inevitably diminishing. He made rather more conventional sketching tours to picturesque areas favoured by watercolour landscape painters, in Devon and Wales. And in 1837, having married Linnell’s seventeen year old daughter Hannah, spent his two year honeymoon in Italian travels, on a traditional Grand Tour. His watercolours made there include a beautiful study of cypresses in the Tivoli Gardens outside Rome, a motif which would recur in the later etchings.

Palmer and Etching

By the time Palmer would take up etching in 1850, at the age of 45, the Shoreham influence of Blake had been transmuted through his experiences of Italy and the sketching tours in the West Country and Wales, the demands of providing for a family, and the loss of his infant daughter, but the experience of the new medium rekindled the vision of his Shoreham years. Already prone to melancholy, in the early 1860’s he would suffer further tragedy in the death of his elder son Thomas More, compounded by difficulties in his relationship with his wife and irredeemable bad relations with his father-in-law. Etching idyllic landscapes envisioning a golden age must have been a solace, and the more so as they received growing critical acclaim as the years passed.

Subject to “the production of an etching in compliance with the rules”, Palmer was proposed for membership of the Etching Club by his friend Charles West Cope (see item 18 in Palmer Peers exhibition) at the meeting on 29 January, 1850. Thomas Creswick (see items 19-23 in Palmer Peers exhibition) and Henry James Townsend seconded. Palmer must have etched The Willow by 19 February 1850, when he was unanimously elected.

The Palmer Exhibition

To view the entire Exhibition, print-by-print, click this link and then follow the prints through the Gallery by using the "next print >" and "< previous print" navigation buttons. Alternatively, you can select an individual print from its thumbnail or title in the list below.

Samuel Palmer etching, The Willow

The Willow
Etching, 1850

Samuel Palmer etching, The Skylark

The Skylark
Etching, 1850

Samuel Palmer etching, The Herdsman's Cottage

The Herdsman's Cottage
Etching, 1850

Samuel Palmer etching, Christmas or Folding the Last Sheep

Christmas or Folding the Last Sheep
Etching, 1850

Samuel Palmer etching, The Vine

The Vine (or Plumpy Baccus)
Etching, 1850

Samuel Palmer etching, The Sleeping Shepherd

The Sleeping Shepherd; Early Morning
Etching, 1854-57

Samuel Palmer etching, The Rising Moon

The Rising Moon or An English Pastoral
Etching, 1855-57

Samuel Palmer etching, The Weary Ploughman
The Weary Ploughman
originally known as The Herdsman or Tardus Babulcus
Etching, 1858
Samuel Palmer etching, The Early Ploughman
The Early Ploughman or The Morning Spread upon the Mountains
Etching, begun 1861
Samuel Palmer etching, The Morning of Life
The Morning of Life
Etching and Drypoint, 1860/61-72
Samuel Palmer etching, The Bellman
The Bellman
Etching, 1879
Samuel Palmer etching, The Lonely Tower
The Lonely Tower
Etching, 1879
Samuel Palmer etching, The Opening Fold
Opening the Fold or Early Morning
Etching, 1880
Samuel Palmer etching, The Homeward Star
The Homeward Star
Etching c1880
Samuel Palmer etching, The Cypress Grove
The Cypress Grove
Etching c1880
Samuel Palmer etching, The Sepulchre
The Sepulchre
Etching begun c1880
Samuel Palmer etching, Moeris and Galatea
  Moeris and Galatea
Etching begun c1880

See also the associated exhibitions:

Palmer's Peers. The Etching Club
A brief account of The Etching Club, 1883-1885, and a list of its publications, with an exhibition of a selection of etchings by other members of the Club, and by contributors to the publication English Etchings, 1881.

Palmer's Legacy
A selection of etchings in the British neo-romantic pastoral tradition in the 20th and 21st centuries, from F L Griggs to Ron McBurnie.


































































Membership of the Etching Club* gave him an access of enthusiasm for the ‘new’ technique and in his first year he produced at least another three plates, presumably intended for the Club’s then proposed future publication of ‘illustrations to twenty miscellaneous sonnets’, a theme which must have appealed to him. In 1849 Joseph Cundall had published L’Allegro by John Milton illustrated by the Etching Club. The preliminary prospectus for L’Allegro had advertised their following work to be “Il Penseroso”, an interesting coincidence with regard to Palmer’s later work, but this was abandoned at the Club meeting on March 5 1849 for the ‘Sonnets’ and a selection of sonnets was made by the members present, though etchings to suit were not started it would seem until 1850. By the meeting of 27 December 1850 mention is made of four plates by Palmer being accepted for inclusion in the ‘Sonnets’, Bampfield*; the Lark*; the Shepherd; and Evening (?)*. For publication of the ‘Sonnets’ the Club approached the Art Union of London, but there proved to be difficulties and that project too would effectively be shelved. Eventually, seven years later, it evolved into Etchings for the Art Union of London by the Etching Club, published 1857, though with a largely different selection of etchings, mainly unrelated specifically to literary texts.

In all, seven of Palmer’s thirteen finished plates appeared in Etching Club publications over the ensuing three decades. The first four plates were of small format, presumably dictated by the dimensions of the plates handed out by the Etching Club. The larger format adopted after that may also have initially been determined by the Club.

With the exception of The Willow (see item 1), Palmer’s etchings are all set in the imaginative poetic potential of twilight, whether the gilding of sunrise or sunset, or the magical silvering of moonlight. Again, except for The Willow, a ‘pure’ naturalistic landscape for his probationary plate for the Etching Club, all Palmer’s subsequent etched landscapes included figures. He felt that landscape was only significant if it had “sentiment”, “as it hints or expresses the haunts and doings of man”. He wrote to his son Herbert in 1866:

The Georgics … teach the wisdom of all life and the mysteries of intellectual discipline under the veil of agriculture, vintages, cattle, bees, so that the veil itself is glorious…

And Palmer went on to say that he likewise tried

to unite poetic remoteness with such homely reality as the smell of turned-up
earth …

He had a life-long fascination with Virgil and made his own English verse translation of the Eclogues. Herbert gives a delightful account in the Life & Letters of Virgil as his father’s gardening guide. Though removed elsewhere as weeds, the wild plants that Palmer preferred were allowed to grow in a small patch outside his studio window at Redhill “some gave us infinite trouble, and pined away, in spite of artificial irrigation suggested by a passage in the Georgics”.

Milton too was part of the fabric of Palmer’s life. He had inherited from his nurse, who after the death of his mother when he was thirteen, had been like a second mother to him, a small volume of the Minor Poems of Milton.

I had a little Milton bound with brass corners that I might carry it always in my waistcoat-pocket... (Letter to Hamerton, 1872 L&Lp322)

He revered Milton as an "arch-alchemist," in that anything he touched became "poetic gold." “Milton is abstracted and eternal.” (From a letter to Linnell, from Shoreham, 1828 - Life & Letters p174)

Three of Palmer’s thirteen finished etchings are inspired and titled from Milton; two from Virgil (plus the four uncompleted plates); four others variously from Gray’s Elegy, Bampfield (another 18th century poet), Shakespeare and The Bible.

In a letter to P G Hamerton (1872 L&L pp336-7) Palmer opined

Etching seems to me to stand quite alone among the complete arts in its compatibility with authorship. … the great peculiarity of etching seems to be that its difficulties … an elegant mixture of the manual, chemical and calculative… its very mishaps and blunders (usually remediable) are a constant amusement…, it raises and keeps alive a speculative curiosity, it has something of the excitement of gambling, without its guilt and its ruin. For these and other reasons I am inclined to think it the best comptu exponent of the artist-author's thoughts.

In the same letter he exclaimed

O ! the joy - colours and brushes pitched out of the window; plates the Liber Studiorum size got out of the dear, little etching-cupboard … ; great needles sharpened three-corner-wise like bayonets ; opodeldoc rubbed into the fore-head to wake the brain up ; and a Great Gorge of old poetry to get up the dreaming …

Once committed to the technique, Palmer was passionate about the process of etching. He worked slowly, elaborating his plates in successive stages of biting, stopping out and rebiting, sometimes perhaps through too many states. A H Palmer comments on him

sitting, sable in hand, hour after hour behind the tissue paper, pencilling in varnish silver cloudlets round a moon; … [and] revelling in the ferocity of the seething mordant with which he sometimes loved to excavate an emphatic passage.

Some of his plates went through up to fourteen successive bitings.

He was equally demanding when it came to printing. Till he moved to Redhill where he acquired a press in 1872, his plates were printed by commercial printers. He would supply a proof with elaborate instructions and diagrams in the margins for the printer to follow and is reported to have caused one tried printer to declare ‘he would sooner see the devil himself than Palmer with a plate to prove’. He is known to have asked the Etching Club printers for a series of proofs with the plate wiped of excess ink with a succession of different cloths to study the different effects – “acting on the etching as a glazing” and to “add mystery”. He was particular about the exact shade of ebony black of the printing ink, without hints of blue or brown, and preferred a warm white paper.

However, he seems not to have ever printed proofs himself, even when he did own a press, but his letters to his son who had the task of printing, expressed his reaction to proofs and gave instructions in minutiae for their improvement. Alfred Herbert was taught to print by Frederick Goulding, an exponent of the then vogue for retroussage wiping. Palmer in earlier days had always preferred clean wiping. In his later etchings he sort a bolder effect that would speak at a distance if they were hanging, and retroussage lent itself to this, though he still preferred its use in moderation.

It seems to me that the charm of etching is the glimmering through of the white paper even in the shadows; so that everything either sparkles, or suggests sparkle. .. Well, retroussage, if not kept within narrow bounds, extinguishes those thousand little luminous eyes which peer through a finished linear etching
(L & L pp365-6, 1876, to the engraver Thomas Oldham Barlow)

Palmer was equally concerned with the mounting and framing of his proofs. He suggested not too white a mount, and a sufficiently wide window-opening to allow the subject to breathe (it was perhaps to ensure this that he left a plate border around the etched image in all of his etchings), and recommended either gilded frames of 1½ inch moulding or ¾ inch beads of varnished pine with an inlaid black line.

His ‘credo’ expressed in a letter of 1862 to Miss Wilkinson, a pupil, “I believe the two great parts of art to be SENTIMENT and STRUCTURE” (L&L p236) though said in relation to drawing figures, would seem to encapsulate Palmer’s whole approach to his etchings. Poetry provided the inspiration for numerous Victorian artists but few approach Palmer in poetic vision. A H Palmer quotes his father equating poetry and image making -

The work of a poet …where more is meant than meets the ear, would I should think suggest picture-work where more is meant than meets the eye. It is a haunted stream by which the young poet dreams away the summer's evening; and it is a spirit, or some benign sylvan Genius, who sends the sweet music that gently awakens.


  • R G ALEXANDER: A Catalogue of the etchings of Samuel Palmer. (1937)
  • British Museum 2005 exhibition catalogue: Samuel Palmer. Vision and Landscape. By William Vaughan, Elizabeth E Barker, Colin Harrison other contributors.
  • Rachel Campbell-Johnson: Mysterious Wisdom. The life and work of Samuel Palmer. (Bloomsbury 2011)
  • Gordon COOKE: Graham Sutherland. Early Etchings (Cooke, 1993)
  • Gordon Cooke: Samuel Palmer. His Friends and Followers (Fine Art Society 2011)
  • The Etching Club Minutes and related Papers, held at the Victoria & Albert Museum
  • Paul Goldman: Samuel Palmer visionary printmaker. (British Museum loan exhibition catalogue, 1991)
  • Colin Harrison: Samuel Palmer. (Ashmolean 1997)
  • Raymond LISTER: Samuel Palmer & his Etchings. (Faber & Faber, 1969)
  • A H Palmer: The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, Painter and Etcher (London 1892) online at www.archive.org
  • William Weston: the English Vision. Etchings and Engravings by Edward Calvert, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Graham Sutherland, Frederick Griggs and Paul Drury. Introduction by Graham Sutherland. (1973)

Newly acquired impressions of etchings by Palmer will be added into this exhibition even after it has been archived.

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*See article on The Etching Club in the Palmer Peers exhibition.

*Bampfield. See Palmer exhibition item 4, “Christmas”, only published posthumously.

*Lark. See Palmer exhibition item 2, “The Skylark”, pl.17 in ‘Etchings for the Art Union of London’.

*Evening. Though not specifically identified, this may be Palmer exhibition item 3, “The Herdsman's Cottage”, not published till 1872.














































See also the associated exhibitions:

Palmer's Peers. The Etching Club
A brief account of The Etching Club, 1883-1885, and a list of its publications, with an exhibition of a selection of etchings by other members of the Club, and by contributors to the publication English Etchings, 1881.

Palmer's Legacy
A selection of etchings in the British neo-romantic pastoral tradition in the 20th and 21st centuries, from F L Griggs to Ron McBurnie.


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