At the age of just 21, Samuel Palmer produced one of British art’s greatest self-portraits.
At the age of just 21, Samuel Palmer produced one of British art’s greatest self-portraits. Although he is wearing the clothes of the period (1826), the face that surmounts the casually fastened soft high collar is both Romantic and modern, instantly and thrillingly bridging the gap between his century and our own. As Rachel Campbell-Johnston notes in her welcome biography, Palmer’s hair is unbrushed and he seems not to have bothered to shave: ‘It’s hardly the image you would expect from an upcoming artist at that time. He does not strike the pose of the ambitious young professional; make a bid for new clients by parading palette and brush’. This, it turns out, was part of Palmer’s problem in a career that frequently foundered on his inability to meet commercial demands. In a period when public taste was for huge and dramatic canvases that one was expected to stand back and admire, Palmer produced ‘tiny luminous squares’ which were seldom ‘larger than an open book’ and required close inspection to reveal their genius.
Palmer was a youthful prodigy and his finest and best-known paintings, such as ‘The Magic Apple Tree’, ‘Coming from Evening Church’, ‘The Gleaning Field’ and ‘In a Shoreham Garden’, were done in Shoreham, Kent, over a short, highly productive period when he was in his mid twenties. Many of them were never exhibited during his life but hidden away in what he called his ‘Curiosity Portfolio’. A long honeymoon spent travelling in Italy from 1837 to 1839 did not result, as he had hoped, in a new and financially successful phase in his career. Studying old masters may have taught him a little more about figure- drawing, but by the time he got back to England, public taste had long since moved on from Italy to the Orient.