Palmer and Primitivism

© 2005 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


'I was always imagining and trying to draw.'
Palmer, letter to F.G. Stephens, 1871

Samuel Palmer was born in 1805 into a middle-class family living in Surrey Square, off the Old Kent Road in south London. His father was a bookseller, and both parents encouraged his love of literature as well as his artistic talents.

By 1818, when he was thirteen, Palmer had decided to become an artist. This decision may have been influenced by two traumatic events he suffered around that time. Firstly, he was sent to Merchant Taylors' school, but was so unhappy that he left after six months. Two months later, while staying with his grandfather in Houndsditch, he learned of his mother's death, news which he later said 'had pierced him like a sharp sword'.

A year later, Palmer was already an accomplished painter and exhibited work in both the British Institution and the Royal Academy. But his development as a promising but conventional painter took a dramatic change of direction when he met the artist John Linnell in 1822. Under the older man's influence, he began to look at the work of old masters such as Dürer and developed his own highly original 'primitive' style. Linnell introduced Palmer to William Blake and this was to the most influential encounter of his life. He was deeply impressed by Blake's vivid imagery, as well as by his independence of mind and powers of imagination.

By the 1820s Palmer lived with his father in Bloomsbury and frequently visited the British Museum. There he drew the antique sculptures and studied the work of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century engravers such as Dürer, Van Leyden and Bonasone.