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Herbert Palmer.

Son of an Old-Fashioned Child.


ON THE 21ST of December 1926 a correspondent sent distinctly lugubrious New Year’s greeting to Martin Hardie:

‘I want to convey to you the heartiness with which I wish you a New Year full of success for you and your family…I also want to thank you, with real sincerity, for many kind acts of yours — to assure you that even if my life was to be long, instead of a little span, I should never forget those acts…You will march on to success ‘beyond the dreams of avarice’; whilst I will take the few final steps that are left for me, without the remotest possibility of any happiness any more.’ 1

Towards the bottom of the letter which contained these weighty sentiments Hardie has added the following annotation in pencil — ‘A week later he is writing to Maclagan about my apparent “malevolence”’.

maclaganMHMcBMetAt the time he received this missive Martin Hardie was Keeper of the Departments of Painting, Engraving, Illustration and Design at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum whilst ‘Maclagan’ was Eric Maclagan, the Museum’s Director. As for the letter writer, this was Herbert Palmer, youngest son of the nineteenth century artist Samuel Palmer. Some two months earlier a combination of Hardie’s curatorial expertise along with Palmer’s readiness to lend a wide selection of his late father’s work had led to the success of a show held at the V&A entitled An Exhibition of Drawings, Etchings and Woodcuts by Samuel Palmer and other Disciples of William Blake. As the first major retrospective of Samuel Palmer’s work since his death in 1881 the event proved to be a foundational episode in the revival of Arcadian themes in twentieth century British art. In particular, the hitherto relatively unknown images the artist had produced as a young man whilst resident in the Kent village of Shoreham, proved nothing short of a revelation and would cast a highly influential spell over such young admirers as Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash.

AHPalmer_selfport_1890Prior to the exhibition Martin Hardie and Herbert Palmer had been friends for over twenty years and their attempt to revivify Palmer Snr.’s reputation amongst the metropolitan art crowd of the nineteen twenties should have marked the apogee of their relationship; in the event it proved quite the opposite, opening up an acrimonious rift between the two that was never completely healed, as evidenced from correspondence now held in the V&A’s National Art Library. The majority of this correspondence, stretching back to 1910, is from Palmer and, because of this, we learn much more about his, decidedly complex, character and preoccupations than Hardie’s. Even so, there is evidence in the letters that theirs was for most of its duration a respectful and cordial friendship — albeit one which seemed, for Palmer, to gradually take on a more and more precariously emotional significance.

Even a cursory review of the letters would suggest that Herbert Palmer was not an easy man to get on with.

BY THE TIME of the exhibition Hardie, having joined the V&A (when it was still known as the South Kensington Museum) as a Cambridge graduate in 1898, had steadily risen through the ranks to become a well-respected curator and academic. In addition to being the author of several monographs, books and catalogues, Hardie is also acknowledged as having ‘built the graphics collection [at the V&A] into one of the finest in England, particularly in contemporary prints’.2 As for Palmer, following his father’s death in 1881, he had gone on to memorialise him in two entertainingly tetchy memoirs, in the process becoming the self-appointed custodian of the artist’s memory. However, in 1909, disillusioned with a country which, as he saw it, was tottering into social decline and political disarray Palmer had emigrated with his wife and children from England to Canada. On the eve of this departure, in a characteristic show of obduracy Palmer made a bonfire out of those specimens of his father’s art of which ‘no one would be able to make head or tail’ reasoning that to destroy this cache would be to ‘save it from a more humiliating fate’ — thus incinerating what might have been even more arresting examples of the Shoreham work than are now in existence. Soon after, armed with those specimens of Samuel Palmer’s art which he deemed worthy to save from the flames, Herbert Palmer set sail for British Columbia. A year later, having established a home with his family in Vancouver, his correspondence with Martin Hardie began and the friendship which would later reach its turbulent crisis with the 1926 exhibition settled into a regular airmail communication.

spalmerrichmondEven a cursory review of the letters would suggest that Herbert Palmer was not an easy man to get on with. As the keeper of his father’s flame, he was both scornful of those who wrote about Samuel Palmer without possessing his inside knowledge of the artist’s techniques and personality whilst at the same time resentful that his father was not more celebrated. Herbert Palmer was also a solitary man who seemed more at ease rambling alone through the British Columbian hinterlands than being in the company of his wife and children. However, for all that Palmer could be an oddly cloistered figure, Hardie seems to have penetrated that reticence from the outset of their friendship  due to his staunch advocacy of Samuel Palmer’s work. Added to this Hardie was a highly respected academic of impeccable credentials (not to mention contacts) and Palmer, being an ingrained elitist, was constitutionally attracted to those he considered grander, more accomplished or of greater social prominence than himself. For his part, Hardie seems to have been happy to act as a transatlantic intermediary in helping Palmer sell examples of his father’s work as well as being the regular recipient of his friend’s recollections of growing up under the paternal aegis of an artist who, in his opinion, should have pushed himself more in order to achieve the respect he deserved. Had their relationship stayed this way, theirs would have been a fairly unremarkable alliance characterised by deference on one side and a sort of erudite noblesse oblige on the other.

However, it didn’t stay this way. From his letters it seems that, over the course of time Palmer increasingly came to see Hardie as an important confessor-cum-confidante. From seasoning his early letters with the occasional wry anecdote about incidents which epitomised his forlorn childhood, Palmer gradually began to include more and more heartfelt gripes, resentments and regrets that seem to have been stored up waiting for a suitable opportunity to vent them. The list was long and covered such subjects as the seasonal hardships of living in British Columbia, ‘the incessant hard work which for years past I have had to do for my wife’s comfort and that of her numerous dogs’, his thwarted career ambitions as a master printer (‘my father compelled me to give [it] up because it was a trade’), the ‘”half-cracked mob”‘ that constituted all English socialists’ and the fact that Vancouver, presided over by ‘a little simian mayor’, was nothing but a city of ‘shams, crime of all kinds [and] make belief enthusiasm for art and architecture’. There is an embittered intensity about these and similar outbursts which seem to exemplify the emotional make-up of a man who, by his own estimate, spent much of his life beset by ‘much warfare, constant unfavourable criticism and the frequent necessity of enforcing my own ideas of what is right and honourable’.

Unfortunately this kind of instinctive belligerence would one day significantly alienate his friend Hardie’s regard for him.

ALFRED HERBERT PALMER, born in 1853, was the third and last child of Samuel and Hannah. His older brother, Thomas More Palmer (known simply as ‘More’ in the family) had been born in 1842 whilst a sister, Mary Elizabeth, arrived in 1844 only to be buried (or ‘muddled away’) in 1847.3 Herbert’s childhood was spent in the shade of the attention given to his elder brother’s educational and moral instruction. So important was the careful moulding of More’s abilities and character to Samuel Palmer that the young man soon found himself swathed in a claustrophobic regimen of religious, intellectual and bodily observances (‘if you go into the garden without your cap your complement of life will be ended’).4 More died in 1861 aged nineteen weakened by a bout of scarlet fever and, at this distance, seemingly a casualty of all that now appears both stultifying and febrile about Victorian middle class parenting. Years later Herbert could still recall his father rushing from the house ‘in bewildered agony’5 on the morning that More, ‘the hope and ornament’6 of his existence ‘bade a weary life farewell’.7 The prolonged and tragic lamentations which ensued only served to confirm the auxiliary status young Herbert would always retain in his parent’s affections.

Whilst Palmer Snr., a ‘poor, crushed quivering wreck’ entered prolonged mourning over the death of his first-born, Herbert took up entomology as a distraction from a household doused in parental grief.8 It was as well he’d hit upon a pastime which didn’t particularly require him to socialise or risk physical injury given that, in an echo of the maddening constraints his older brother had been subject to, he ‘wasn’t allowed to play with the local children and had to take a parasol everywhere I went’. Furthermore, Herbert would go on to claim that, in general, he was brought up ‘uneducated, dressed ridiculously beyond description and […] physically weakened for life’. Meanwhile, Palmer Snr., never the most clubbable of artists, retreated in mourning from a career based in London to live an isolated existence with wife and son in deepest Surrey. They moved to Redhill and settled at Furze Hill House, a Gothic villa which, according to Herbert, was ‘pretentious outside and inconvenient within’9. Here, his father adopted a way of life that was “about as interesting as the career of a Brixton Sunday School teacher” — a far cry from the romantic figure the young Samuel Palmer had cut in his Shoreham youth, dreaming dreams of medieval piety amidst bucolic moonlight.

furzeskHERBERT’S DISSATISFACTION WITH the life lived at Furze Hill House and his frustration that his father had not shown more strength of character or been a better businessman are regular complaints both in his published writings and in his letters to Hardie although they are usually, and often in virtually the same breath, qualified by an unwavering pride in the artist’s achievements. This tangled skein of disappointment and esteem can at times be difficult to unpick, especially given Herbert Palmer’s propensity for the ambiguously mordant one liner. As a result it often seems that behind every boast of his father’s prowess lurks the glint of censure whilst within every despairing itemisation of his failings there skulks a note of admiration.

gdnshorehamHis ambivalence about the Shoreham period is a case in point. Whilst acknowledging the inspiration ‘these simple and happy days of earnest but unhurried energy’10 gave to the young artist in his quest to depict ‘the very spirit and quintessence of the loveliest and most poetic pastoral scenery’11 the work produced was original but ‘somewhat wilful’12 the result being, depending on who was judging it, ‘either impressive or ridiculous’.13 More concerning perhaps for his son was the alleged ‘unmanly’ attitudes Samuel Palmer struck in his youth (‘there was too much “dearest” . . . sometimes about my father’ added to which the nebulous idealism he cultivated in those prelapsarian days, fuelled by the experience of befriending William Blake, very nearly turned his father into a ‘misled, mystical fanatic’.14 The residual effect of all this youthful whimsy was to leave the artist encumbered with the innocence of ‘an old fashioned child’, all of which contributed to him being one who, according to his son, ‘egregiously failed in the battle of life’.15 Thus does this disaffected younger son report back in memory from the gloomier reaches of Furze Hill House.

The original plan was to have held the exhibition in 1924. When that didn’t happen, spring of 1925 was proposed but, in the end, also proved unachievable. However 1926 was the year of the General Strike and the repercussions of what, according to a Daily Mail editorial, was a ‘revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people’ reached as far as the V&A’s annual programme of events so that any proposal to reintroduce Samuel Palmer to an unsuspecting public had to wait until October of that year. By then, however, a dispute of a more discreetly acrimonious kind was brewing between Herbert Palmer and Martin Hardie.

There was, from mid-September 1926 onwards, an abrupt deterioration in their relationship; one that was all the more starkly brought into relief by the several years worth of previous exchanges which had given no warning of looming storm clouds. Admittedly, Palmer had often shown himself to have a considerable appetite for taking offence at any perceived slight or affront to his family history but always with Hardie as his sounding board rather than his adversary. However, all that changed when it came to the exhibition catalogue. Palmer had contributed an engaging if idiosyncratic introduction to this along with a range of exhibition notes. Production of the catalogue had been initiated by Hardie back in April and had entailed him sending various page proofs over to Vancouver for Palmer’s inspection. During the course of what turned out to be a six month long process Hardie seems to have done his best to incorporate Palmer’s several amendments within the time scales and production costs available.

exhib26BY LATE AUGUST the catalogue was in its final galley proof stage and as a matter of courtesy Hardie sent Palmer a copy of what was, in effect, the final version of the text before the full print run began. By return came the disheartening response from Vancouver to the effect that, as far as Palmer was concerned, yet more alterations were required. However, Hardie flatly refused to halt the production process at such a late stage. It was this refusal which provoked a balefully hostile response from Palmer in the form of a letter dated the 14th of September. In it Palmer itemised a number of, as he saw them, grievous faults with the catalogue as it stood. Not only did it contain several inaccuracies but some of the notes were ‘a disgraceful jumble’. Moreover, and with reference to what he deduced was the work of an unknown editorial hand, ‘the corrections of the proof of my own portions of the catalogue should have been made by me and by no other person not only as a matter of universal custom but as a matter of common sense’. In its present state, Palmer roundly declared, the catalogue contained ‘interpolations which are not mine, blunders which are not mine and which would ruin my reputation for care and accuracy . . . I greatly resent this state of things’. As for their being no possibility at that point of correcting these faults, Palmer referred to Hardie’s own account of the considerable time it had taken get the printing arranged, the length of which Palmer found highly questionable assuring him that ‘I have some experience for getting estimates for printing . . . and I know . . . what can be done in a few weeks’. Besides which, he found it curious and not a little galling that ‘you did not hurry the printers re the estimates but you did hurry me at the last most unreasonably and unjustly as I think’. Given the efforts that Hardie had made to accommodate Palmer’s amendments over the previous few months this seems a disproportionate fit of pique indicating perhaps that the Canadian exile had come to the realisation that his approval of the finalised catalogue was not the determining factor in its public appearance he’d supposed it to be.

‘From being an at times wearisome pessimist…Palmer was now transformed into a full-blown pen-wielding malcontent.’

From being an at times wearisome pessimist who nevertheless regularly acknowledged Hardie’s friendly benevolence towards him, Palmer was now transformed into a full-blown pen-wielding malcontent. With his sense of amour propre well and truly inflamed, a further jeremiad arriving at the end of September. In it Palmer avowed that he should be ‘ashamed for anyone to see’ the exhibition cards which had been prepared. Furthermore, although he had once had high hopes for the show he now realised that it would amount to no more than ‘one of the museum’s ephemera’ not least because it was due to be held during ‘eight weeks of cold dark days when there are scarcely any visitors in London’. Such a state of affairs only confirmed what he’d always suspected — ‘I am glad that I have for long had misgivings about the exhibition and therefore have said very little about it’. Indeed, the increasing sense of disaffection he had felt towards the whole venture had been exacerbated by Hardie who had ‘kept to the very last explanations and statements of high handed actions for which I would have thought a “friend” would have prepared me’. As this letter goes on it becomes clear that when he had originally been denied a further opportunity to correct the proofs Palmer had wasted no time in protesting directly to the V&A Director, Eric Maclagan. Evidently Hardie had responded with some chagrin to this course of action prompting Palmer to justify his behaviour by mounting a dubiously self-effacing defence — ‘you suggest that my protests against what you have done and written are “hitting below the belt”. Do you really think that I am so insane as to suppose that my letter to your director would cause him to reverse any action or policy of yours?’ Then, in what would become a familiar tactic, Palmer signs off with a melodramatic flourish. Whilst stoutly refusing to apologise for writing to Maclagan he laments ‘that matters have arisen which will affect our intercourse irremediably and permanently’. Suitably saddened, but defiant, Palmer, not for the last time, rings down the curtain on their friendship.

Not that this histrionic leave-taking was the end of the matter. After a few days of rumination Palmer, now firmly in his stride, decided to bypass Hardie once more and resume his dialogue with the V&A Director. He did so with a suitably portentous opening declaration — ‘Disaster seemed to be inevitable’. By this, not only did he refer to the blighted catalogue but also to the misfortunes and negligence which, so far as he was concerned, had beset the entire exhibition. Although Palmer would ‘never quite recover from the shame I feel when I see the great mass of correspondence forced on Mr Hardie by me’ nevertheless he felt duty bound to point out that had the event been held in the Spring when London was teeming with art lovers ‘and there are many transatlantic visitors’ instead of during ‘eight, dark cold foggy weeks when few go out who can stay at home’ there might have been some hope of success. As it was, ‘No fate could have been worse. No delusion on my part could have been more bizarre’. And to add insult to injury about the October date that was finally fixed upon, ‘All this was kept from me by Mr Hardie till within a fortnight or so of the final decisions of the museum’.

There follows a brief resumption of his campaign, even at this stage, to get the catalogue amended via Maclagan’s good graces before Palmer, a determined if somewhat erratic petitioner, expressed his ‘great regret for so much trouble given to yourself and Mr Hardie’. If nothing could be done at this stage to rescue the situation then, alas, so be it, particularly since, at seventy-three years of age, Palmer was ‘too old and much troubled about other and vital matters to be troubled very long about the exhibition’s brief life and the passage of the opportunity which can never come again’. Having had his say it is with heavy heart that he prepared to takes his leave of the Director, pausing only to recall a letter he once received in which a friend of his defined hope as ‘the interval between two disappointments’. True enough, except that ‘between my disappointments there seems to be no interval’.

ERIC MACLAGAN’S RESPONSE to this letter shows him to have dealt with Palmer’s grievances in a briskly cheerful manner. However, this further approach to his Director seems to have tested to the limit Hardie’s ability to adopt a similarly diplomatic approach and on the 4th of November he composed a letter to Palmer in which, calmly but forcefully, he gave his side of the story. Hardie began by making it clear that he did not want ‘to probe a sore wound’. However, Palmer had ‘accused [him] of unfair treatment amounting almost to dishonesty’, a charge which had never been levelled against him before ‘in any human relationship’. That said, Hardie had now had time to review the correspondence between them touching on the whole affair and his conclusion was that ‘there has been misunderstanding on both sides; and I admit that I have evidently, though unconsciously, misunderstood your feelings and intentions’. Even so, Hardie felt honour-bound to refute ‘two definite charges’ Palmer had made against him. These were that Hardie has deliberately made it difficult for Palmer to correct the catalogue proofs and that he had taken it upon himself to edit Palmer’s contributions when he had not been given the right to do so. With reference to the first charge, Hardie pointed out that he had tried to get proofs sent over to Vancouver whenever was reasonably possible, adding, furthermore, that had Palmer been ‘500 miles away, instead of 5000 or so, I can honestly say that you would have been consulted daily, if necessary…That, unfortunately, was impossible but through no fault of mine’. As for the second charge ‘I assumed that I had full editorial power with regard to a catalogue depending almost entirely, I know, on your work and your assistance, but produced and financed by the Museum’. Furthermore, Hardie had been at pains to include as many of Palmer’s amendments as possible to the point where, on one occasion, the whole enterprise had been temporarily postponed ‘at considerable inconvenience both to myself and Museum work generally’ so that ‘at least you might have given me credit for trying, at all costs, in this way to fulfil your wishes’. Aside from these two main areas of contention Hardie also made reference to a letter of his in which ‘I have referred to your age and you have chosen to treat the remark with sarcasm. I must repeat that for twenty years I have taken pleasure in our friendship and have reverenced your intellect and your power of expression, so much greater than my own’. Ever mindful of his correspondent’s curious logic Hardie then added in brackets, ‘(For heaven’s sake don’t think this is ironical as you have thought some previous saying of the same kind. I am speaking in all seriousness)’.

Like Palmer in his more contrite moods, Hardie admitted that he also found it especially regretful ‘that any breach should have occurred in our friendship. That breach was not, he trusted, ‘irremediable and permanent’. Having said that, it would have to be so unless Palmer agreed to ‘withdraw your statements as to my “drastic, high-handed action”, my having kept my intentions to myself till you were powerless, and similar statements, written in strong terms not only to myself but to others’. There follows an addendum in the form of a series of extracts taken from their previous correspondence dating back to 1924 which appear to show Palmer as being content with Hardie’s management of the whole project. At one stage he even declares, ‘I place myself entirely in your hands; regarding you not as the friend but as the official in authority’,  along with reciprocal assurances from Hardie that ‘you should trust me to act for the best in an editorial capacity. You may be sure that I shall do everything that I can both in your interest and in that of Samuel Palmer’.

spbyahpEVEN WHILST HARDIE’S fairly comprehensive rebuttal of the accusations made against him was winging its way to Vancouver, Palmer had already stated in a letter dated 11 November 1926 how he remained ‘very much worried over the errors in the catalogue and the alterations in my words and sentences’ such that he is ‘at such a low ebb of health that I cannot sleep (only an hour last night) and am hurrying my lawyers to complete my new will as soon as possible’. It would not be until a further letter of the 30th of November that Palmer made any allusion to Hardie’s recent letter in which the curator defended his actions. As if intent on downplaying the diligence with which Hardie had refuted his allegations, Palmer started out by making much of the other exhibition-related tasks and worries he has had to attend to all of which have left him with little time to spare to address the points Hardie had raised. Nevertheless, he would concede that, ‘if I have attached any blame to you, which is without foundation, I beg to express my regret’. Even so, it was important to keep in mind that ‘I will not put up with the alterations in my words and sentences by anyone whatever’. Consequently, their relationship had, (yet again), met its untimely end and it therefore would be ‘treacherous to profess the existence of friendship which has been killed’. It just remained to be said that, having perused the extracts from their letters which Hardie provided, Palmer was heartened to see  ‘I have uniformly treated you with courtesy of the most profound kind’, and whilst willing to admit that ‘you will certainly never have so troublesome a correspondent again…I venture to say you will never have one who will treat you with more courtesy’. Hardie’s reaction to Palmer’s generous sentiments are not on record.

Seemingly never one to resist the temptation to revisit what had been his final word on the matter, on the 5th of December with just the last few weeks of the exhibition to go, Palmer once more wrote to Hardie but this time in an altogether more conciliatory and self-analytical mood. Quoting Hardie’s remarks back at him about reverencing the intellect of ‘a man more than twenty years older, and wiser, than myself’ Palmer wanted to assure him that such reverence was misplaced, claiming that ‘a few old friends of 60 years standing or so, know that I have always distrusted myself; that I distrust my own work and that I am not able to assess its quality’. Furthermore, due to his upbringing, ‘I was always, and still am, painfully aware of my own shortcomings physically and mentally – always comparing myself unfavourably with other people’. Therefore, and despite Hardie’s protestations to the contrary, Palmer had no choice but to treat kind words about the reverence owed him as ironic, particularly given that ‘they make me feel even more ashamed of myself than I am normally’. To make matters worse Palmer confided that he has ‘grown more and more solitary in habits as I meet no one who has the same tastes’. Unwittingly, Hardie through his friendship and good offices had only contributed to Palmer’s distress, not least because ‘my chief dread in life has always been and still is the incurring of obligations which I cannot remove. You have said not only to me but elsewhere that you have done for me “more than I know”! This of course will…stay in my mind like a festering thorn’. This letter marks a fleeting hiatus in Palmer’s usual strategy of mixing grandiose complaints with backhanded compliments. For once, his underlying fragility and chronic lack of self-esteem are not coated with truculence.

Palmer avowed that although he saw death looming that was no reason to compromise his principles or, as he put it, ‘on the grave’s brink I will not take refuge in treachery’.

THIS NEW-FOUND CANDOUR continues, to some extent, in a letter dated the 21st of December which contained the lugubrious seasonal greetings quoted at the beginning of this article whilst also going on to revisit their disputes in familiarly combative terms. Whilst Palmer wanted to convey to Hardie good wishes as opposing camps have sometimes conveyed them at Christmas, any truce will be temporary as ‘unfortunately in the case of war I have never been able to bury the hatchet’. Once again introducing references to his own mortality and by now having resumed his former hawkish defiance, Palmer avowed that although he saw death looming that was no reason to compromise his principles or, as he put it, ‘on the grave’s brink I will not take refuge in treachery’. In the event he didn’t stumble over the grave’s brink that Christmas. More letters to the V&A Director followed including one in which he assured Maclagan that ‘your letters were the only anaesthetic in the midst of vexation and anger and lost sleep since Mr Hardie and his assistants practically wrecked the catalogue as a work of accuracy and permanent value and insulted me by their high handed treatment’. With the parting shot that, ‘my memory of the exhibition will be a wretched one’, a temperament regularly subject to squalls of remembered insults is once more revealed.

In the years that followed, letters remain on file between Palmer and Hardie which show that although they would never again enjoy the kind of friendship they shared before the 1926 exhibition, relations between them did eventually regain a level of sustained cordiality. One of the most poignant of Palmer’s later letters is the one he wrote on February 24th 1930 in which he informed Hardie that ‘after a long illness, partly at a hospital and partly with private trained nurses [my wife] died on the 18th of November and lies eight miles from here in a large quiet cemetery overlooking the Fraser estuary’. For someone who had often expressed his essential solitariness despite living with his wife and children, Palmer at last conceded what married life had meant to him. He goes on to say that he has bought the grave plot next to his wife ‘and pray daily that I may soon occupy it in the dim hope of reunion with one of the finest characters I ever knew, never to part again’. Relating his loss back to those he witnessed as a child, Palmer contends that ‘all that I so vividly remember of my father’s agony when he lost his son is a mere nothing to mine’ before, in a characteristically saturnine coda claiming that ‘I am steadily getting weaker. My letter writing days are over and I fear this letter must be practically a farewell’.

Practically, but not quite. Almost eight months later a further missive reaches Hardie with Palmer reporting that he is still wholly bereft by the loss of his wife, a lasting and barely endurable grief which is exacerbated by the looming anniversary of her death. Unlike his father who was ‘able to leave the scene where all his ambition and hope was slowly built’ and destroyed with the death of his eldest son, Palmer remains ‘surrounded by relics of more than 40 years of married life the whole of which seems to me now to have been impossible but for [his wife] Helen’s self-sacrifice and encouragement when I sometimes needed it so badly’. Having reached the age of 77, it seems to him that he has ‘next to nothing to show for it’. The memory of a childhood accident is summoned up, one which, he feels, was a significant factor in all his subsequent misfortunes. It was ‘a severe fall from the top of a high stile close to the Land’s End; a crash which crippled me for months for I came down on a big stone’. As a result, he has ‘never had a fair chance and have always had the mortification of feeling how far short of my friends I have been physically and mentally. As a child I seem to have felt this badly for when strangers came I crept out of sight to the servants below’. Just why this accident should have left young Herbert feeling not only physically but mentally inferior to the point that he hid away from household visitors is never explained and invites speculation about the nature of the injuries sustained to his person which had mortified him so. In any case, here was yet one more episode that seems to have added a further veneer of beleaguerment to his adult character.

The last letter in the archive comes not from Herbert Palmer but from his son, Bryan. It is dated December 25th 1932. Bryan had been sorting through his father’s papers when he came across a letter from Hardie to whom he now writes, ‘I am sorry to have to tell you that [my father] died on Dec 1st in the Vancouver General Hospital of pneumonia’. The old man ‘had not been feeling very well for some months’. Since his wife’s death he had lived alone and despite his children telling him it was not safe at his age ‘he would not hear of coming to live with us or of having anyone in to live with him and he was just as resolute about not having a doctor so…we could only stand by and see him slowly failing’. Hardie would no doubt ‘know almost as well as we do that he would have his own way whatever the cost’. However, Bryan adds ‘I have very often heard him speak so very highly of you and I am sure you will be sorry to hear of his death.’

IF SAMUEL PALMER is today regarded as an important and compelling artist in his own right rather than merely an acolyte of the elderly William Blake, the process of rediscovery which led to that assessment can be directly traced back to the efforts of Martin Hardie and Herbert Palmer in the 1920s. Their collaboration on the 1926 exhibition, as fraught and troublesome as it often was succeeded in rescuing Palmer from the ranks of formulaic mid-Victorian landscape painters chiefly through the revelation that in his youth he had been capable of producing the portfolio of anomalous wonders that was the Shoreham work.

vaughncovOne hopes that Herbert Palmer would have been proud to have seen the steady growth in his father’s reputation over the years which led, in 2005, to a major retrospective organised by the British Museum marking the 200th anniversary of the artist’s birth as well as, in 2015, the publication of William Vaughan’s Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall, an authoritative and weighty tome to add to the considerable literature already available. On the other hand there is every chance that Herbert, a querulous, stubbornly intractable man to the last, would have found fault with even the most eulogistic accounts of his father career from one of his latter day advocates and written a stern letter of protest to the parvenu concerned.

Mark Jones is a part-time art historian based in Manchester. His account of James Smetham calling on the Ruskins appeared in the Fortnightly in January 2014.


  1. Unless otherwise stated, all letters quoted between Palmer and Hardie are found in The National Art Library Special Collections, 86.NN Box III (i) & (ii), Reference Number: MSL/1953/2782.
  2.  As quoted from the article on Hardie in the Dictionary of Art Historians website at
  3. Catalogue of an exhibition of drawings, etchings & woodcuts by Samuel Palmer and other disciples of William Blake: introduction and notes by A.H. Palmer. Victoria and Albert Museum, 1926. p. 12.
  4.  The Letters of Samuel Palmer, Vol.1, edited by Raymond Lister, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), p. 569
  5.  The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer by A.H. Palmer (London: Seeley, 1892), p. 123
  6.  Ibid., p. 122
  7.  Ibid., p. 123
  8. Catalogue. 1926. p.15.
  9. Quoted in Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall by William Vaughan, (New Haven & London: Yale), p. 320
  10. Palmer, p. 53
  11.  Ibid, p. 50
  12.  Ibid, p. 50
  13.  Ibid, p. 48
  14.  Ibid., p. 45
  15.  Ibid., p. 169

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