Samuel Palmer

A Hilly Scene


Not on display

Samuel Palmer 1805–1881
Watercolour and gum arabic on paper on mahogany
Support: 206 × 137 mm
frame: 298 × 226 × 32 mm
Purchased 1948


This is one of Palmer's finest works, painted shortly after he settled in Shoreham in Kent. The Darent valley appeared to Palmer a perfect, neo-Platonic world and he called it the 'Valley of Vision'. In this picture he creates an ideal image of pastoral contentment, unaffected by the outside world. The unseasonal combination of flowering horse-chestnut and huge ripe heads of wheat symbolise fertility and the richness of the soil, and Palmer may have been inspired by Edmund Spenser's lines from the Faërie Queene (1596), Book iii, Canto VI, beginning 'There is continuall spring, and harvest there'. The prominent church spire signifies a divine presence within the landscape. This is emphasised by the gothic arch created by the branches at the top of the composition, which relates closely to Coming from Evening Church (1830, Tate N03697). In the background, the characteristic rounded hills of Shoreham and the crescent moon, here shown on its back, were later adopted as motifs by artists of the mid-twentieth century. Inspired by John Milton's poetic evocations, the moon in its various phases became a recurring feature in Palmer's work.

Palmer's pictures of this period are intensely personal, but often have a mystical, even visionary quality comparable to the work of William Blake (1757-1827). Palmer was greatly inspired by Blake's illustrations to Ambrose Philips' imitation of Virgil's First Eclogue (1821), and could have been describing his own work when he wrote of the Blake engravings: 'They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitist pitch of intense poetry…There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul' (A.H. Palmer, The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, 1892, pp.15-16). In A Hilly Scene Palmer adopts a fresco technique (really a form of tempera) which is comparable to Blake's 'fresco' panels such as The Ghost of a Flea (Tate N05889), and to which the brilliant star shining through the branches at the top right appears to refer.

The Shoreham works are characterised by a deliberate medievalism and stylistically they were influenced by the work of such Northern European artists as Breughel, Dürer, Lucas Van Leyden and Giulio Bonasone. This particular picture is packed with detail, reminiscent of the miniatures found in illuminated manuscripts. Palmer may also have been inspired by works such as Mantegna's The Agony in the Garden (1460, National Gallery, London).

Further reading:
Raymond Lister, Samuel Palmer and 'The Ancients', exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1984, pp.10-11, reproduced no.11.
Raymond Lister, Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Samuel Palmer, Cambridge 1988, pp.56-7, no.66, reproduced p.56.
Leslie Parris, Landscape in Britain c.1750-1850, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, pp.120-1, no.293, reproduced p.121.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Display caption

William Blake's 1821 wood engravings illustrating Robert Thornton's 'Virgil' greatly inspired Palmer. He wrote 'they are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise [with] such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates... the inmost soul'. For a few years after Palmer moved to the Kent village of Shoreham in 1826, he found the local landscape perfectly matched these Blakean visions. Blake, too, in a rare trip out of London once briefly stayed in Shoreham. This work is partly painted in tempera, as were some of Palmer's other Shoreham works. It was also a medium used by Blake.

Gallery label, September 2004

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