Samuel Palmer

Tintagel Castle


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Not on display

Samuel Palmer 1805–1881
Crayon, watercolour and gouache on paper
Support: 185 × 272 mm
Bequeathed by Allan Herbert Palmer 2011


This work on paper depicts a view to the south-west from the shore of Tintagel Haven on the north coast of Cornwall, with the ‘Island’ peninsula to the right. There are two ranges of ruins on the skyline: the thirteenth-century Tintagel Castle on the mainland to the top left, and the remains of what is thought to have been originally a Celtic monastery or a Dark Ages settlement on the Island.

Although this work is not specifically recorded in art historian Raymond Lister’s catalogue raisonné of Palmer’s work, he documents a dozen other Cornish drawings and watercolours, dating them to 1848, when the artist toured Cornwall and Devon (see Lister 1987, pp.151–2) and produced several views of Tintagel. Two larger watercolours, in the British Museum, London (Lister 1988, no.452, reproduced p.161) and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Lister 1988, no.453, reproduced p.161), show similar aspects. After visiting Tintagel, Palmer wrote to his artist friend Edward Calvert (1799–1883) in August 1848: ‘Some turreted fragments which remain are very quaint and strange’ (Lister 1974, vol.1, p.460). As related in Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Morte d’Arthur cycle, the castle is traditionally the place of conception of the legendary King Arthur, while one of the caves below is associated with the wizard Merlin.

Palmer is best known for intense ‘visionary’ works, made from the mid-1820s onwards at Shoreham in Kent, with works such as A Hilly Scene c.1826–8 (Tate N05805) showing the influence of the poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827), whom he first met in 1824. An Italian tour in 1837–9 (see The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine from the Palatine 1837–9, Tate T01008) helped foster the relatively conventional topographical practice of Palmer’s middle years, before he developed a more poetic late landscape style, sometimes inspired by authors including Virgil and John Milton, seen for example in A Dream in the Apennine, exhibited in 1864 (Tate N05923). His view of Tintagel combines topographical and poetic elements, and its comparatively unfinished, sketchy technique shows Palmer responding both to the landscape’s dramatic geology and to its imaginative associations.

The composition can be related to J.M.W. Turner’s (1775–1851) Tintagel Castle, a watercolour of about 1815 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which was engraved for the series of Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast in 1818 (Tate T05436T05443, T05980). Fondly recalling the ‘mysterious and clueless’ setting in 1864, Palmer criticised the ‘unreality’ of Turner’s cliffs, but noted ‘how well he used the crane work on the round slate wharf!’ (Lister 1974, vol.2, p.710.) A quarryman’s winch can be seen at the foot of Palmer’s watercolour, and terraced platforms survive.

Further reading
Raymond Lister (ed.), The Letters of Samuel Palmer, 2 vols., Oxford 1974.
Raymond Lister, Samuel Palmer: His Life and Art, Cambridge 1987.
Raymond Lister, Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Samuel Palmer, Cambridge 1988.

Matthew Imms
March 2011

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