Dimensions: 210 x 210 mm
Reclusive, eccentric, largely neglected and a commercial failure during his lifetime, Samuel Palmer nevertheless left a rich artistic legacy that has endured long after his death in 1881. His intensely spiritual, visionary depictions of the English countryside exerted a telling influence well into the 20th century with artists such as Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland and John Piper responding to a pastoral tradition of landscape art that he had helped to establish and codify. This lasting appeal was confirmed as recently as 2005 when The British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York staged a joint exhibition to celebrate Palmer’s bicentenary. 51,000 people attended the London show alone, more than twice the number predicted. Clear evidence then of the enduring appetite for the work of this son of Bermondsey, (Palmer was born and brought up in Surrey Square, just off the Old Kent Road and a short walk from Eames Fine Art Gallery).
This local connection provides added interest for us at Eames Fine Art, however it is Palmer’s status as a printmaker that gives him particular allure. Palmer completed just 13 etchings in his lifetime, (another four plates started by Palmer were completed by his son Herbert after his death). This is however one of the most admired and influential oeuvres in the history of printmaking. Palmer came to etching in his 40s when he became a member of the Etching Club in 1850. His small, yet exquisite contribution to the medium would come to merit its own full chapter in Philip Gilbert Hamerton’s seminal ‘Etching and Etchers’ of 1866 and Palmer was one of the keenest proponents of the so-called ‘Etching Revival’ of the period when the technique was established as an art-form in its own right, having previously been regarded simply as a reproductive technique. After Palmer’s death it would be the reprinting of five of his copper plates in the early 20th century by Frederick Griggs and Frank Short at the Royal College and the publication of a catalogue raisonné of his etchings in 1913 that helped to rekindle interest in Palmer’s work.
We do not profess to be specialists in Samuel Palmer’s work at Eames Fine Art. We have long admired his wonderful etchings but until now have not hung a single example in our gallery. The V&A, the British Museum and private galleries such as The Fine Art Society have long nurtured scholarship and interest in Palmer’s prints. Regular visitors to Eames Fine Art will know that our focus is contemporary and ‘modern’ (post-war) printmaking. We have however sought increasingly over the past three years, since opening the gallery on Bermondsey Street, to provide a wider context to the contemporary artists we work with. We firmly believe that a better understanding and therefore a deeper appreciation of printmaking and printmakers can be fostered by exploring the historical tradition that they are working within. Goya, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Miró and Dürer have all featured in the gallery over the last two years and we have been especially grateful for notable contributions from contemporary artists such as Norman Ackroyd, Anita Klein and Jason Hicklin who have given talks in the gallery and our collectors studio to help deepen our understanding of these exhibitions. This dialogue between contemporary artists and the printmaking tradition has enriched our gallery and studio programme immeasurably.
It is very much in this spirit that ‘Discovering Samuel Palmer’ is conceived. The idea for the show was suggested by artist Edward Twohig, who will be well known to regular visitors to the gallery for his wonderful landscapes in drypoint, etching and pastel. Edward is also a knowledgeable and avid collector of prints with a keen interest in the English pastoral tradition. His particular passion is for the etchings of Samuel Palmer and he has painstakingly acquired a world class collection of these works. Edward generously offered this collection on temporary loan to our other gallery artists so that they might create a contemporary response to one of Palmer’s works. Edward is convinced that Palmer would have happily sanctioned such a collaboration!
Soundings were taken and we were very encouraged by the response - indeed it quickly became apparent that Palmer holds a cherished place for most of the printmakers we approached (and not just the landscape etchers amongst them!). Interestingly affection for Palmer among the collectors and visitors to the gallery that we spoke to was less strongly held: a well-recognised name certainly and there was a general familiarity with Palmer’s watercolours and oils but less so with the graphic works. The picture started to emerge of Palmer as an ‘Artist’s Artist’ or perhaps more accurately a ‘Printmaker’s Printmaker’ and the opportunity to introduce his etchings to a vaguely acquainted or brand new audience through a series of fresh new interpretations of his work was a tantalising prospect.
Palmer’s complete body of etchings numbers 17 works and we had no problem finding 17 artists to agree to take up this challenge. We all met together at the Eames Studio one evening in September 2016 and after much food and wine and an introduction to the collection from Edward, each artist was asked to select three etchings in order of preference. (We are grateful to the artists that accepted alternatives when their first choice was already taken.) Their brief was to take away the Palmer etching and live with it for three months and in this time to create their own original print in response to the work. Any print technique could be used as long as it could cater for an edition of 20 and the only other stipulation was a paper size of 30 x 30 cm.
The results are magnificent and as varied as could be imagined. Artists returned with linocuts, woodcuts and engravings, carborundum prints, mezzotint, chine-collé, hand-colouring, embossing and sometimes combinations of different methods in one print. Some printmakers were drawn to the compositions, some to the technique, some to Palmer’s use of light or even to the sentiment or narrative in the work. This project offers us a fascinating insight into the different ways that artists see and respond to other artists’ work. Much has been written on the reasons for Palmer’s profound influence on the creative imagination of artists throughout the 20th Century but how does he speak to us now? How relevant is his spiritual view of the English landscape? Is there still comfort to be found in his search for an Arcadian ideal? Are there technical lessons still to be learned from close and sustained study of his etchings? We are fortunate indeed to be in the company of 17 such fine ‘interpreters’ as we try to find some of the answers.
With all of Palmer’s etchings on display this exhibition has been a rare opportunity to revisit the complete body of the artist’s graphic work. We hope that it will introduce this extraordinary artist to a new audience as well as providing a unique instrument to re-examine Palmer’s artistic legacy.
Rebecca & Vincent Eames, January 2017