Samuel Palmer's wit and passion revealed as museum buys dozens of influential 19th century artist's letters

By Culture24 Reporter | 07 September 2015

Fitzwilliam Museum looks forward to 200th year in style with acquisition of velvety portrait and artist’s revealing letters

A photo of a series of black ink letters on yellow paper written by artist Samuel Palmer
© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Samuel Palmer’s final 20 years are often portrayed as a time of quiet reclusion in the aftermath of his elder son’s death, described by the visionary 19th century artist as “the catastrophe of my life”. 

But a set of 47 handwritten letters by Palmer, comprising more than 200 pages, portray another side to the period. Spanning more than 16 years - the final one shortly before the innovator's death -  they give a new impression of his personality in later years: far from being melancholy, they show an extraordinary zest for life.

A photo of a series of black ink letters on yellow paper written by artist Samuel Palmer
© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
The letters demonstrate that the artist found ways to cope with his intense grief, and still had a great passion for work, a sense of self-effacing humour, and a deep seriousness tempered always by a love of the absurd.

They are signed S. Palmer, Samuel Palmer, Nogo, Mr Fearing, Vanity of Vanities, A good-for-nothing-little-baby-scamp who is ashamed to sign his name, and one includes a small sketch.

A photo of a series of black ink letters on yellow paper written by artist Samuel Palmer
© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
The letters are peppered with capitals, elaborate lettering, exclamation marks, crossing outs and postscripts, touching on a wide range of subjects including religion, the “dearly-longed for” Blake Exhibition of 1876, music, a visit to Coleridge's house in Highgate, loneliness, and poetry; and contain a wide range of meditations on art, life and philosophy.

The Fitzwilliam has also become the first museum in the UK to own a Royal portrait by Spanish court painter Vicente López, buying a painting of a queen made 185 years ago alongside letters written by the artist Samuel Palmer during his final years.

A photo of a portrait of a Spanish queen by artist Vincente Lopez which has been bought by The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Maria Isabel de Borbón, Queen of the Two Sicilies (1829-30)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
The Royal portrait, from 1829-30, is of the matronly Maria Isabel de Borbón, Queen of the Two Sicilies – an area also known as the Kingdom of Naples.

López, who lived from 1772 to 1850 and is recognised as one of the most technically accomplished of all portrait painters of the period, painted de Borbón awash with blue velvet and fine lace, wearing an impressive set of diamonds and sapphires.

Curators say the portrait of the 57-year-old Queen is touchingly honest, citing the asymmetry of her face, discolorations of skin, tired eyes, reddened hands, double chin and hint of a smile, all rendered with the same meticulous care as her lace, diamonds, and virtuoso crumpled kid glove.

“Our collections have constantly been growing over the past 200 years and we are committed to displaying works that have a strong research and learning focus, and offer something new and fascinating to our visitors,” says Tim Knox, the Director of the museum.

The Art Fund and the Friends of the museum played vital roles in raising the asking prices for the purchases.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums and galleries to see Samuel Palmer works in

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
The Laing's watercolours are widely recognised as being of exceptional importance, including work by Palmer, Paul Sandby, JR Cozens, Thomas Girtin, JMW Turner, David Cox, Edward Lear and JF Lewis.

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent
The entire collection of this museum is a Designated Collection of national importance. Once you've admired the paintings, travel back in time and discover the history of the the Potteries, including the world's greatest collection of Staffordshire ceramics.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter
Whatever the Weather, opening later this year, includes rain gods from the Americas, paintings by Palmer and William Blake, stormy seascapes and ships in distress, private weather diaries, weathervanes, barometers, thermometers and all manner of recording instruments.
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