This grand and expressive drawing was made by Samuel Palmer on a visit to the Wye Valley in 1837. Throughout the 1830s, following his years in Shoreham, Samuel Palmer visited Devon, Somerset and North Wales in his quest for evocative landscapes. In October of 1834 Palmer wrote enthusiastically to his friend, the painter George Richmond that he felt ‘more energetic and ambition for excellence in art than ever.’ In the following three summers he explored the mountains, castles and wilderness of Wales, which were to fire his imagination, before he set off to Italy in October 1837. This beautifully executed, expansive study shows a weir and stretch of Dulas Brook, a tributary of the Wye, as it runs through the wooded valley known as Cusop Dingle. Executed in pencil, black chalk and rapid, touches of wash the drawing contains many of the pictorial devices which were central to Palmer’s work in the mid-1830s.
Palmer’s son, A.H. Palmer described his father’s Welsh waterfall studies as ‘elaborate and true to nature’ and recalled: ‘His soul was in this work; he rejoiced in the rugged beauty of wild, impetuous currents, no less than in the still translucent depths; and held that a landscape, however lovely, was never perfect without at least some glint of water.’ The present drawing – which was unknown to Lister – is the first dated drawing from Palmer’s summer tour in 1837. A second sheet, now part of the Stuart Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is dated 5th July and shows that Palmer had travelled the 30 or so miles to Craig-Pwll-Du where he sketched another weir on the same distinctive grey paper.
Palmer’s son described his father’s general sketching apparatus on these expeditions:
‘There were no costly umbrellas, elaborate boxes, or well-filled portmanteaus. A narrow deal case, or, at other times, a capacious sketching portfolio, slung round the shoulders with a strap, held a good supply of paper, with two large but very light wooden palettes, set with clots of colour a quarter of an inch thick, upon a coat of enamel formed of flake-white and copal. A light hand-basket held the remainder of the more bulky materials, with the lunch or dinner, and a veteran camp-stool which had survived the Italian campaign. A quantity of capacious pockets were filled with sharp knives, chalks, charcoal, crayons, and sketch-books; and a pair of ancient neutral-tint spectacles carried, with a little diminishing mirror, specially for sunsets, completed the equipment.’
This complex sheet was almost certainly made entirely en plein air. Palmer worked in graphite and black chalk to build a dense, recessive composition; ignoring the foreground bank on the right, he concentrated on capturing the effects of the light as it fell through the densely wooded valley and illuminated the vegetation. Palmer used a darkish grey paper to provide a mid-tone for his drawing, this allows the rich Summer vegetation gilded with light to be suggested rapidly with dabs of yellow paint, whilst the interior of the wooded valley is achieved by the application of a liquid wash of darker watercolour. Worked rapidly, this highly energised composition evokes, in its abbreviations of forms, the more abstract of Palmer’s works, whilst in its grandeur and scope looks forward to the great exhibition watercolours of the 1840s and 1850s.
- Ed. R. Lister, The Letters of Samuel Palmer, Oxford 1974, p.64.
- A.H. Palmer, Memoir, p.9.
- Raymond Lister, Catalogue Raisonné of the works of Samuel Palmer, Cambridge, 1988, cat. no.276, p.118.
- A. H. Palmer, ‘The Story of an Imaginative Painter’, The Portfolio: An Artistic Periodical, 15, 1884, pp.148-149.