Palmer’s shipwreck

Interesting. The Samuel Palmer painting “Robinson Crusoe …”, owned by and occasionally on display in the city museum at Stoke-on-Trent, is (like its subject-matter) a survivor of what was once a large and now-lost part of Palmer’s work…

   “Samuel Palmer is not usually thought of as a painter of the sea. However, his son A.H. Palmer included five coastal scenes amongst the 22 illustrations of his Life and Letters, and described one work, ‘Storm and Wreck on the North Coast of Cornwall’, as ‘one of the best of [his] sketches from nature’. The coast features in a number of the elaborate exhibition watercolours of the mid-century, such as ‘Robinson Crusoe guiding his Raft into the Creek’ (1850, City Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke on Trent) and ‘Farewell to Calypso’ (1848—49, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester). In addition to these, exhibition records show that in the 1850s and 1860s Palmer exhibited a considerable number of paintings which focus on the contemporary life of the British coast [mostly Cornwall and Devon]. In many cases we know these works only from their titles, because they sold very well, and disappeared into private collections straight after the exhibitions. Palmer evidently shared the preoccupations of other artists of the time: he made detailed studies of wave movements, and explored narrative subjects drawing on the life of the British fisherfolk, with all its anxieties and dangers. These works are from the middle period of Palmer’s life, which has been unduly neglected by art historians. The standard account of Palmer focuses on the visionary Shoreham years, which came to an end in the early 1830s, and the ‘vision recaptured’ in the Milton and Virgil illustrations of his last years, starting in 1865.”

— from Christiana Payne, “”Dreaming of the marriage of the land and sea”: Samuel Palmer and the coast” in Samuel Palmer Revisited, 2010.

I never knew that, despite having several books on Palmer on my shelves.

Stoke’s “Robinson Crusoe …” is not especially inspiring at first glance. I remember a girl I was looking at it with in the Museum, some years ago… she could obviously see nothing in it. ‘Just another example of pretty-pretty patriarchal/imperialist art’, seemed to be her implied political stance. But there are multiple resonances to be seen in it, for those who can discern the deeper cultural and literary contexts.

I see that the Ashmolean also has a fine Palmer painting of the Arthurian site of Tintagel in Cornwall. Since much of his sea work still seems to be in the Midlands/North West, I wonder if his surviving sea works might be brought together to make the nucleus of a cheery summer exhibition circa 2020, at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. Accompanied and bulked out by similar British sea paintings featuring or alluding to myth and legend?

There might also be a side-room that explains the spiritual concerns of the Staffordshire Hoard makers with the sea, and the symbolic resonances they gave it in their art and poetry. Perhaps paired with the other great English sea-poetry written written in North Staffordshire, later, by the Gawain-poet in poems such as Patience and Purity. That would link through to Tolkien (a Gawain-poet expert), who had formative experiences in Staffordshire while he was nurturing the foundational centre of his legendarium – the mythic mariner Earendel.

Perhaps such an exhibition could be co-organised with some large gallery in Cornwall, to share the costs.


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