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Object: The good farmer

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Title The good farmer
Production Palmer, Samuel, 1865, United Kingdom
Medium summary watercolour and gouache
Materials watercolour, gouache, paper
Classification watercolours
Dimensions Image: 310mm (Height) x 540mm (Width)
Frame: 681mm (Height) x 834mm (Width) x 25mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 1954 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds
Registration number 1954-0020-1

Samuel Palmer's landscapes are rich with allusions to English and Latin literature, and to the Bible. The painter was brought up in a devout Christian household, and was a precocious talent who, at the age of fourteen, began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, London. In 1824 he met the visionary poet and painter William Blake and became his most devoted follower. Blake’s woodcut illustrations to an 1821 edition of The pastorals of Virgil were described by Palmer as ‘visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise: models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry’ 1 - qualities that are apparent in his own work. After moving to the village of Shoreham, Kent, in 1827 he became the central figure in a group of ‘nature mystics’, devotees of Blake, Milton and Virgil, who called themselves The Ancients and produced pastoral and mystical landscapes charged with Christian symbolism.

The good farmer is one such landscape. The belfry, cattle and setting sun evoke Thomas Gray’s celebrated ‘Elegy written in a country church-yard’ 1751, the opening line of which is, ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day…’. When it was exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society, London, in 1865, however, the painting was accompanied by a quotation in the catalogue, ‘Careless their merits or their faults to scan/His pity gave ere charity began', from ‘The deserted village’, 1770, Oliver Goldsmith’s lament on the depopulation of rural England. Palmer recasts Goldsmith’s good-hearted country parson as a farmer who, dressed in a hat and smock and accompanied by his faithful dog, gives alms to the poor. The signpost points to the fictitious, quintessentially English-sounding village of ‘Oakminster’.

A recurring type in Palmer’s works, the farmer is referenced to Virgil’s Eclogues, interpreted by the artist and many of his contemporaries as Christian allegories in which the Good Shepherd appears as Christ and the good farmer represents Everyman.

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki

This essay appears in Art at Te Papa, (Te Papa Press, 2009)

1. Cited in AH Palmer, The life and letters of Samuel Palmer, painter and etcher, Seely, London, 1892, pp. 15-16.

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