When she set out to write the life of the eccentric English painter and visionary Samuel Palmer, Rachel Campbell-Johnson found that anyone to whom she talked either knew nothing about him or else knew him as someone’s favourite artist.
In his lifetime (1805-1881) he was a leader and an inspiration to a select few, while being mostly unknown to the outside world. In a sparkling lunchtime event, Ms Campbell-Johnson explained how Palmer envisioned the Kent countryside of the 1830s (when he set up a community of like-minded artists in Shoreham) as a blissful paradise, with church, Nature and peasantry folded into a single harmonious picture, even while the threshing machines were bringing mass unemployment to the region and the Captain Swing riots and arson attacks were tearing the country apart.
She brought out Palmer’s many eccentricities – his small stature, hypochondria, obsession with his bowels, his peculiar clothing, his lack of social graces (he would eat asparagus from the wrong end) and his pathetic obedience to his bullying father-in-law. But she also brought out his sweet nature, his genuine, multifarious talents and the legacy he left. “There’s no 20th century landscape painter who hasn’t been influenced by Palmer.”
Ms Campbell-Johnson revealed one reason why she might feel empathy with the nature-worshipping painter: before she became Times art critic, she worked for a period as a shepherd in the Falkland Islands – and left just before the Argentinians showed up.