Samuel Palmer (1849) by Henry Walter. Courtesy of the British Museum. Click on image to enlarge it.
Although not Charles Dickens's first choice as illustrator of Bradbury and Evans's initial edition of Pictures from Italy (May 1846) — that distinction belongs to seascape artist and experienced book-illustrator Clarkson Stanfield, R. A. — landscape painter Samuel Palmer prepared a series of five half-page wood-engravings for Dickens's compilation of his Italian travel letters, initially published in his own newspaper, the Daily News. However, production problems resulted in the publishers' having to set aside one of these drawings, A View in the Campagna.
When in late February Stanfield, who was a recent convert to Catholicism, agreed to take the commission and produce a dozen illustrations, only four of the letters had appeared in Dickens's periodical. However, by the time that the book existed more or less in its final form, Stanfield pulled out of the project, likely because, as David Paroissien has demonstrated, he perceived the work as markedly anti-Catholic. Thus, at the last minute Dickens recruited Palmer, likely because of his affinity with the landscapes of Italy, where he had lived for from 1837 to 1839. Palmer, who was an utter novice as a book-illustrator, enlisted he advice of an unidentified correspondent as to what he ought to charge:
Mr. Dickens has applied to me to draw on wood vignettes of Italian subjects for a work he is about to publish (which it will be better not to mention till he advertises it) as he may not wish it to be known. As the time is very pressing he will (should he decide on seeing my sketches this afternoon) send the publishers to me to settle terms, etc. If they [Bradbury & Evans] ask me what I charge I shall not know what to ask. Mr. Dickens says that besides doing the drawings I shall have to oversee the blocks in their progress. They will be about this size [sketch of building on lakeside, boat and two figures inside, two inches by three inches] and like those in Roger's Italy . [Huntington Library, San Marino, California, HM 26326; cited in Paroissien, p. 89]
The anonymous correspondent the editors of the Pilgrim Edition of Dickens's Letters, Vol. 4 (1844-46), have identified as either Palmer's father-in-law, John Linnell, or his old friend, Edward Calvert, and the date of composition as either the 17th or the 18th of March 1846:
Either from pressure of time, or difficulties of reproduction, the original plan for 12 illustrations was reduced; . . . an unused illustration of the Campagna survives as a pencil drawing with instructions to the engraver (Suzannet Collection, sold Sotheby's Nov 1971). Palmer was an accomplished etcher but not much accustomed to the medium of wood-engraving. . . . [Tillotson, page 521]
Bradbury and Evans, perhaps owing the short time available to execute the commission, paid Palmer twenty guineas, or four guineas per drawing. Palmer places emphasis, which Dickens approved at short notice, on the Italian landscape rather than, as in Marcus Stone's sequence for the 1862 Illustrated Library Edition, the kinds of people whom Dickens met in his year away from London. However, although inconsistent with Dickens's emphasis on people ratherens's perception of the country as a l than scenic vistas, the beauty of Palmer's scenes and the departed glories of its classical past underscores Dickens's point about the ruinous state of partitioned Italy:
. . . although Palmer's illustrations are capable of of standing alone aesthetically as pleasing Italian scenes, taken in conjunction with the text, they dramatize inadvertently Dickens's perception of the country as a land of physical and moral decay, unlikely to be regenerated by its political and religious leaders. [Cohen, page 194]
Although Palmer had a fine, painterly sense of Italy, he was an utter novice in woodblock illustration and, making the production of the plates even more problematic, Palmer was a perfectionist. Raising dozens of objections to each cut because the engraver found attaining the level of detail which the artist demanded impossible, Palmer slowed up the production and probably forced the publishers to cancel the fifth plate:
The artist's meticulous instructions here as elsewhere reveal his naive optimism. Even an extraordinary engraver — the identity of Palmer's is unknown — would probably not hsave been able to translate so many minute details with the desired fidelity. As they turned out, Palmer's illustrations for Pictures fromItaly are not as inspired as his representations of the same and similar subjects in media that were not dependent on another's hand. [Cohen, page 196]
Owing to a total lack of direct communication between author and illustrator, one can hardly describe the illustrations as a collaborative effort, but Dickens, when queried by Palmer as to whether his role would be acknowledged, assured the artist that he had arranged for his name to be placed on the title-page two days earlier. Critics either ignored Palmer's contributions or derided them as paltry. However, Dickens's generosity and the twenty guineas prompted Palmer's life-long devotion to Dickens's works.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Chapter 14, "Samuel Palmer." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980. Pp. 193-196.
Dickens, Charles. Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by Samuel Palmer. London: Chapman and Hall, 1846.
Paroissien, David. "Pictures from Italy and its Original Illustrator." Dickensian 67.2 (1971): 87-90.
"Samuel Palmer - part 4: 1849 Samuel Palmer by Henry Walter." Art & Artists. Wednesday, 19 October 2016.
Tillotson, Kathleen, ed. The Pilgrim Edition, The Letters of Charles Dickens. Volume Four: 1844-1846. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.
Last modified 20 February 2019