Gwen Yarker considers the Swanage artist who made ‘A furious attempt to get some life into things’
Published in September ’11
Attracted by the beauty of the landscape with its unique coastline, both professional and amateur artists were drawn to Purbeck in the first decades of the twentieth century. Readily accessible by train from London, they visited and stayed there in some numbers. Artists of national and international stature such as Philip Wilson Steer, Paul Nash, Charles Conder and Augustus John particularly favoured the Swanage area. The artist Alfred Palmer was no exception and after years abroad he and his wife Mary arrived there in 1939. They remained in Swanage for the duration of WWII, near their daughter Francesca living at Langton Matravers. The son of architect Frank Palmer, Alfred Richard Field Palmer (1877-1951) was educated at Dulwich College and then studied art at Clapham School of Art. From 1898 he attended the Royal Academy Schools where John Singer Sargent was one of the visiting artists at its Life and Painting Schools.
In keeping with many other young artists of the period, Palmer disliked the constraints of the Academy’s rigid training. By 1903 he had joined hundreds of fellow compatriots in Paris studying at the more relaxed Académie Julian. There he remained faithful to representational art despite the modernism sweeping the city. Palmer exhibited at the Paris Salon as well as at the Royal Academy where he showed six times between 1903 and 1927. He also travelled extensively on the Continent and had studios in Berlin, Florence, Brussels, Middle East, Holy Land and Spain.
Alfred and Mary Croom married in 1906, living in the Manor House, Fordwich near Canterbury where Palmer formed the East Kent Art Society with Lord Northbourne.
A blue plaque in Canterbury commemorates his associations there. During WWI Palmer was with the Secret Service in Gibraltar and Censor’s Department of the War Office. As a gifted linguist he acted as an interpreter with German prisoners of war, making the most of his opportunity by sketching them too.
Men Working in Cliff Quarry, 1945 Sometimes the figures were set in bright sunlight against a background of brilliant sky or the ever-present sea. As with The Bathers, Palmer’s favoured composition consisted of a trio of men which endorsed the dramatic effect of their activities.
Poppies, 1940 As a powerful colourist, Palmer’s painting of poppies appears deceptively simple. Yet the vibrant explosion of pinks and reds reveals the individual and sensitive way he has responded to nature all around him. Commemorated in Swanage’s Art Trail, Palmer’s own words reveal, 'I was impelled in my paintings to make a furious attempt to get some life into things', a response which is wholly recognizable in his painting Poppies.
The Bathers A highly prolific artist, Palmer produced landscapes, portraits, figure subjects and murals working in oil, watercolour, tempera, pastel, etchings, gouache, red chalk and charcoal. He produced sculptures in bronze and plaster and in 1924 exhibited with Frank Brangwyn, Walter Sickert and Augustus John, then famously living in Dorset. Palmer’s large tempera tondo The Bathers was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1925. The bold fluidity of the three male figures reveals Palmer’s debt to Michelangelo as well as to Rodin’s contorted human forms. The undefined landscape across the sea takes in the sunlit hills with towering clouds overhead. However it was not to Dorset that Palmer moved that same year, but to South Africa, where he undertook many public commissions including Johannesburg railway station and was presented with an award by the Natal Society for his depictions of Bantu life.
Self portrait In 1939 Alfred and Mary Palmer retired to Church Hill, Swanage to be near their musician daughter Francesca. They lived in the house with steps and railings that is visible in the left of his self-portrait, painted not long after his arrival in the town. This house and its close surroundings often featured in Palmer’s paintings and sketches from this period. Some time later he had a studio in Church Hill House, owned by a naval officer. During his time in Dorset Palmer was actively involved with local art societies. He also made a name for himself further afield, since in 1942 he had the fun commission to paint the panels for the Morris Minor pavilion at Wembley’s Empire exhibition.
Apple Blossom, Swanage His considerable versatility is evident in this finished sketch of a twisted and gnarled apple tree which dominates the image. Its blossom bursts out in an explosion of white and pink colour and contrasts with the red brick of the house and chimney. Though owing a debt to Japanese prints it reveals Palmer’s intimate and personal response to his Dorset surroundings in paint.
Loading Rock, 1940 Along with many other artists working in the area, Palmer responded to the quality of the Purbeck light in his landscapes. Here he has skillfully acknowledged the tonal subtleties of the stone and also convincingly captured the energy of the seascape. The loosely impressionistic painting creates a dramatic and powerful scene through the vivid colours of the natural rock contrasting with the agitated swirls of crashing waves. It is intriguing that Palmer was able to access this spot since during the war much of the coastal area would have been sealed off with barbed wire.
Purbeck Quarrymen, 1940s Palmer was also inspired by local quarrymen he met. He made numerous sketches of them, often on the spot at the now abandoned Seacombe quarry, Worth Matravers.
Dorset Quarrymen, 1940 Fascinated by their expertise and strength the quarrymen became the subject of some of Palmer’s finest paintings, shown here. The men are shown at their work, with muscles straining under the effort of working the huge blocks of stone. One of the quarrymen, Victor Bower, who came from a long established Dorset family, sometimes helped Palmer with these imposing compositions.
1. Swanage Museum
2. Swanage Museum
3. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum
4. Swanage Museum
5. Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society DCM ART 459
6. Swanage Museum
7. Langton Matravers Museum
8. Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society DCM ART 2329