Palmer became an artist at an early age, at 14 he had exhibited at the British Institution, sold a landscape and had three works hung in the Royal Academy. At 17 he met the artist John Linnell, later to become his father in-law, who guided and mentored him and introduced him to William Blake, who influenced his work throughout his life.
Palmer became the leader of a group of young artists called the 'Ancients', his good friend George Richmond was also a member. During the 1820s Palmer went to live in the Kent village of Shoreham, which he called ‘Valley of Vision’ and it was here, living together with fellow Ancients, that he produced some of his most celebrated romantic landscapes combining visionary imagery with a highly detailed study of nature. It was when he left Shoreham that he went on his travels to Wales and the Wye Valley and after marrying Hannah Linnell, to Italy. Palmer’s spirituality, his relationship and attitudes to rural life shaped his work.
His personal life was marred with tragedy and turmoil. He had 3 children with his wife, daughter of John Linnell, only one of which survived. Palmer was distraught after the death of his eldest son at 19, and never fully recovered, blaming himself for pushing his son too much. Palmer’s relationship with Linnell became strained due to their differences over religion and politics and resentment over his continued financial support.
Palmer received little critical attention during his lifetime but posthumously has been more widely recognised. His work featured in ‘Watercolour’, an exhibition at Tate Britain (Feb-Aug 2011).