Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Linnell, John
LINNELL, JOHN (1792–1882), portrait and landscape painter, the son of a wood-carver and picture dealer, was born in 1792 in a house at the corner of Plumtree Street, Bloomsbury. Shortly after his birth his father removed to 2 Streatham Street, Bloomsbury. Thomas Dodd was his earliest patron. At ten years old he drew portraits in pencil and chalk, and later he copied successfully several of Morland's pictures. From his boyhood he frequented Christie's auction rooms, and made sketches from the works on the walls. He was soon introduced to Benjamin West, and entered the schools of the Royal Academy in 1805. For about a year (1805–6) he studied under John Varley, and made the acquaintance of William Henry Hunt, a fellow-pupil at Varley's, with whom he went out sketching, and of William Mulready, who assisted Varley in teaching, and with whom Linnell afterwards shared rooms in Francis Street, Tottenham Court Road. In 1807 he was awarded a medal for drawing from the life, and exhibited a ‘Study from Nature, View near Reading,’ at the Academy. Between 1805 and 1809 he made sketches in oil-colours on the banks of the Thames, and about this time was one of the young artists who enjoyed the kind patronage of Dr. Thomas Monro [q. v.]
In 1808 he exhibited at both the British Institution and the Royal Academy. His contribution to the latter, called ‘Fisherman,’ was purchased by Ridley (afterwards Lord) Colborne for fifteen guineas. In 1809 he was at Hastings with Hunt, and won a fifty guinea prize at the British Institution with his landscape, ‘Removing Timber.’ In the following year, to prove his opinion that it was easier for a painter to model than for a sculptor to draw, he competed for the modelling medal at the Royal Academy and won it. In 1810 he exhibited at the Royal Academy ‘Fishermen waiting for the Return of the Ferryboat, Hastings,’ and in 1811 ‘The Ducking: a Scene from Nature;’ but his next contribution to the Academy's exhibitions was in 1821. To the years between 1811 and 1815 (both inclusive) belong a series of water-colour sketches in the London parks, Bayswater, Kilburn, St. John's Wood, and Windsor Forest, with a few in Wales and the Isle of Wight. He also about this time was employed as a draughtsman by the elder Pugin [see Pugin, Augustus]. But though he drew occasionally in water-colours then and in later life, his usual medium was oil, in which he early attained great proficiency. A picture of ‘Quoit Players,’ painted in 1810 (exhibited in 1811 at the British Institution, and sold to Sir Thomas Baring for seventy-five guineas), has since realised 1,000l. In 1812, when the Society of Painters in Water-colours was transformed (for a few years) into the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours, Linnell became a member, and contributed fifty-two works to their exhibitions from 1813 to 1820. He was their treasurer in 1817. In 1820 they again excluded oil-paintings, and Linnell withdrew from the society and recommenced exhibiting with the Royal Academy. During this time his principal sources of income were portrait-painting and teaching. He not only drew and painted portraits, but he engraved them himself. In 1818, through Mr. George Cumberland of Bristol, he obtained an introduction to William Blake, and then began that human and artistic fellowship between the two men which lasted till Blake's death [see Blake, William, 1757–1827]. Blake helped him in engraving, and he introduced Blake to J. Varley, Mulready, and others, who formed a congenial society animated by similar aims. He appears to have known William Godwin also, and to have given lessons to his daughter, afterwards Mrs. Shelley. He painted the Duke of Argyll in 1817, and in 1819 a miniature of his wife on ivory, which so pleased the Marchioness of Stafford that she engaged him to paint her daughter, Lady Belgrave, in the same style. Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, Lord Belgrave, Lord Shelborne, Viscount and Viscountess Ebrington, Lady Frederica Stanhope, the Princess Sophia Matilda, and many others also sat for miniatures. His charge for portraits about 1817 was from three to twelve guineas a head. The most important of his landscapes during this period was the ‘St. John Preaching’ of 1818, in which he displayed great poetical feeling in the union of the landscape with the sentiment of the subject. His first contribution to the Royal Academy (1813), called ‘Bird Catching,’ afterwards known as ‘Kensington in 1814,’ was also notable. In 1814–15 his landscapes were from Wales and Derbyshire, the latter being the result of a tour in North Wales with Mr. G. R. Lewis in 1812 or 1813, and another tour in Derbyshire in 1814, taken in view of illustrations to Walton's ‘Angler.’ Athletic and robust, he boxed, rowed, and swam well, and performed a great part of his journeys on foot.
He married his first wife in 1817, and removed from his father's house to 35 Rathbone Place, and thence at the end of 1818 to 6 Cirencester Place. In 1824 he removed his family to Hampstead, keeping his studio in Cirencester Place.
His plan of life appears to have been to go on making money by portrait-painting until he had laid by sufficient to enable him to devote the rest of his life to landscape. This plan he accomplished, but, judging from the catalogues of the Royal Academy, not till 1847, when he was fifty-five years old. Between 1821 and that year he exhibited over one hundred portraits, including drawings and miniatures, and some ten or twelve landscapes. Among the former were ‘Lady Torrens and Family’ (1821), the Earl of Denbigh (1823), Lady Lyndhurst (1830), A. W. Callcott, R.A. (1832), W. Mulready, R.A., and the Rev. T. R. Malthus (1833), T. Phillips, R.A., and the Marquis of Bristol (1835), Sir Robert Peel and the Archbishop of Dublin (1838), the Marquis of Lansdowne (1840), the Bishop of Chichester (1841), Sir Thomas, Lady, and the Right Hon. Francis Baring (1842), and Thomas Carlyle (1844). Among the other pictures of this period were ‘Christ's Appearance to the two Disciples journeying to Emmaus’ (1835), ‘Philip baptising the Eunuch’ (1840), and ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1843).
In 1847 the character of his contributions changed suddenly. Henceforth no more portraits. In that year he sent three landscapes, ‘The Mill,’ ‘Midday,’ and ‘The Morning Walk;’ in the next one a large composition (59 by 88 inches), ‘The Eve of the Deluge’ (which was purchased by Mr. Gillott for 1,000l.), and in the next ‘Sandpits’ and ‘The Return of Ulysses.’ To the close of his life he seldom, if ever, failed to send some fine work to the Academy, but not often more than two. The rich scenery of Surrey generally supplied him with his subjects. Its harvest fields and woodlands, its hills and copses, its glowing sunsets and stormy cloudracks engaged his pencil over and over again. With these splendid records of natural beauty he was generally content, but now and then he conceived with equal force some imaginary scene as the fitting stage of a great event, generally in Bible history. In 1850 appeared ‘Christ and the Woman of Samaria at Jacob's Well,’ and in 1854 ‘The Disobedient Prophet.’ In these works the fine composition and colour and appropriate sentiment of the landscape were united to admirable grouping and expressive action of the figures.
Notwithstanding, however, the high merit of his work, he remained to the end of his days without academical honours. In 1821 he had put down his name as a candidate for associateship, and in 1842 he withdrew it in disgust. Late in life the Academy offered him membership, but he declined it. His reasons for doing so, and his view of the Academy in the light of a national institution, may be read in the ‘Athenæum’ (1867, p. 759), and in his pamphlet, ‘The Royal Academy a National Institution.’
In 1829 he removed from Hampstead to a house which he had built in Porchester Terrace (No. 38), Bayswater, and in 1852 to Redstone Wood, Redhill, Surrey, where he had built another house on his own property. Here he lived till his death, enjoying the practice of his art, surrounded by his friends and family. Several of the latter were distinguished as artists. In 1858 he is styled for the first time J. Linnell, senior, in the catalogue, where the names of three sons, James Thomas Linnell, William Linnell, and John Linnell, junior, appear together for the first time. His daughter married Samuel Palmer [q. v.], the water-colour painter, whose artistic aims were in sympathy with his own.
His last contribution was a picture of ‘Woodcutters,’ sent the year before his death, which took place at Redhill on 20 Jan. 1882. He left behind him a considerable fortune, and among other possessions a number of Blake's works, including the plates and replicas of the drawings of the Job series, the drawings of the Dante series and the plates from them (seven only were engraved). All these had been executed on commissions from Linnell at a time when he sorely needed such kindly help. Linnell's landscapes now realise large prices. ‘The Last Gleam’ has fetched 2,500l., ‘The Woodlands’ 2,625 guineas, ‘Hampstead Heath’ 1,940 guineas, ‘The Barley Harvest’ 1,636 guineas, and ‘Removing Timber’ brought 3,200 guineas at the Price sale in April 1892. A large collection of Linnell's works of all kinds formed a principal feature of the Winter Exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1882–3.
Besides mezzotint plates after his own portraits of Callcott, Malthus, and others, Linnell engraved John Varley's ‘Burial of Saul’ (into which he introduced the figures), Collins's ‘Feeding the Rabbits,’ and ‘A Scene on the Brent.’ He also etched some plates after Ruysdael and others. Between 1832 and 1839 he copied several pictures in the National Gallery for the Society of Associated Engravers, to be engraved in their publication called ‘The British Gallery.’
There are two landscapes, ‘Woodcutters in Windsor Forest’ and ‘The Windmill,’ by Linnell in the National Gallery, and a portrait (a drawing) of Mrs. Sarah Austin in the National Portrait Gallery. Linnell, whose opinions on religious (and other) matters were strong and often eccentric, was the author of ‘Diatheekee, Covenant (not Testament) throughout the book commonly called the New Testament,’ &c., ‘The Lord's Day, an Examination of Rev. i. 30,’ and ‘Burnt Offerings not in the Hebrew Bible.’
Linnell's second wife, whose maiden name was Mary Anne Budden, died in 1886.
[Redgrave's Cent. of Painters, last edit.; Art Journal, 1881–3; Roget's Hist. of the ‘Old’ Water-colour Soc.; Royal Acad. Catalogues, 1807–81, and Winter Exhibition, 1883; art. by Mr. F. G. Stephens in Art Journal, 1882, pp. 262 sq., giving some account of Linnell's family; Mr. Alfred Thomas Story's Life of John Linnell, 1892.]