Tim Linnell [tim@thelinnells.freeserve.co.uk], a descendant of the artist, has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web his scanned text of The Life of John Linnell, which the London publishers Bentley and Son brought out in 1892. George P. Landow has adapted it for html, adding links to the original text.


Birth and Parentage — Childhood and Youth — Sundays in the Country — His Father's Failure and Enlistment — First Grief — Battle of the Nile — First Attempts at Drawing — One Day's Schooling — Copying Morland — Sir Benjamin West — First Reading — Drawing in Church.

decorated initial 'J'JOHN LINNELL was the second son (the first having died in infancy) and youngest child of Mary Susannah and James Linnell and was born in a house at one corner of Plum Tree Street (no longer in existence), which led into Hart Street, Bloomsbury, on June 16, 1792. His father, who appears to have been about thirty-two years of age when his son was born, was the only survivor of a numerous family, the greater number of whom were born and died at Chenies, the ancient seat of the Russell family, in Buckinghamshire.

Having been left an orphan about the age of seven, James Linnell appears to have been adopted by his uncle, Thomas Linnell, who was a nursery-man and florist, and carried on business in Edgware Road, at that time one of the rural outskirts of London, and the main artery of a region of market-gardens, dairy farms, and cottage industry generally. By this uncle the youth was apprenticed to Southerby, a carver and gilder of repute, at that time carrying on business in the Strand.

Besides his uncle Thomas, the horticulturist and florist, James Linnell had also a cousin connected with rural occupations in this vicinity. This was a Mrs. Symonds, the wife of a respectable and well-to-do farmer, who lived in Portobello Lane, between Paddington and Wormwood Scrubbs, near the end of Black Lion Lane, Bayswater, and close to the mansion of the Marquis of Buckingham, some of whose land he occupied.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Symonds appear to have been very estimable people, who gave James Linnell a most hearty welcome whenever he chose to pay a visit to their farm. That those visits were pretty frequent, when the weather was favourable, is evident from his son's recollections. John Linnell was never tired of telling how, as a boy, he used to go with his father to the farm on Sundays, and how at night they returned home laden with the spoils of the garden. Those days he looked back upon as the brightest in his boyhood. One can easily imagine it; for the place was well stocked with fruit-trees, and there was no stint put upon the youth. He could pluck and eat to his heart's content of anything and everything that was there — apples, pears, currants, gooseberries, and what not; and, in addition, take what store he liked for the morrow.

But there was one thing which appears to have stirred the boy's imagination even more than the gustatory treasures of the farm garden and orchard — that was the garden of the adjoining mansion, which appears to have been in a ruinous and dilapidated state. To the observant eye of young Linnell the decaying grandeur of such a place was a notable sight, and it impressed him deeply. Into this domain he used to penetrate, and spend some of the lingering hours of the sunny afternoons. Many were the things to excite his attention, and to call forth his wonder; but the object which seems to have struck him most of all was the fish-pond, Which, overgrown with weeds and bordered with tall sedges, was still full of fish.

They were great days, those Sundays, with their feastings in the farm garden, their rambles about the grounds of the old hall, and finally the trudge home, beneath the starlight, to Streatham Street, where James Linnell then lived and carried on his business. John Linnell used to relate how on these occasions he dragged along the homeward way after his father, ready to drop, yet diligently counting the dingy oil-lamps that flickered at intervals along the streets. The youth's early life obtained much of its colour from these days spent at the Symonds' farm, and there is no telling how much they may have fostered in him that intense love of Nature and of the country which afterwards so characterized him.

A less pleasing incident, but one which left a deep impression upon the boy's mind, was the despairing act committed by his father in a fit of depression when his son was only a few years old. After completing his apprenticeship, James Linnell had gone into business with a man named Durand; and, in consequence of his bad management, coupled, doubtless, with his own inexperience, he presently found himself landed in bankruptcy. Being of a sensitive and highly-strung nature (as may be seen by the portraits of him painted by his son), this trouble so preyed upon his mind that it appears to have become temporarily unhinged; and, in his distress, he went and enlisted as a soldier in the East India Company's service. Then it was that the fine qualities of Farmer Symonds and his wife came out; for, on hearing what James Linnell had done, Mr. Symonds hastened to Portsmouth, bought him off at the expense of £40, and carried him back to the bosom of his agonized wife and young family.

Nor do Mr. Symonds' benefactions appear to have stopped here; for we find that James Linnell immediately went to work with renewed vigour — this time in partnership with his own good sense alone — and soon began to thrive. One evidence of this is that a few years later he was able to pay a handsome premium for one year's tuition for his hopeful son.

A memorable incident connected with this enlistment episode is worth recording. Mr. Linnell brought home with him from Portsmouth a toy for each of his children. John's present was a dainty little milkmaid, dressed in a bright-blue skirt, with arms akimbo. although but the cheapest of toy damsels, the little milkmaid won the heart of the boy; and when, by an untoward accident, she fell from the second-floor window in Rose Street, Greek Street, Soho, where they had now gone to live, the fond lover's agony was so intense that he used to say that nothing in later life affected him more deeply. This little episode served to fix the greater event in the boy's memory.

Another incident of those early years which made a deep impression upon his mind gives us a vivid glimpse of the stirring times in which Linnell's youth was passed. He recalled hearing a work-man of his father's — a carpenter, who, as a pressed man, had been present at the Battle of the Nile — describe the blowing up of the French man-of-war L'Orient, which was close to the ship on which he served, the Bellerophon.As the Battle of the Nile took place on August 1, 1798, John Linnell could only have been about six years of age when he heard this narrative.

From Rose Street, James Linnell moved to Streatham Street, off Charlotte Street, Oxford Street. At first he rented only a part of the house; but afterwards, as his business prospered, he took the whole of it. He was an able workman, and his frames were in great demand, so that he soon had as much work as he could do. In conjunction with his business as a carver and gilder, he now did some trade as a print-seller and picture-dealer.

It may have been this circumstance that gave the first impulse to his son's genius. He was, in a sense, brought up in an atmosphere of art. Artists called to see his father about frames and other matters, and there was talk on pictures, prints, and what not, which the boy heard and absorbed. In this way, doubtless, his attention was first directed to drawing and painting.

Whether in this way or not, certain it is that John Linnell's hands were early given to the use of those tools with which to the end of his days he displayed such deftness. He began to draw when six or seven years of age, and early manifested great dexterity with the pencil. There is in existence an exercise bearing date December, 1800, executed consequently when he was only eight and a half years of age, which displays considerable promise, both as regards the handwriting, which is firm and bold, and the pencil-drawings from Morland with which he has made a decorative border.

The copy and sketches were done as a Christmas home-exercise to show the year's progress, not as a school task; for notwithstanding that he manifested this proficiency at the age of eight, John Linnell subsequently put it on record that he remembered having been but one day at school. On that solitary occasion he was taken to a dame-school in Rose Street, and tied to the handle of a chest of drawers as a sort of disciplinary introduction to the study of letters. The experiment did not prosper, however, and it was not repeated. So far as his memory served, he never saw the inside of a school again until he became a student at the Royal Academy. How and when he learned to read he never remembered.

The portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Linnell, as painted by their son, are still extant. Judging from them, both were undoubtedly persons of more than common intelligence and refinement; and, with such parents, the life of the home must have been an education in itself. There is little doubt that it was there that young John Linnell obtained the best of his early instruction. although born with all the aptitudes of an artist, it is hardly likely that he could have obtained such early proficiency as he did if he had not received some sort of training or encouragement from one or both his parents. Whilst he was still in the top-and-marble stage of development, he gave his youthful companions great satisfaction by painting figures on their kites, and had the satisfac-tion himself of being paid for his work.

He records in some autobiographical notes written towards the close of his career that his companions were incredulous as to the kites being of his painting, and they would not be convinced until he gave them an opportunity of looking through the window and seeing him actually at work.

although Linnell's early efforts indicate no special precocity, when he had once taken seriously to drawing, he made such rapid progress that he was soon earning money by his pencil. It has been said, and apparently with the sanction of the artist himself, that at the age of ten he drew passable portraits in pencil and chalk, and that he got money for them. Whether this he true or not, and there is reason to believe that it was not until he was some-what older that he did this, he certainly began to give promise of his future extraordinary powers about that age. His father's business afforded him abundant opportunities of seeing good pictures and prints — possibly their merits or demerits were pointed out to him by his father — and he was thus encouraged to emulate their various excellences, and avoid their faults.

George Morland was one of the painters most admired at that time, and Linnell's first efforts in oil were copies from that artist. In this work he soon became so successful that one copy of pigs after the above master was sold by auction for £2 10s, whilst two other larger subjects were sold to a private customer of his father's for £20. No wonder Mr. Linnell, finding his son's work so profitable, kept him slavishly copying Morland. But the time soon came when the artistic soul of the boy revolted against the drudgery, and sighed for a change. Many years later he wrote: ŒBefore I knew Mr. West, and before I was permitted to relinquish Morland, I obtained a small plaster cast, and well remember copying with intense gratification the smooth shadow and reflected light down the side of the limb. It was such a contrast to the monotony of the pencil-sketch of Morland! It was the genuine and simple enjoyment of truth, which has prevailed over tradition and fashion.'

About the same time (1803-4) the youth began to try his hand at sketching faces, and at times was sufficiently successful to obtain passable like-nesses. It must not be supposed that young John Linnell had been made a premature little man by his studies. Little he was — and, indeed, always remained so; but he was still a boy, and a very lively one, too, always ready for a game with the boys of the neighbourhood, and not averse to a bit of mischievous fun-making. Tough and active to a degree, he threw the same vigour into his sports that he manifested in his studies.

He had by this time, too, become a great reader, and took every opportunity that presented itself to get hold of books, either by borrowing or by purchase with the little pocket-money that was at his command. He devoured everything in the shape of literature that came in his way, often reading in his bedroom when he was supposed to be in bed. Possibly his parents did not approve of so much reading as he was disposed to indulge in, and so he had to resort to prolonging the day into the night. That they did not altogether discountenance it is shown by the fact that he remembered reading the dictionary to his father. The dictionary is good reading at times, and may be made very beneficial; but there is a limit to its fruitfulness regarded as literature, and so, doubtless, young Linnell found it.

Amongst the works he read at this time, and of which he always retained a vivid and pleasing recollection, was a history of Rome, in four large volumes, with full and particular accounts of the wars, battles, etc. It also contained a large number of plates, which greatly added to Linnell's delight in the book. Many of them, doubtless, served as drawing copies, for he now practised his hand on almost everything. Even in church, when he should have been paying attention to the prayers and the sermon, he either spent the time drawing with a pin upon the front of the pew or with his finger upon his knees. When he could not do either of these, he would be drawing figures in imagination in the air. This was a habit that he practised a great deal, drawing in this way in fancy as he walked along the streets, and thus, as he believed, greatly strengthening his memory of forms. So retentive became his memory in this respect that he was enabled to carry the shapes and colours of objects in his mind a long time for future use. The faculty subsequently became a sort of second nature, enabling him to reproduce landscapes and cloud-forms with the greatest accuracy without taking a single note in the shape of a sketch on paper.


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Last modified 10 December 2001