Tim Linnell [email@example.com], a descendant of the artist, has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web his scanned text of this biography. George P. Landow has adapted it for html, adding links to the original text.
A Royal Academy Student — Fuseli — Games at the Academy — Anecdotes of Fuseli — Linnell's Fellow-students — Dr. Munro — Begins to earn Money — David Wilkie — William Collins — Appreciation of Roman and Florentine Art — Mulready and Linnell — First Academy Picture — Gains a Prize of Fifty Guineas at the British Institution and a Medal at the Academy.
HE year that Linnell spent under John Varley's roof was a very important one. It put him in the right direction, and once having got his true bearings, he advanced with rapid strides. He always considered that Varley and Mulready did him the greatest possible service by aiding him to emancipate himself from the slavish imitation of, and copying from, Morland, at which his father was keeping him because it paid. By them he was introduced to the study of Nature, and by them taught that faithful copying of what he saw which ever afterwards characterized his work. Then was laid the foundation of that resort to Nature for everything from which he never departed — of that love of Nature that appeared only to intensify with his years, and with which his great masterpieces seem to be permeated.
In November, 1805, being then in his fourteenth year, young Linnell became a Royal Academy student, and so took another onward step in his career. There he was brought in contact with a still larger circle of men, who were travelling the same road with himself. Amongst others, he made the acquaintance of B. R. Haydon (who had the year before been admitted a student of the Royal Academy) and David Wilkie; and he records that the three of them, along with Mulready, used to dine together at a chophouse for thirteen-pence a head. But while the others were satisfied with what they got for that amount, Haydon would afterwards go to a fruit-shop and expend a shilling on the best fruit he could procure. It was always poor Haydon's notion that an artist should live like a gentleman, no matter what was his income.
Fuseli was then Keeper of the Royal Academy (having been elected to that position in 1804), and, odd as he was talented, he appears to have been an endless source of amusement to the students under his charge. He called Linnell his 'little giant,' notwithstanding that he was quite as big as the dapper little keeper himself. But what Fuseli lacked in stature he made up for in dignity and self-importance. He must, indeed, have looked comical enough in his powdered wig and pigtail, his top-boots, and with that air of cold austerity which he always assumed when in presence of the students. Perhaps it was necessary, for they were a rough and riotous lot when he was put in charge over them.
'You are a set of blackguards!' he exclaimed one day, on entering, and finding them making the greatest uproar: 'you are a lot of wild beasts!' adding, with a touch of that dry and somewhat sardonic humour for which he was noted, 'and I am your keeper.'
He was obliged to hold them in check by a firm, unflinching rule. The pranks they got up to were endless. One of them was to make pellets of the bread that was given to them for lunch, and to bombard each other with them. Another was to melt the candles that were supplied to them to work with, scatter the grease upon the floor, and so make slides for their amusement. The little man eventually put an end to these pranks. They could not be deprived of their candles, for without them they could not work; but he stopped their bread, and so there was no more pellet-throwing.
But, notwithstanding his severity and his many oddities, the keeper appears to have been, on the whole, very well liked. For one thing, he could appreciate a joke, and such a trait naturally covers a multitude of faults. He was a terrible man to swear, and, being a linguist, it was his boast that he could swear in nine different languages. One cannot help confessing a desire to have heard such a man display his powers — for once in a way, that is. His weakness in this respect may not have been very edifying to the students; but much, even in that line, may be forgiven to a man if it act as an anodyne to his nerves; and that he so regarded it would appear from the advice he once gave to his wife when she was worrying over some domestic trouble. Why don't you swear, my dear?' he asked. 'Why don't you swear? It would ease your mind.'
On one occasion he surprised a youth mimicking him before the class. Those who looked on and saw the keeper observing the performance naturally thought there would be an explosion presently and waited with bated breath. But after looking on quietly for some time, Fuseli quietly remarked, 'It is very good; it is better than I could have done it myself,' and went away.
Another anecdote that Linnell used to relate with much relish was how on one occasion Fuseli told the students they might go to his house and see his just-finished picture of The Witch of Endor,' if they would behave themselves, and how he received them with his wife's work-basket on his head in place of a hat.
He used to correct the students' drawings with his thumbnail, which he appears to have kept long and sharp for the purpose. The result was that he generally cut through the paper, so that the drawing was spoiled and had to be begun over again. As regards his advice to Linnell, he always concluded it with the words:
'But you know best.'
The worthy keeper appears to have had a high opinion of Linnell's abilities as a draughtsman and once gave him a drawing of his own to enlarge, for which he paid him seven shillings. The young artist was greatly impressed by the eccentric old gentleman, and his memory was charged with numberless examples of his odd sayings and doings. As regards Fuseli's art, Linnell thought that, though exaggerated and mannered, yet it was instinct with poetry and thought. It possessed some of Blake's qualities, but was less pure and spiritual.
One of his anecdotes related to Fuseli's quaint way of introducing two sculptors:
'This is Mr. Nollekens and this is Mr. Marchant, two of the cleverest sculptors of the day; but in everything else they are two old daddies.'
Of Shee (afterwards Sir Martin Shee, President of the Royal Academy) he had a very poor opinion, and used to say:
'There's Misther Martin Shee, one of the vorst bainters God iver made.'
Linnell had an inimitable way of repeating these anecdotes, mimicking Fuseli's deliberate manner of speaking and his foreign intonation. He had a keen sense of fun and wit, and was ever full of anecdote and reminiscence of these early days.
Besides those already mentioned, Linnell had as fellow-students at the Academy William Collins, William H. Hunt, Hilton (afterwards keeper), and Jackson (the portrait-painter). Most of them were drawing from the antique at the same time, and our artist had pleasant recollections of the sport they enjoyed together after the school was over, then being the time when the boxing-bouts chiefly took place.
Very often William Hunt and he went to draw for a couple of hours at an academy in Adelphi Terrace, conducted by Dr. John Munro, 'one of a family of mad doctors,' and the physician in insanity of poor George III. This school of art was conducted on the novel principle of the master paying the pupils, instead of vice-versa. The usual price paid to students was half-a-crown for an evening's work; but Hunt and Linnell were paid at the rate of eighteenpence an hour, thus earning three shillings each evening they went.
The doctor had a large collection of drawings by Girtin and Turner, both of whom had been his pupils, and whom he had been in the habit of taking out to one or other of his country houses or elsewhere to sketch for him from Nature. From these drawings, as also from studies by Gainsborough and Constable (in charcoal), of which he had a large collection, Linnell and Hunt were set to make copies. The former was of opinion that the doctor used to sell their copies for originals; but Mr. F. G. Stephens, who has made careful inquiry into the matter, is convinced that this is a mistake, and that the doctor was actuated solely by a love of art. 'Mad, surely,' the world will doubtless say.
John Varley, among others, besides Turner and Girtin, had been a pupil of Munro's, and, like them, had benefited by his stipendiary method of tuition.
It does not appear that Linnell ever paid a visit to any of his countryhouses of which he had several not far from London; but Hunt seems to have done so, and there is a tradition that he, being of an exceedingly delicate constitution and unable to indulge in much walking exercise, used to be dragged about by a donkey in a sort of go-cart, and in this way, protected by a large umbrella from sun or rain, he would make sketches of whatever interested him. These excursions took place in the neighbourhood of Watford and Bushy, where one of the 'mad doctor's' country-houses was situated.
Another incident of his student days which Linnell used to tell with much amusement was very characteristic. One evenings after their studies at Somerset House (at that time the home of the Royal Academy) were over, Mulready, Hunt, and he wandered along the Strand to look at the illuminations in celebration of a victory over the enemy, and presently found themselves wedged in the crowd and unable to extricate themselves. They did not relish the idea of being kept there half the night, and so conceived the happy notion of making Hunt sham death, while the other two hoisted his stiffened body upon their shoulders, and begged the crowd to make way for pity's sake, which they instantly did, with many expressions of commiseration for the poor youth.
Although Wilkie was still an Academy student, he had already commenced to do original work; but he had — like many another in those days — to be content with very moderate prices. His picture of 'The Village Politicians' was commissioned by Lord Mansfield. Wilkie asked fifteen guineas for it. Mansfield thought the price too high, and suggested that if he took counsel with his friends they might advise him to accept less. Fuseli, who was consulted, declared that it was worth two hundred pounds and someone actually offered that sum for it. Upon hearing this, Lord Mansfield claimed the pictures and gave the painter thirty pounds for it.
William Collins (the father of Wilkie Collins, the novel-writer) became a student of the Academy some time after Linnell, although several years his senior. The friendship between the two there commenced lasted through life, despite differences of opinion on art and other matters which often brought them into sharp conflict.
Collins's father was a picture dealer and had a shop in Bolsover Street, Oxford Street. He and the elder Linnell had frequent dealings together. Both William Collins and young Linnell were at first of the Morland school; but they soon developed very different views in respect to art. Collins pinned his faith to the Dutch and Flemish schools, and had no opinion of the Italians. He was so blind to the merits of the latter that he would not even allow that Michael Angelo and Raphael were artists at all.
'They were,' he said, 'merely fresco painters'.
Linnell, on the contrary, who had seen some excellent copies of Michael Angelo's works in the
Sistine Chapel, particularly of his 'Last Judgment, and of Raphael's 'Loggia' and cartoons, and had besides made frequent visits to Hampton Court to study the latter, was already an enthusiastic admirer of these masters. He was in consequence treated with contempt as a person of no judgment by
Collins, who equally despised both the Roman and the Florentine schools. Later, however, when David Wilkie went to Rome, he wrote a letter to Collins describing the 'Last Judgment,' which he conceived to be in colour as fine as anything he had seen in the Flemish or Venetian schools. This praise of Wilkie's caused Collins to change his views in regard to the Roman school, and henceforth he proclaimed his belief in them with all the ardour of one who had made a new discovery, forgetting that he had previously treated with contempt those who held similar views. This was one of Collins's amiable weaknesses.
As regards this attitude of Linnell's towards the Roman and Florentine schools, it should be said that he very early began to perceive and appreciate their great qualities; and he never deviated from the opinion then formed, writing some fifty years later: 'Only think of Michael Angelo, the architect of St. Peter's, the sculptor of very fine statues, and the inimitable painter of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, where the finest design may be said, without fear of contradiction, to be enhanced by fine colour.'
Linnell did not consider that he gained much from the Varley school of art, and he always considered that it was a good thing for him that Varley's influence was enlarged and corrected by his studies at the Academy. Through the old masters of the Italian school, he began to have perceptions of Nature which he had not previously experienced. Later he put it on record that when he went to Wales, the beauty of Nature reminded him more of the backgrounds in Raphael's 'Loggia' than of anything else he had seen in art. But of this I shall have more to say in a subsequent chapter.
During these Academy days, Mulready and Linnell became inseparable. They were like another Jonathan and David; indeed, so marked was their friendship that they were caricatured together, the elder as looking over the junior's shoulder whilst painting. Mulready had as yet produced no strikingly original work. He was compelled by poverty to spend his time and waste his genius in painting panoramas. He began to exhibit in the Academy in 1805 but it was not until 1808 that he attracted much mention, the picture which then brought him into notice being 'The Rattle.' 'The Music Lesson' followed in 1809. In 1805 'The Idle Boys' won him the Associateship, while next year he was elected a full Academician.
Mulready always proved himself a genuine friend to Linnell, and was ever regarded by those who knew him as the soul of honour. He had a kindly heart, too, and not a few struggling artists were befriended by him. One of his protégés was a common friend of his and Linnell's, and one of the most singular geniuses of their wide circle of artist acquaintances. This was William, or 'Billy,' Dixon, as he was generally called, a man of uncommon ability, and of great knowledge in matters of art, yet so singularly deficient as regards strength of purpose that he never finished anything. He had no sooner brought a picture to the point of completion than he either began to take it to pieces, or else set it aside altogether. To a heart of the kindest he joined an awkwardness, a bashfulness, and an untidiness that possibly accounted for his utter failure. The garret in which he lived his bachelor life, and in which he was finally found dead, was the very perfection of disorder. He was a great friend of Mulready's, who took no end of trouble with him, and employed him on his panoramas; but there was always something wanting in poor Dixon. When he was drawing, as often as not he drew his figures in such a way that either the head or the feet could not find room on the paper or canvas.
During all this time, Linnell was diligently at work drawing from the antique, from the life, and from Nature, and making himself equally proficient in each department. He neglected nothing that would be likely to help him forward on the career he had chosen. He had promised his father that, if he would let him study under Varley, he would soon earn more for him than he could do by merely making copies of Morland, and his efforts to redeem his pledge were of the most strenuous and unremitting description.
This perseverance soon bore good fruit. In 1807 he sent two small landscapes to the Academy exhibition, and both were hung. They were in oil the titles being 'A Scene from Nature' and 'A View near Reading.' His companion Hunt exhibited three similar studies the same year, one of his also being a study near Reading, showing that the two were still working much together. As may be said of nearly all Linnell's early work, so of these: they were faithful studies of Nature, broad in treatment and poetic in feeling, even then giving promise of his subsequent attainment. The same year he obtained the silver medal of the Royal Academy (in competition with R. D. Thilke and H. Corbould) for a drawing from the life, being then fifteen years of age. In the spring of the following year (1808) he was very successful at the then existing British Institution with a picture of 'Fishermen in a Boat on the River,' which sold the first day of the exhibition.
The British Institution was established for the purpose of encouraging native art, and each year it gave prizes for the best work in the different departments of art. In January, 1809, Linnell gained the Institution's fifty-guinea prize for the best landscape, beating John James Challon, a matured artist, who was his only competitor. This picture was 'The Woodcutters,' in which Kensington Gardens were used as a background. Mulready's father (a leather breeches-maker from Ennis) posed for the principal figure. The picture was exhibited in the Institution the same year. The artist asked eighty guineas for it, and would have sold it but for some misunderstanding. It is still in the possession of the Linnell family, and is perhaps one of the best in the artist's early style.
This landscape was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of Old Masters in 1883, and was then catalogued as 'Removing Timber in Autumn.' It is on canvas, and measures 26 inches by 34_ inches. It is rather dark in tone, but appears to be as fine in colour as when painted over eighty years ago. Its qualities are those of the Dutch school, showing great fidelity to Nature, and a scrupulous minuteness in painting.
Wilkie's diary (January 8, 1809) refers to the result of this competition as follows: 'I heard to-day that at the Institution the prizes were awarded as follows: Dow for historical painting; Sharpe (Michael) for a domestic subject; and Master Linnell for a landscape.' The 'Master' is significant.
In the following year (1810) Linnell was successful in two academic competitions. The question was raised among the students as to whether the sculptors could draw as well as the painters, or the painters model as well as the sculptors. Our artist was chosen to compete with Thomas Wyon, the medallist, in modelling in bas-relief a back-view from life. The subject was Sam Strowger, the Academy model already referred to; and Linnell came off in triumph, beating the sculptor on his own ground, thus showing — what was all through life one of his distinguishing characteristics — his wonderful eye for form, and his accuracy in delineating it. For this model — which is still in the possession of the Linnell family — he was awarded the Academy medal.
In the drawing competition also between the painters and the sculptors Linnell was equally successful, taking the first place.
Last modified 1 December 2001