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 this biography. George P. Landow has adapted it for html, adding links to the original text.


Leaves his Father's House — Begins to keep a Diary — David Wiikie — Love of the Theatre — Journey to Dover — 'St. John Preaching' — Mulready and Linnell — Kensington Gravel Pits — 'The Quoit-Players' — His Versatility — Industry.

decorated initial 'T'HE young artist was now fairly launched upon his career. Soon after winning the prize of fifty guineas at the British Institution, he left his father's house, and went to live in lodgings in the Hampstead Road. We have no means of knowing exactly why he took this step. Possibly there may have been some disagreement. There is reason to believe that John thought his father stood in the way of his artistic success by regarding too much the present monetary value of his labour, and being averse to his giving too much time to mere study.

Possibly, however, there may have been other reasons for his thus dissevering himself from parental control. It is not unlikely that the house in Streatham Street did not permit of his having a room to himself as a studio, which had now become a necessity to him. But being always of a very independent and self-reliant disposition, it may be that he thought he should do best for himself if thrown entirely upon his own resources. He had for some time previously bought his time, as it were, from his father. In other words, there seems to have been an agreement between them that, after he had worked so many hours a day for his father, he should be at liberty to dispose of the remainder as he liked, or for his own personal advantage. Some such working arrangement as this appears to have existed till he was of age.

We have seen that the young artist did not quite like being kept so slavishly copying the pictures of Morland and others. He soon began to perceive that whilst it paid his father to keep him so employed, it was calculated to injure his future prospects; and so he struck for more freedom — for the liberty, indeed, to work out his genius in his own way, undertaking, however, to buy his time from his father for a stipulated price, possibly agreeing to give so many hours' work a day, or so much money in lieu of time.

That some such arrangement subsisted between them is evident from the diary which the young artist early began, and continued to keep almost to the end of his long life. At first it was little more than a rough memorandum-book of receipts and expenditures, jotted down in lead-pencil; but very soon it developed into a carefully-kept journal, in which all his daily doings, together with receipts and expenditures, were carefully noted down. The diary was begun in 1810, and the first volume includes that and the following year. The second volume is missing, and there is in consequence a break from 1811 until 1817, which is very regrettable, those years being very important ones in the young artist's development.

Apart from the more personal items, these volumes incidentally contain much that is of interest as touching the artist's contemporaries. He puts it on record that while he was in his Hampstead Road lodging (nearly. opposite St. James's Chapel), he had David Wilkie (who lived in Soho Row) for a near neighbour, and saw the famous Scotch genre painter 'at work upon his " Card-Players" and his "Blind Fiddler."' There would appear to be some mistake about this statement, however, as 1809, the time of Linnell's occupancy of his lodgings in Hampstead Road, hardly agrees with the dates of those pictures.

We find that as early as this (1810-1811) he was adding to his income by giving instruction in drawing, his price for which was half a guinea a lesson. He continued to do so until shortly after his marriage, when, his time being fully occupied with better-paying work, he gave up teaching. Amongst the number of his pupils were Lady Mary Bennett and Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin, afterwards the wife of Shelley, although both these pupils belong to a later period than that at which we have at present arrived.

Mulready's name constantly recurs in the early years of the diary, not infrequently as a borrower, though just as often as a repayer. Money in those days does not seem to have had the knack of staying with Mulready, and so he had to run a sort of rough banking account with his friends. Flaxman's name also occurs in the diary. He delivered his opening lecture on sculpture at the Royal Academy in February, 1811, and Linnell makes an entry of the fact that he attended it.

But the chief items entered are of work begun, continued, or finished, and, incidentally, of the moneys received therefrom. It is a record from beginning to end of work, hard and constant. First, in these years, there were so many hours given to work for his father; then so many hours spent on this picture or that, lessons, and so forth. Occasionally we come across a note of some pleasuring, though not often. One of his greatest treats was to spend an evening at the opera, or to go and listen to an oratorio, treating himself now and then to a five-shilling place. Sometimes he and Mulready would go to the theatre when there was anything good to be seen. He did not willingly miss a Shakespearian performance or the appearance of a great actor or actress, like the elder Kean, Mrs. Siddons, or Macready, for whom he had the greatest admiration. Shakespeare was always a prime favourite with him, and he studied his works with assiduity, committing many passages to memory, and often quoting them in conversation to his latest days.

If he runs out into the country for a change, the study of Nature and subjects to paint are his chief objects. In 1809 he went to Hastings for a month, several pictures being the result, as, for instance, 'A View on the Beach, Hastings,' exhibited in the British Gallery (1810) also his curiously named 'Fisherman waiting for the Ferry, Hastings,' exhibited at the same place in the following year. There is, of course, no ferry at Hastings, and so we suspect an error.

In May, 1811, we find him with his father at Dover, whither they have gone to attend a picture sale. After three days spent in the old Cinque Port, John leaves his father to go home by coach alone, whilst he takes to the road. On the first day he walks from Dover to Ashford, taking Folkestone and Hythe by the way, twenty-four miles being the distance covered, which, together with a sketch, makes a good day's work. The next day he goes from AshCord through Maidstone (where he dines) to Kingsdown — thirty-four miles. Again he makes a sketch. A walk of twenty-one miles on the following day (Sunday, the 5th) brings the intrepid pedestrian to London. These particulars are from his own notes, and he finishes up with the item:

'Ale on the road, 2s. 6d.' In the earlier part of the same year he had had a run out to Epsom, probably to sketch. But we are getting on a little too fast.

Soon after the sale of his 'Fishermen in a Boat on the River,' exhibited in the British Institution in 1808, and previously referred to, the artist received a flattering visit at his father's house from Mr. Ridley Colborne (afterwards Lord Colborne), who commissioned him to finish his picture of the 'Fishermen' (the price agreed upon being fifty guineas) which was sent to the Royal Academy, and well hung, in 1808. This commission led to two others from the same patron. One was for a portrait of Mrs. Colborne and child. The other was a subject-picture representing a woman at a table drinking, the figure being painted from Mulready's mother, and considered a very good likeness. Linnell subsequently painted Mr. Colborne's portrait and a subject-picture in which the latter, as a gamekeeper, presented a hare to his wife.

In the following year (1809), along with his 'Removing Timber,' he exhibited at the British Institution a coast piece, entitled 'Fishing-Boats' which was sold to Mr. Ord for twenty-three guineas.

His subjects at the British Institution for the next year were 'A Cottage Door,' 'A Landscape, and 'A View on the Beach, Hastings.' About the same time one of the most famous of his early pictures, 'St. John preaching in the Wilderness,' was sketched out. This picture is noteworthy as being his first attempt to combine landscape with a religious subject, of which he afterwards painted so many. We must take it as indicating the influence the Italian school was having upon the young artist, combined with the awakening of religious feelings, which were presently to have so powerful an effect upon his life and character. The picture, however, although exhibited at the British Institution in 1808, was not finished, and remained upon the wall of his studio in that state for many years, and was only finally completed at the request of his friend, the Rev. E. T. Daniel, who greatly admired the work, and agreed to purchase it, if, when finished, no other patron should be forthcoming.

Linnell did not remain long in his lodgings in Hampstead Road. Possibly, being of a social disposition, he found living alone too dull; not unlikely he found it too expensive likewise. For, although always busy, and constantly making money, the demands upon him must have been great, especially as he was, as it were, buying his liberty from his father. Anyway, in 1809 we find that he became in some way joint tenant with Mulready of apartments at No. 30, Francis Street, Bedford Square. Possibly, however, they may only have had a painting-room in common.

Mulready's occupancy of the lodgings in Francis Street extended over 1808 and 1809; whereas during that time Linnell's address, as given in the Exhibition catalogues, was still No. 2, Streatham Street, his father's house.

It was while living in this place that Mulready painted his 'Carpenter's Shop,' one of the best known of his pictures. Linnell constantly saw him at work upon it, and the experience could not have been other than beneficial to him. There Linnell painted his 'Landscape — Morning,' exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1810, along with his 'Waiting for the Ferry.'

At this humble lodging Mulready used to receive a little company, and Linnell ever recalled with pleasure the happy gatherings. The guests were regaled with the simplest of fare, which consisted of bread and butter and eggs, with porter to wash them down. But these did not constitute the whole of the feast; there was lively and varied conversation on art and the like, mingled with music and singing.

Among the guests who frequented the gatherings were several who could sing, and the young artist himself learned to tune his voice so as to be able to join in an occasional part-song or glee. George Dawe (for whom about this time 1809 or 1810 — Linnell and his friend Hunt worked on a transparency designed to celebrate a victory over the French) was an occasional visitor. So was 'Billy' Dixon. Billy was the better liked of the two, because he had a good voice, and was pleased to sing and entertain the company; while Dawe was wont to sit in a corner, with a green shade over his eyes, and merely look on, appearing even to be quizzical.

Mulready seems at this time to have irretrievably broken with his wife. We know that his marriage with the elder of the two sisters of Varley (like her brother, an accomplished artist, and a regular exhibitor at the old Water-Colour Society) proved an unhappy one, and that their life together was of short duration. An incident that took place at this period, and that Linnell leaves on record, seems to indicate that the separation had already taken place.

Mulready and Linnell made a trip of three days' duration to Gravesend and Chatham, starting at night by boat from London Bridge. Linnell never forgot this trip down the river, and used in particular to regret that he could not sketch the scene on board at night. Most of the passengers were huddled together in the cabin — many of them the worse for drink — and with the dim light of the lamp shining upon them from above, they presented a Rembrandtesque picture which one can well believe made the young artist's fingers itch to be at work. The two walked back to London, arriving at Francis Street at midnight.

The incident that follows is curious. Either they could not, or did not, care to wake the landlady, and so had to resort to a bit of housebreaking to get in. Mulready climbed upon the garden-wall at the back of the house, and, springing thence to a landing window, managed to clutch the sill and at the same time to throw up the sash, and so let himself in, helping afterwards his less athletic companion to enter. That Mrs. Francis, their landlady, never knew that they had gained ingress in such a forcible manner is not very surprising, when we learn, from Linnell's recollections, the sort of woman they had to do with. She was a great oddity in her way, and used to go to bed when she wanted to get tipsy, which was not infrequent, considering that the safest place in which to indulge in such excesses.

She was a frequent source of amusement to her artist tenants on account of her eccentricities. She invariably called Linnell 'Linen,' and used to twit him for not calling himself 'Cotton' in place of her substitution for his name. Another of her Malapropisms was that of designating the members of the Academy 'Academinions' — a name which, coming from anyone else, might have led to suspicions of a satirical meaning.

Among other humorous anecdotes about her that Linnell was wont to relate with great gusto was how on one occasion she attacked the tax-collector, who, for some reason not quite clear, wore a white wig, with her mop, crying, as she prodded him, 'What do you want here with your dirty cauliflower wig?'

In the latter part of 1809 the two friends went to lodge at the Kensington Gravel Pits, where they remained until August, 1811, having Callcott as a near neighbour in the Mall. Partly here, and partly at his father's house, Linnell painted one of the most famous of his early pictures, 'The Quoit-Players,' which was exhibited at the British Institution in 1811. In this canvas, which measures 32 by 41 inches, we have one of the best exemplifications of the effect of Dutch art upon his early style. It shows the two leading characteristics of the great masters of the Dutch school, simplicity of subject and truth to Nature. In front of some cottages on a common several men are playing quoits two others stand looking on, leaning against the trunk of an old withered tree; a man and a boy are standing further off, waiting to mark the pitch of the quoit. There is a wood in the background, and a distant view on the right. It is similar in treatment to the 'Cutting Timber in Autumn,' but is lighter and brighter in tone.

'The Quoit-Players' was bought by Sir Thomas Baring for 75 guineas. Seven-and-thirty years later (1848) this production of the youth of nineteen was sold at Sir Thomas Baring's sale at Christie's for 230 guineas, the purchaser being Creswick, the framemaker, of Old Compton Street, Soho. The painter, who went to see it in the saleroom, was gratified to find that it was still in excellent condition. It subsequently passed into the hands of Mr. G. Simpson, of Reigate, for 1,000 guineas.

The other pictures exhibited at the British Institution along with 'The Quoit-Players' were 'A Scene on the Banks of the Thames,' 'Fishing-Boats — a Scene from Nature,' and the above-named 'Fishermen — Hastings.'

The artist's Academy picture for the same year (1811) was 'The Ducking — a Scene from Nature'. This was the last picture he sent to Somerset House until 1821.

At this time also Linnell painted a picture entitled 'Boys in a Boat.' While at work upon it he was stricken with painter's colic. He used a large quantity of flake-white in it, and was incautious enough to have the canvas in the room where he slept. He tried to relieve his pain by exercise, but in vain. Then someone suggested castor-oil as a remedy, whereupon he had recourse thereto, and was cured.

Thus the youthful aspirant was adding achievement to achievement, and gradually working his way up the steep 'where Fame's proud temple shines afar.' He was the most indefatigable of workers, and his versatility was as remarkable as his industry. He was not above cleaning and repairing pictures; he worked on the canvases of other artists, helping where they were weak, and putting in figures for them. This he did very frequently for John Varley, and recently at Christie's there was a landscape of 'Old' Crome's in which he had painted a flock of sheep.

He was an adept in watercolours as well as in oil, although the latter was the medium which he preferred. As we have seen, he did portraits as well as landscapes; and he used the graver with no less facility than the palette and brush. Indeed, everything that touched the domain of art he appeared determined to make his own.


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts John Linnell Next Contents

Last modified 1 December 2001