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.


Increase of Portrait Commissions — Low Prices — Lady Torrens — A Love Romance — Miniature-painting — James Holmes — Anecdote of Beau Brummell — Holmes and Linnell — ' The Widows' Club — Aristocratic Commissions — Paints Princess Sophia — Visit to Southampton — Read — Misrepresentations — Read and Constable — At Windsor Castle.

decorated initial 'T'HE year 1818 was a tolerably prosperous one. Linnell was now becoming known as a clever and conscientious portrait-painter, and commissions, such as they were, were not far to seek. It was chiefly mere bread-and-butter work, and for the most part but ill-paid. The artist at this time thought himself fortunate to get 10 for a portrait; he even did chalk portraits as low as 3. Excellent as his work in that line was, he had for a long time to be content with very moderate prices, and thought himself well paid if he received 20 guineas for a portrait, as he did for a specially fine one, painted about this time (1817), of the Countess of Errol. To this period also belongs a small drawing of Rowland Hill (begun in February, 1817), which he subsequently engraved, and his portrait of the Duke of Argyll. The latter is an excellent likeness, and exhibits some of the painter's best qualities — excellent draughtsmanship, a masculine style of treatment, combined with solidity and power in colouring. But for the finest specimens of his work we must look to such portraits as those of John Martin, Thomas Palmer, Dr. Jenkins, Edward Sterling, William Coningham (afterwards Member of Parliamient for Brighton), Thomas Carlyle, Mulready, Malthus, Archbishop Whateley, the Bishop of Chichester, Samuel Rogers, Lady Torrens and family, etc. Some of these, however, were executed at a much later period. The group of Lady Torrens and family belongs to 1819. It was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1821, and is one of the artist's best pictures of the kind.

Several of the Torrens family he painted again — Miss Torrens more than once; also the eldest son, Henry, when he was about to go out to India. Our artist received many commissions through this excellent family, and altogether his connection with it was very fortunate. Indeed, he used to say that Lady Torrens was the best friend he ever found in her sphere of life. His acquaintance with this admirable lady came through Colonel Dumaresque, who took lessons from John Varley, and so came to know Linnell. In 1818 he painted the portraits of Colonel Dumaresque and his sister, the wife of General Darling, who was going as Governor to the Isle of France. He met Lady Torrens for the first time at one of these sittings, and soon after was employed by Sir Henry, who lived near the Bishop's palace at Fulham.

Linnell always had the greatest admiration for Lady Torrens, whom he regarded as a model both as a wife and a mother. In his autobiography he has much to say about her and her husband, and records a romantic incident touching their first acquaintance. Sir Henry, who had been severely wounded in India, stopped on his way home at St. Helena, where Lady Torrens then lived with her father, Sir George Paton, who was Governor of the island. His life was almost despaired of, because the wounds from which he was suffering would not heal. There was poisonous matter in them, and no one knew how to help him. The Governor s daughter, however, came to the rescue, leeched the wounds of the dying Knight, and so restored him to health. But, says the recorder of the incident, in curing him of one wound she inflicted the 'deeper wound of love.' They were married, and a noble pair they proved. They had six children, to whom Lady Torrens seems to have devoted herself body and soul, paying the greatest attention to their training and education. But they all, or nearly all, died early in life. The eldest son, a miniature portrait of whom on ivory Linnell painted before he went to India, never returned, having met with his death in that country. The other sons also became soldiers and died young. Writing in 1863, Linnell writes: 'Now there is only one daughter left, Lady Anstruther, if even she is left. All that beautiful family gone!' He adds: 'Lady Torrens would gladly have seen her sons otherwise employed than in the army; but the ambition of the father ruled. If he had followed the advice of his wife the family would have been otherwise disposed.'

The mention above of the miniature on ivory calls for a few words on this subject. Linnell commenced his first work of this kind in 1818, the subject of it being his own wife. Portraiture on ivory was suggested to him by James Holmes, the miniature and figure painter, who was now his near neighbour; Linnell having, at the end of 1818, removed from Rathbone Place, where his first child, Hannah (afterwards the wife of Mr. Samuel Palmer), was born, to No. 6, Cirencester Place, at the upper end of Titchfield Street, where, encouraged by his steadily increasing business, he had taken a house at 60 a year.

This James Holmes was a notable man in his day. Born in 1777, he served his apprenticeship under Meadows, the well known engraver, but was no sooner out of his time than he relinquished the graver for water-colour drawing. In conjunction with the Varleys, Cristall, Heaply, and others, he was one of the early members of the old Society of Painters in Water-Colours, in one of the exhibitions of which was exhibited his well-known work, 'The Doubtful Shilling,' which was purchased by the famous Beau Brummell, who had a nice taste in art, and was, indeed, a very proficient amateur, some of his miniatures being accounted excellent in style and finish.

Through their congeniality of taste in regard to matters artistic a warm friendship sprang up between Holmes and the 'Beau.' On one occasion the former called upon his fashionable friend at three o'clock in the afternoon and found him at breakfast. The painter could not help expressing his surprise, and remarked that he had positively dined.

'Dear me! dear me!' replied the man of fashion. 'Why, this is my break of day.'

On another occasion Brummell gave the artist a similar surprise. He had done some work for him, and called one day for the amount of his bill.

'I suppose,' said Brummell, 'that you would call yours a debt of honour?'

Holmes said he would.

'Then I must pay you. I always pay my debts of honour,' returned the dandy.

He accordingly wrote out a cheque for the amount, and remarked as he handed it to the artist:

'I would advise you to present it without delay,' which he accordingly did.

The only portrait extant of Brummell was painted by James Holmes. The taste and beauty of colouring displayed in his miniatures soon gained for the latter a large share of the patronage of London, his likenesses being, as Lord Byron remarked, 'inveterate.' His portrait of the noble poet himself, painted in 1815, was preferred by him to any other.

Mr. Holmes enjoyed the patronage of George IV. and his Court, where for a time he was 'the King's bobby,' partly on account of his gifts as an artist, and partly by reason of his exceptional musical gifts, he being a capital flautist. Having with other 'oil-men' (for he afterwards began to work in this medium) resigned his membership of the Water-Colour Society, Holmes became one of the founders of the Society of British Artists, which held its first exhibition in 1823. For thirty years he was a supporter of this institution, and a constant contributor to its exhibitions, where his portraits and subject-pictures won him many friends and patrons, among the number being Sir Henry Meux, whose mansion at Theobalds was decorated by his pencil. The greater portion of his later years was spent in the county of Salop, where (in 1860) he serenely passed away in the eighty-third year of his age. So happy and cheerful was his disposition that Mr. Walpole (Lord Derby's Home Secretary) once remarked, speaking of the weather, 'Ah, Mr. Holmes, it is always fine weather with you.

A striking anecdote, showing the characters of the two men, is related of Holmes and Linnell. The former, in the heyday of his prosperity, was in the receipt of an income of about 2,000 a year, but he saved nothing.

'Why don't you save something?' asked Linnell.

'You can't save on two thousand a year!' was the reply.

'I would save something, whatever my income was,' responded the younger artist.

'What! If it were but twenty pounds a year?' cried Holmes.

'Yes,' replied Linnell; 'if my income were but twenty pounds I would save a shilling.'

Holmes was very successful as a Court painter, and executed miniature portraits of a large number of the entourage of the King. Indeed, at one time he appears to have been so busy that he became independent; and having received a commission from the Queen of Portugal to paint seven miniatures of her, he stopped when he had done three or four, and refused to do any more because she was so ugly. He painted many portraits of Princess Esterhazy, the cousin of George IV. He used to say that he appeared to be always painting her; and when the portraits were done, he was always calling upon her for the money. His best miniatures were in water-colours; when he afterwards did them in oils he was not so successful.

Holmes was member of a Bohemian club which was of the old-fashioned sort. It was called 'The Widows,' and was held in a tavern in St. Martin's Lane. Amongst others who belonged to it were Edmund Kean; Stanfield (afterwards the R.A.); Roberts, the artist; Nugent, a writer for the Times ; an actor named Hawkins, better known as 'Jerry Sneak,' because of the admirable way in which he took that character; and an animal-painter named Turner. The latter had a wooden leg, and Holmes used to relate with great enjoyment how on one occasion, when Turner had fallen asleep in his armchair, one of the wits lifted up his wooden leg, and put the end of it in the fire, whereupon the artist suddenly woke up, saying that he felt his toes burning. Some of the best wits of the time belonged to 'The Widows,' and Holmes was one of the liveliest and most genial of the lot.

To this man Linnell was indebted for the first suggestion in regard to miniature-painting on ivory, and from him he received some valuable hints as to methods of working, etc. In recognition of his obligations to his friend in this matter, Linnell one day gave him a couple of small landscapes, highly finished and very rich in colour, which Holmes valued very highly, and kept constantly on the mantelpiece of his studio, but which on the break-up of his establishment became unaccountably lost.

The miniature of Mrs. Linnell surprised many, alike by its richness of colour and its delicacy ofmanipulation. It was shown by John Varley to the Marchioness of Stafford, who was considered an authority on such matters. She pronounced it superior to anything of the sort she had seen, and the only thing on ivory like the Old Masters. This favourable judgment caused the artist to have a run of commissions for portraits from her connections. First he painted one of her daughters, Lady Elizabeth, who had just then been married to Lord Belgrave, and lived in Park Lane. Then followed miniatures of her brother, Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, afterwards Lord Ellesmere, Lord and Lady Ebrington, Lady Francis Stanhope, and others.

These aristocratic commissions followed so quickly one upon another that at one time the democratic John Linnell appears to have had an idea that he might be drawn into the circle of Court portrait-painters. In 1821 he was commissioned to execute a portrait of the Princess Sophia Matilda, the sister of George IV., for the Duke of York; and in the following year he painted a second miniature of this Princess. Referring to these portraits, he writes:

'I ventured to make my pictures to look really like them, though as favourable as truth would admit; and I calculate it was on that account I had no more from that connection. I asked Lady Torrens at the time what would be the consequence in her opinion if, in the event of my being employed to paint George IV., the King, I made a faithful likeness.

'" It would be your ruin," she said.

'" I cannot help it," I replied. " So I shall do if I get the commission."

'Which I did not. And a good thing for me, too, that I did not,' he adds.

In 1818 one of his contributions to the Spring Gardens Gallery was the noble picture already mentioned, St. John preaching in the Wilderness,' a work which exhibited a remarkable advance in the development of his genius. In the following year Linnell had eleven pictures at Spring Gardens. He was one of the hangers that year, and so, as he says, 'had a better chance of fair places.' None of his canvases were very large, nor very small. Among the number were 'Windsor Forest' and a 'Windmill.' In 1820 he sent 'The Shepherds' Amusement.' 'The latter was a sunset, with a young shepherd piping, and others sitting round — a most poetic picture. It was afterwards purchased by Mr. Gibbons, of Regent's Park.

In July, 1819, the artist again paid a visit to Mr. Wykham, of Tythorp, to paint portraits, remaining for three days. After his return, towards the end of August, he accepted an invitation to visit an artist friend at Southampton. This was Mr. D. C. Read, an engraver by profession, whose acquaintance Linnell had previously made through Mr. White, the print-seller, of Brownlow Street, Holborn, for whom Read then worked. Having some taste and ability, he was anxious to become a painter, and our artist had given him some instructions.

On arriving at his friend's, with his wife and their little daughter, he found Read's position very different to what he had represented it to be. The accommodation at his disposal was very scant, and his guests were not over-comfortable; but they took their host's shortcomings in good part, and put the best face on matters.

While at Southampton, Linnell painted a picture in oil of Netley Abbey, spending ten or twelve days upon it. He used to leave his canvas overnight at a farm in the neighbourhood, and walked to and fro morning and evening, a distance of four miles, sometimes carrying his little daughter on his shoulder most of the way.

At Southampton he made a number of useful acquaintances. He was visited there by Mr. Chambers Hall, for whom he afterwards did a considerable amount of work. He painted for the Rev. Thomas Allies a life-size portrait of his wife, in exchange for which he received two oil-paintings — one by Poussin (of which he made Mr. Allies a copy), and another by Everdingen — from Mr. Allies' collection. Both of them are still in the possession of the family. Of the copy of the Poussin, Mr. Allies afterwards wrote that it was greatly admired, and that some of his friends who were good judges took it for the original.

On the whole, Linnell had a successful time at Southampton. The visit proved equally advantageous to Read, for whom Linnell obtained a situation as drawing-master at Salisbury, where his position was greatly improved. He also recompensed him in other ways for the trouble and expense to which he had been put by this visit.

It is necessary to give these details, because Read subsequently misrepresented Linnell to Constable, and thereby did him an unintentional injury. The fact is, Read's ambition to become a painter appears to have led him to expect more aid and assistance from his artist friends than they were able to give him. Linnell helped him all he could, as did Constable likewise; but they could not make a successful painter of him if it was not in him. Constable appears to have taken considerable trouble on his account, and to have received and sent his pictures to the Academy from his own house. But Read was not satisfied. He complained to Linnell that Constable had not also taken the trouble to return them to him when rejected. In short, he had become a disappointed and soured man, and afterwards, in similar grumblings to Constable about Linnell, gave the former the means of saying some disparaging things about his friend. But of these matters more will have to be said farther on.

A joke was current at the time anent these pictures of Read's, which Constable found so good that he was fond of repeating it, even though somewhat against himself. They were on one occasion, possibly when being unpacked, standing outside Constable's house. Someone who saw them there said they made quite a show, while they were taken by others who stopped to look at them to be Constable's. Others said they were better than his, and that Read had 'outrun the Constable.' But we have not yet done with the years 1818 and 1819. In the former year Linnell did an etching of 'Sheep Lying Down.' The 'Windsor Forest' picture was begun this year, as was likewise the landscape 'Evening — Storm clearing off.'

These two paintings, and the 'St. John preaching in the Wilderness,' painted this year, are all among his greater, if not most famous, efforts, and show that he was already finding his way towards that grander style and broader treatment that afterwards characterized him.

In the August of this year (1818) he obtained permission, through Sir Benjamin West, to copy a picture by Holbein at Windsor Castle, said to be a portrait of Luther. The copy he made is still in the possession of the family at Redhill; but though the painting is a very fine one, it is indubitably not a portrait of Luther.

He took a lodging at Windsor while engaged on the picture, and being entrusted with a key to let himself in, he used to go to the castle very early in the morning, in order to make the most of his time.

When first shown into the room where the portrait was hung, he was cautioned to make as little noise as possible, because the insane old King, George III., was in the room below with his keepers! Thus he worked away at the picture, leaving off every now and again to look forth from the windows and feast his eyes upon the enchanting scene of woodland and meadow, sky and stream, that lay before him, but thinking all the while of the poor old monarch below. No wonder that he felt the place sad and gloomy, and was glad when his self-imposed task was done and he could get once more into the freer air of unkingly men.


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Last modified 1 December 2001