Tim Linnell [email@example.com], 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.
N the following pages I have sought to tell the story of a life which is almost unique in its simplicity of purpose, in its fidelity to conviction, and in the singleness of aim with which its aspirations in art were worked out. In doing so it has been my aim to depict the real man, to show what he was, and what were the means by which he attained his ends. The story will bear telling fully, not merely in regard to what made him a great painter, but also in regard to the influences that made him a true man. For John Linnell's greatest glory lay not so much in having given noble and inspiring pictures to the world, but in having lived a life that was marked by the strictest adherence to principle from beginning to end. In recording the facts of that life, I have not tried to soften them down; I have not set myself to justify this or that belief, nor to prove that he was right in his views on this subject or the other. Every man is a unity in himself, and so must look at the world of things about him from his own standpoint; and what is chiefly of interest to his fellow-beings is to learn how those things struck him, and in what way they influenced him.
Some of John Linnell's views will doubtless be repugnant to many; to others there will be points of sympathetic contact -- here with his almost absorbing love of Nature, there with his serene religious trust. So, while some will be charmed with his art, others may find it not altogether to their taste; but even these cannot fail to admire the strenuousness with which for years he laboured to attain his ends.
Possibly some may say that I have gone into matters which were not necessary, and that I have in consequence been led into trivial details. My answer is that I wished to bring before my readers the whole and the real man, believing that by so doing I should confer a greater benefit upon the world than by producing something partial and incomplete.
There are too many such so-called Lives going about. If we write biographies, we should at least write them truly and boldly. But the fashion is to produce them as the photographer produces his pictures of 'beauties,' softening down harsh features, heightening favourable ones, making the eyes into 'orbs,' and often fitting on the arms, neck, or shoulders of another, because more plump and 'becoming.' This is false portraiture, whether it be the method of photographer or painter. It is equally to be deprecated when adopted in literature. John Linnell always condemned the method in portrait-painting; and if he could be consulted now as to the way in which the story of his life should be told, he would undoubtedly say, 'Describe me exactly as I was.'
The story is one which carries us back to the period when the foundations of modern landscape art were being laid -- when Turner and Constable were still in their teens, and ere Cotman and Cox had turned their attention to art. At the time that Linnell first saw the light, Gainsborough had been dead four years, John Crome was in his twenty-third year, and George Morland in his twenty-ninth, while Cozens in two years more was to close his career in the madhouse. His life, therefore, which ended in 1882, covered nearly the whole period of modern landscape art, from its rise almost to the present day. That he takes a high place in its growth and development no one competent to judge will deny; and though his influence upon art was retarded in comparison with that of some of his contemporaries, it was not the less potent in the end. Why this was the case will duly appear.
In his early work there is manifested that directness and simplicity of imitation of Nature, and that attention to details, which characterize the best Dutch art. This has led to the assumption, for which there is no warrant, that his early love for Dutch art led him to base his style on that of the 'Dutch masters. although he perceived the great qualities of the Dutch School, his early love was all for the Italians. The qualities in his early work that recall the landscape-painters of Holland are to be accounted for by the fact that, like the masters with whom resemblances are traced, he went directly to Nature for his subjects, and imitated her in her quiet yet ample simplicity. He was at the time constantly drawing both the figure and landscape, and by this means it was that he obtained in his early pictures many of the qualities that are admired in those fathers of landscape art, Ruysdael, Hobbema, Cuyp, and Paul Potter.
But although in example after example of his early landscapes we are reminded of these masters in the truthfulness with which he reproduces the objects before him upon canvas, yet from the very first we perceive in his works qualities which the Dutch painters do not possess -- qualities which are found to perfection only in the masters of the Italian School. In other words, he brings a higher imagination to bear upon his work, together with a keener sense of colour, and so transfuses his pictures with a poetic fervour and glow that at once appeal to the highest feelings of the beholder.
It is these qualities, with those above mentioned, which differentiate Linnell from so many of his contemporaries. They ally him on the one hand with Turner, and on the other with 'Old' Crome and Richard Wilson. The two latter, among Linnell's contemporaries, were the least mannered or conventional, and to them he is allied by the fidelity with which he interprets the spirit of the landscape.
Later in life he became less severe and minute in his imitation, and worked more from the ideal of Nature. Gradually there became less of the Dutch quality in his pictures, and more of those qualities which distinguish the Italian School, in which he found more of that poetry in Nature towards the expression of which he had steadily been feeling his way. Out of this growth and development there arose a style of his own -- one freer in composition, richer in colouring, and wherein the imagination was allowed fuller scope. In its way it is a style as characteristic as that of any of our greatest masters of landscape-painting.
Though the figures in his delightful foregrounds may compel attention as little as a group in a faded piece by one of the Poussins, they nevertheless tell a human story, and redeem the landscape from being desert. A direct link with human life was never wanting in a work by Linnell. In that way he kept his imagination in check. By that means he convinces us that we are still in the world of men; and the beauty and grandeur of the world he portrays is such as to inspire us with the dignity of the being who was created to inhabit and adorn it.
Before closing these introductory lines, I have to express my indebtedness to many friends for their aid in the compilation of these pages -- to Mr. William Holman Hunt, to Mr. J. C. Horsley, R.A., to Mr. George Richmond, R.A., to the late Mr. David Price, to Mr. Alfred Fripp, R.W.S., to Mr. F. G. Stephens, to Mr. Bernard Evans, R.I.; but chiefly to the sons of the painter, who placed all the necessary documents at my disposal, and assisted me in every possible way. I have also to express my indebtedness to Lord Armstrong for kindly allowing me to illustrate my book with a reproduction of the picture in his possession of 'A Storm in Autumn,' and to many others for permission to use letters, or for aid in other ways.
Last modified 1 December 2001