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.

Linnell's Culminating Period — 'Noonday Rest' — 'The Hayfield' — 'The Moorlands' — Replica of 'The Storm in Harvest' — Biblical Subjects — 'The Disobedient Prophet' — 'The Journey to Emmaus' 'Abraham' — 'Sunset' — Scene in the Academy — The Artist and the Critic — ' Sleeping for Sorrow.'

decorated initial 'W'HEN his correspondence with Mr. Horsley took place respecting the Royal Academy, Linnell had long since passed the term of three-score years and ten. But, thanks to his careful living, hard work, and abstemious habits, he was, though in his seventy-fifth year, still hale and hearty, and able to wield his brush with almost undiminished vigour of hand and eye. In grasp of mind and vigour of invention there was no sign of falling off Perhaps the culminating period of his power was a little before the Royal Academy correspondence took place, that is, roughly speaking, between the years 1862 and 1866, when he was painting such landscapes as 'Noonday Rest' (1862), 'The Hayfield' (1864), and 'The Moorlands' (1865), all exhibiting a mastery such as in their several ways the artist had seldom excelled.

The first-named (38 by 54 inches) shows a partially-cut cornfield under the bright noon sunlight. In the foreground three men are lying asleep in the shade of some sheaves of corn, while beyond others are busy harvesting. Nothing could better convey the idea of shimmering sunlight and heat.

In The Hayfield' (28 by 39 inches), which was exhibited in the Academy in 1864, we have a wide-spreading upland meadow, with a group of figures seated in the foreground and others making hay beyond. An expanse of uncut grass stretches towards a distant plain on the horizon. Here again we have that pearly freshness of a mid-day sunlit landscape for which Linnell, perhaps more than any other painter, is famous.

'The Moorlands' (28 by 39 inches) shows us another aspect of nature — a wide expanse of rough heath under a sunset sky, with overhanging, threatful clouds of purple hue. In the foreground is a pond with horses and cows watering. It is one of the artist's favourite themes, in which oft-repeated, magnificent struggling skies meet the eye with all the charm of novelty. Moreover, it is replete with the poetry of upland solitudes.

All these pictures exhibit the master-hand at its best, and the artist's touch with nature as the most intimate and sincere. And when the statement is hazarded that after this period Linnell's work began to show signs of decadence, it must be taken with considerable latitude and with many allowances.

For whilst here and there, in works executed after this time, there are indications of less firmness of hand, of less clearness of sight, they are for some years to come so slight as almost to escape detection save by the most experienced eyes. Even then the best judges may sometimes doubt whether their own eyes do not deceive them when they see such a picture as the replica of 'The Storm in Harvesttime,' which was executed after this time (1873), and is undoubtedly one of the grandest pastoral subjects the artist ever painted. It depicts the uprolling of a black thundercloud, the central nucleus of which seems just about to burst over the heads of a party of harvesters. It is almost terrific in its grandeur. The execution is no less masterful than the conception. The original, upon which it shows some slight variations (and in some respects it may be said for the better), was painted in 1855 and 1856, and purchased by Sir William (now Lord) Armstrong.

Among other pictures belonging to this period, and displaying a mastery in which it would be difficult to point out positive signs of failure, the following may be noted: 'The Woodlands' (panel, 27 by 39 inches), 'The Wood-Cutters' (panel, 18 by 24 inches), 'Sheep' (canvas, 27 by 39 inches), 'Surrey Woodlands' (canvas, 38 by 54 inches), 'Milking-time' (canvas, 35 by 55 inches), 'The Dusty Road' (canvas, 27 by 38 inches), and the 'Baptism of Christ,' all of which belong to the years from 1863 to 1869 inclusive.

Not much has hitherto been said about Linnell's Biblical pictures. Being, as they undoubtedly are, subsidiary in importance as works of art to his more purely landscape subjects, they do not appear so much to require chronological treatment. And yet it would be a grave mistake to pass them over as minor matters, and not calling for special remark. The artist himself ranked some of them amongst his most important works, and they are undoubtedly of great importance as showing in a peculiar manner the limitations of his art.

Some of those pictures which must be classed amongst his Biblical subjects owe their distinction very largely to their mastery as landscape studies. Such, for instance, is the case with 'The Eve of the Deluge,' 'The Disobedient Prophet,' 'Christ and the Woman of Samaria,' 'David and the Lion,' and several others. In these the subject was suggested by the landscape, which was afterwards overruled, and given additional interest to, by the figures. The keynote of 'The Eve of the Deluge' was struck by the angry and threatful sky, which suggested a drama of deep and world-moving import; while in 'The Disobedient Prophet' the noble qualities of the landscape, with its sombre pines, inspired the idea of wedding it to a suitable historical subject. Hence the figures of the lion and the ass, and that of the disgraced prophet, were introduced.

In both these pictures, as well as in the 'Christ and the Woman of Samaria,' there is sufficient realism in the figures to give dramatic interest and to fill out the theme supplied by the background.

This, however, is not the case in all the artist's Biblical subjects. Their common fault is that they fail in not exhibiting that realization and truth of nature for which his landscape and pastoral subjects are remarkable. The figures in too many of them are flat and weak, not having sufficient realism to give dramatic interest. They were painted more from his inner consciousness, and as an expression of his poetical and religious ideas, than from that outer aspect of nature his triumph over which in his own peculiar line had been so signal.

The 'Journey to Emmaus' is something of an exception. That picture was painted to some extent from models, his future son-in-law, Samuel Palmer, having sat for the younger disciple in the straw hat. This was — probably in consequence — the most popular of his subjects, and was purchased by the Art Union in 1838 as a prize picture, and engraved by the artist for presentation to their subscribers. The head of Christ was painted from an oil study of a Polish Jew having a remarkably fine type of feature, who happened to call upon Linnell while he had the picture in hand.

In his other Scriptural subjects, as a rule, he used no models. The exception is his picture of 'Jacob's Well,' for the woman in which he made a careful study from life.

These subjects were painted for the most part late in life, when, apparently, the artist no longer had the patience to work from models. He was satisfied to paint from memory, or from what was in his mind. This is strange, because it is so opposite to the methods he pursued in early life, and which he recommended as the true ones to the end of his days. Hence, though poetical, his Scriptural subjects do not interest us by their lifelike and dramatic qualities.

His 'Gethsemane' is a good example of his weakness in this respect. The landscape is a beautiful one, and, though not Oriental, is suggestive of a solemn theme ; but the figures are flaccid and unreal, and do not rise by any means to the height of the 'vast argument' of the subject.

In short, most of John Linnell's Biblical themes are more like ideal studies for figure-subjects than actually worked-out pictures.

This may be said in especial of perhaps the most notable of his purely Scriptural subjects — his 'Abraham.' In this the character of the Divine being is wholly dramatic and solemn in effect, and is founded upon the artist's deep spiritual perception of the subject, which gives grandeur and force to the work, although the figure is not realized entirely as it might have been by one of the Old Masters, like Michael Angelo or Raphael. And yet it has a deep religious and spiritual import which makes it unique. In this picture there is something of the peculiar imagination and grandeur exhibited in Blake's symbolic pictures.

This and one or two others, including the 'Philip baptizing the Eunuch,' have a special significance, as embodying a particular interpretation of the Scripture text. In the latter baptism has been by 'complete immersion,' a doctrine he held to with great tenacity. The same truth appears to be enforced in the 'Baptism of Christ,' which forms a rather striking picture. The Saviour is represented standing on the bank of the stream, and John the Baptist in the water, holding a branch with his left hand; the figure of a dove appears in a ray of light above. The composition is very simple, yet dignified. The treatment, however, is somewhat hard, and the colour hot, while the landscape has not the charm of some of his other 'religious' subjects.

The picture which called forth the correspondence in the pages of the Athenaeum Linnell himself did not consider one of his best; and his indignation was aroused more by the neglect to let him know that it was not hung, than by the fact of its not finding a place on the walls of the Royal Academy. The 'Sunset' is, nevertheless, a fine picture. It represents a landscape aglow with the fires of the setting sun — one of those scenes in nature, in short, which never seemed to lose their hold upon the artist, and which he was never tired of painting. It was sold for 700 before it was finished; but when the gentleman who had purchased it found that it was not hung, he wrote to Linnell, saying that he bought the picture in the belief that it would be exhibited on the walls of the Academy. In short, he wanted to cry off. Linnell at once returned him his money, and had the picture on his hands for several years.

A good deal has been made of the 'scene' which is said to have taken place at the National Gallery (where the Academy then held its exhibitions) when Linnell went there on varnishing day and failed to find his favourite picture of the year, his No. 1 as he styled it, upon the walls. The artist is reported to have gone stamping from room to room, amid R.A.'s, Associates, exhibitors, dealers, and porters, demanding to be informed where was his 'Sunset,' and indignantly fulminating against the Academy and all its works.

Various versions of the occurrence are current but, whilst all are more or less dramatic in conception, they are all equally devoid of truth. The simple fact, as narrated by an eye-witness, appears to be that, having failed to find his picture on the walls, he demanded of one or another in authority to be shown where he could find it. He was finally conducted to the basement, where he discovered the missing picture amid a host of others.

It should be said that whatever indignation the artist may have shown on this occasion was aroused by the exceptional character of the annoyance, and was soon over. although he oftentimes received but indifferent treatment at the hands of the hangers — his splendid landscapes being often 'skied,' or stowed away in corners, or in the architectural room, as was his 'Hawthorn,' while banalities of the Witherington and Lee type occupied the line — yet it was not his habit to complain, but to take what he got and be thankful. He had his compensation in the knowledge that he obtained prices for his works that very few of his academical rivals could emulate.

In his later years, when the dealers had come to vie with each other for the possession of his works, he had less cause for complaint. His landscapes were then so well known and admired, that even the most independent of hangers would hardly dare to hang badly what the instructed public had come to regard as among the first treasures of the exhibitions.

How little resentment he felt in regard to the rejected picture will be seen from the following letter, dated May 3, 1867, and addressed to his son William, who, having married, was then residing in Paris:

I have been with Marian to the private view of the R.A. to-day. . . . I saw lots of people, R.A.'s, and all very friendly, except two R.A.'s, — and — the hangers, who wouldn't hang my "Sunset," but sent it down in the passage along with the rejected pictures. I found it there, and brought it home on Wednesday. I said some plain words to — and — and they are sulky. Not so others.

Mr. Knight, the secretary, told me the P.V. tickets were voted me by the Council with acclamation — this, of course, as a set-off against my "Sunset". My other pictures are well placed. . .

I had lots of applications for the pictures hung. My eyes are weak, but are better for rest, so you will excuse scribble.

J. L.

Lots of bad pictures in the Exhibition. Hook's are excellent, and he is most hearty. I am going to see him. Redgrave also is very friendly. He has an exquisite picture of trees and water — no figures. Webster, Herbert, Creswick, and Cook all hearty and congratulatory. Sir F. Moon, ex-Mayor, and Mr. Field, who introduced me to Tom Taylor, have promised to come and see me.

Tom Taylor paid his promised visit, which gratified Linnell, who greatly admired his poems and satirical writings in Punch. This was the only occasion, however, on which the art critic of the Times visited Redhill, and the two probably never met again. Taylor appears to have been a genuine admirer of Linnell's landscapes, and generally had a good word to say in their favour. One year, however, in writing of the Academy pictures, he ventured to be less complimentary than usual, and the artist was at once told by some of his friends that there was something wrong, and that he ought to send the critic a cheque for 50. A strange reflection, surely, on the supposed relations between painter and critic!

However, Linnell did not act upon the suggestion. For one thing, he did not set much store upon newspaper criticism, and even if he had he would have been one of the last to buy it. Perhaps someone had given him such a hint when, in 1864, the Times, referring to his 'Hayfield' (previously referred to), spoke of it as 'a poem of rural nature.' This brought out the following bit of humorous verse:

'The Times says my picture is a poem —
Tooral-ooral-lay!
A poem of rural nature —
Oh, the dear old crayture!
Tooral-ooral-lay!
The Times is surely growing better,
Obligation upon me to lay;
If so I must remain his debtor,
For to such I never pay.
Rural tooral-ooral-lural,
Wide awake I say!'

It should be explained in regard to the 'private-view' tickets referred to in the foregoing letter, that prior to this year Linnell had never been favoured with invitations to the private view of the Academy. His friend George Richmond called attention to the fact, and henceforth to his death tickets were regularly sent to him, and he valued the attention very highly.

Among other works belonging to this period may be mentioned 'Southampton Water,' 'Feeding Sheep,' 'Chalk,' ' Harvest Showers' (the two latter were exhibited in 1867), 'The Lost Sheep,' and 'Sleeping for Sorrow' (1870).

The history of the latter picture is peculiarly interesting. At the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition his sons saw and afterwards described to him a picture by Bellini, entitled the 'Sleep of Sorrow.' He was greatly struck with the subject, and shortly afterwards began to work upon a picture that had shaped itself in his mind. This work is still upon the walls at Redstone Wood, Redhill. It exhibits great dignity and force of treatment. Upon a dim hillside are recumbent figures, over which the last evening gleam still shows a shaping light, while heavy clouds overhang and darken the scene.

Some years after this picture was painted Linnell saw at the National Gallery the original, the description of which had suggested his own; but it was so different that no one would suppose that the one was in any way the outcome of the other.

In one respect there may be said to be a certain amount of sameness in Linnell's later pictures. In his earlier works he introduced Welsh, Derbyshire, and other scenery, with which he was then familiar, and with which — that of Wales in particular — he had been so deeply impressed. The background of his 'St. John Preaching' is Derbyshire scenery, with a palm tree introduced. But the subjects of the pictures of his last period, that in which he had attained to a style peculiarly his own, are derived chiefly from Surrey scenery, of which he had always been especially enamoured, and in the midst of which he had, as it were, taken root during the latter third of his life. In nothing was he more successful than in his treatment of woodland and of timber generally ; and his woods are essentially Surrey woods. But even with this sameness there is the greatest possible variety, as may be seen by a comparison of some of his later works, amongst which may be mentioned 'The Ford' (1872), 'Woodcutters' (1874), 'Woods and Forests' (1875), 'The Hollow Tree' (1876), and 'Autumn' (1877), all of which were exhibited on the walls of the Academy.


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Last modified 9 December 2001