Tim Linnell [firstname.lastname@example.org], 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.
Conclusion — Sixty Years a Contributor to the Royal Academy — Linnell's Fortune — His Monument in his Works — Estimate of his Powers — His Place in British Art.
HERE are but few more words to be said before closing this imperfect record of a remarkable career. As he had lived, so John Linnell died, true to the principles he had espoused in early manhood, and from which, through all his years of toil and struggle, he had never swerved. There is hardly another example in the whole history of art of a life so uniform and consistent in its aim — of a devotion so entire and so unflagging through a career of eighty years.
For sixty years he was a regular contributor to the Royal Academy exhibitions, and during that time exhibited something like 170 works, being an average of nearly three per annum. Only about twice during the whole course of those years have we a record of pictures which he sent for exhibition being returned to him unhung; and if the works from his brush to be seen in our public galleries are, as regards size and numbers, inferior to those of many of his contemporaries, they are so because as soon as his art became known, almost to the day of his death, he sold as quickly as he could paint, and for the greater part of the time obtained such prices as few contemporary artists did.
In a worldly sense, the result of his industry and his painstaking perseverance through years of unflagging endeavour was the accumulation of a fortune such as it has been the lot of but few of his profession to emulate. Artists in their confidential moments are apt to hold their breath when speaking of the fabulous amounts which it is currently reported John Linnell was enabled to amass. A common figure at which his savings are put is £300,000. This, of course, is an exaggeration; but had he not invested largely in land, and settled handsome sums upon his sons and daughters, his fortune might have reached something like two-thirds of that amount.
In accordance with that shrewd business tact, however, which had characterized him through life, he disposed of most of his fortune long before his death, so that his personal property at the time of his decease was comparatively small.
It is a remarkable fact, and one worthy of record in this connection, that, according to his own statement, often repeated, he never in the whole course of his career made a single bad debt, except it might be in a very few instances of a trifling character. The fact is almost astounding, and speaks volumes for those business principles of his, from which, established early in life, he never deviated.
In accordance with another principle upon which he had always acted himself, and upon which he wished to see others act in such matters, his family had his remains interred in the unconsecrated portion of the Reigate Cemetery, with no other monument to mark the spot save the usual headstone, with a suitable inscription.
His monument, as he believed all men's should be, is in his works; and a noble monument it is — one which we may well believe will last so long as sincerity in art is honoured; for whatever may be the ultimate judgment upon it, it can never be said that John Linnell's art was other than sincere, it is, perhaps, too early yet to estimate his influence on landscape art, or to give him his true place in the ranks of English artists. On the morrow of his death the Times spoke of him as 'the most powerful of landscape-painters since Turner died'; and though the world generally has not yet accorded him such a high place — and it might seem presumptuous in his biographer to claim it for him — still, that he will by universal consent be recognised as one of the foremost of British artists no one can doubt who has once had the opportunity of judging of his work as the works of other native artists are capable of being judged — that is, by a selection of his best works being made available in a national collection.
Perhaps in the course of time other specimens of his art may be bequeathed to the national collections, or purchased for them. Since his death the appreciation in which his works are held has increased rather than declined, and this is what we should expect; for John Linnell's art is of that kind that comes home to men's hearts the more they know it. We may travel in foreign lands, and be pleased and delighted; but the time invariably arrives when native scenes and native skies offer an overwhelming attraction.
In this lies the strength of Linnell's art. It is so English that it must ever be doubly interesting on that account. It is as English as Gainsborough's, as 'Old' Crome's, as De Wint's, or as David Cox's. It is on that account somewhat circumscribed as compared with the works of men like Turner and William H. Muller; but it is rich in variety, nevertheless, and may be said to cover the whole ground of English landscape.
During his time John Linnell saw many changes among contemporaries, and beheld fashions in landscape art rise and decay. But throughout he remained uninfluenced by them, and preserved as striking an individuality in his art as in his character. It is this unbroken unity in his strongly pronounced landscape-painting which has placed him somewhat apart in the lineage of art. No one has been able satisfactorily to trace his artistic pedigree. He imbibed so much from others, but assimilated it so perfectly, and made it so thoroughly his own by interfusing it with his own perceptions, that though it is not difficult to trace similarities and points of contact with men of many schools — with the Poussins and the Claudes, with the Hobbemas and the Cuyps, with the Gainsboroughs and the Morlands, etc. — yet from none of these can a clear descent be made out. It was a fairy gift rather than an inheritance that he derived from these men. Indeed, as has been shown, in seeking his true relationship, we must look to the older Masters rather than to those of a later age.
Although, in regard to composition, Linnell's pictures seem to owe something to the Poussins, in colour their inspiration is derived more from the splendours of Rubens, Titian, and the Venetian School generally than from any other source.
In respect to contemporaries, Linnell exhibits more points of resemblance with John Crome and De Wint than with anyone else. But in order to understand him aright we must look at him as the child of Nature that he was, with a peculiar and oftentimes deep insight into her ways and mysteries, and with a rare power of reproducing her in all her simplicity and truth.
It was owing to this gift, and to the perennial freshness of his contact, that Nature and Art in his works are rarely dissevered, but are ever one and inseparable. In the same way he never separates humanity from nature. His landscapes are always peopled. They do not reveal merely the beauty of nature; they tell also the story of man's connection therewith. Moreover, what he sets down is never mean or trivial, but wholesome and dignified. In all this he was loyal to the best traditions of English landscape art, and for that we owe him much.
As regards composition, if he does not emulate the complexity and magnificence of Turner, he is at least harmonious and symmetrical. In his lines and masses there is always dignity and proportion, in which respect, and in the general simplicity of his method of composition, he is again allied to the Old Masters.
It is questionable, perhaps, whether Linnell possessed the power to have become a great figure-painter. There is not much in his works to suggest that he could; and yet indications are not wanting, faint it may be, but yet indubitable, that had he enjoyed the opportunities as a young man, in place of being kept so closely to portrait-painting and engraving, he might possibly have shone in figure-painting.
It is useless to find fault with him that his power was not broader and more general — that he did not paint rugged mountain scenery, the sea, and Nature as a whole in her wilder and more savage moods: he painted what he could, and he painted it so well that few before or after him have done what he did, and done it better.
Last modified 9 December 2001