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.
Growing Fame — Study of the Scriptures — Joins the Plymouth Brethren — 'The Windmill' — The Vernon — Thomas — Mr. Webster, R.A. — Mr. Gibbons — Gillott — 'The Eve of the Deluge' — 'The Last Gleam before the Storm.'
HUS Linnell patiently laboured on until about 1845, when a surprising change came over the scene, when, in short, there arrived a tardy recognition of his powers. He was now fifty-four years of age — an old man as some would be at his years. But Linnell seemed to have learned the secret of perennial youth. Since his breakdown in the twenties he had wonderfully recovered his constitutional vigour, thanks to a naturally tough frame, and perhaps, also, in some measure to that careful regimen which he had established in his household, and from which he never afterwards departed.
As we have seen, a certain amount of fame had arisen out of the exhibition of the 'St. John preaching in the Wilderness' at the British Institution in 1839. Perhaps this recognition of his ability may have acted as a stimulus to his still latent powers, and done much to call forth a fresh efflorescence of talent. Certain it is that he began to paint with renewed vigour about this time — that is, roughly speaking, about his fiftieth year.
There is nothing more remarkable in the history of great men than this fact regarding John Linnell. Nor was it in art alone that he manifested this renewed vigour. It penetrated and revivified his whole intellectual and moral being, and made the man of fifty begin as it were a fresh youth. It was a fresh intellectual youth, at all events, for it was at this period that he resumed, with increased zest, the thread of his studies in Greek and Hebrew, which he had commenced with such assiduity and delight under Mr. Thomas Palmer, but had been obliged to lay aside on account of the growing demands of his family. He had never ceased, however, his study of the Scriptures; but this had been confined chiefly to the English version, and to such exegetical works as were then procurable. But now, at a time of life when most men are beginning to think that, not simply their days of learning, but their days for work also, are well-nigh done, this man took down his school-books and recommenced his studies with all the ardour, and more than the ordinary energy, of a young man.
He may have been stimulated to do this through the influence of a new order of minds with which he about this time came in contact. As already stated, he in 1843 became acquainted with the body known as the Plymouth Brethren, a sect which has distinguished itself by its careful study of the original texts of the Scriptures, and has produced several men of exceptional learning in this department of research. With these people he associated in religious communion, and occasionally attended their meetings in London for 'breaking bread,' etc.
He had strong sympathy with the Brethren in their principles and in their practices where he considered these in agreement with Scripture precept and example. He was in accord with them in that they had no paid preachers or ministers, and gave no titles; that they recognised the equality in standing and privilege of all believers, all the brethren having liberty of speaking, etc., in their assemblies and that they professed to receive one another in fellowship at 'the Lord's table' simply on the ground of having faith in Christ. He recognised that they had clear spiritual perceptions of many truths as revealed in the New Testament, having learned these by sincere, careful, and critical study of the texts, and by believing in the simple and literal meaning of the Scripture words. Thus they believed that they acquired light as to prophetical truth, especially the truth of the pre-millennial personal advent of Christ, etc.
It is essential to give these details, as showing Linnell's turn of thought in these matters. But after awhile he found that he could no longer yield the Brethren that sympathy which he had at first given. He thought that, through lack of the humility that is proper and becoming to Christians, and the unity that arises from real brotherly love, a sectarian and intolerant spirit had sprung up among them, certain of them presuming to judge and censure others, and to usurp authority over them, which caused separation and exclusions from communion one of another.
Thus in January, 1846, at their headquarters in Plymouth, the body became divided into two opposing parties. The division, and the consequent intolerant action, spread to the different gatherings in London, some of the leading men connected therewith assuming what Linnell considered priestly prerogatives. This was one of the things against which he had always warred, and so in 1848 he and his family discontinued assembling with the Brethren, losing sympathy with them, and being unable any longer to co-operate with them in what they considered their unscriptural action.
This intercourse with the Plymouth Brethren was more of the nature of an incident in Linnell's life than a matter which affected either his principles or his habits. He took no active part in their public meetings, and hardly ever spoke in them, preferring the position of listener and learner, and simple partaker in the Christian fellowship of the body. As regards all they wrote and said, he tested and judged them strictly and impartially by the text of Scripture, as he had always done with regard to the productions of everybody else. He was ever ready to receive help in the understanding of the inspired text from anyone, and thankfully availed himself of every such afforded help; but to the man himself who might be instrumental in giving such help he allowed no authority. As already said, his acquaintance with this body probably stimulated his Biblical studies at that time, but had no further effect. He was always grateful to the Brethren for the books they had produced, which afforded much assistance in the study of the Greek and Hebrew texts, such as 'The Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament,' and 'The Englishman's Hebrew Concordance of the Old Testament.'
Returning thus to his early studies, he devoted himself to the texts of the Old and New Testaments with all the zeal and patience that he brought to bear upon whatever he undertook, and he mastered their spirit so thoroughly that he was enabled to throw light upon more than one disputed passage. The results of these studies on certain points he afterwards published in several pamphlets. Of these, however, it will be necessary to speak in a subsequent chapter. It is sufficient here to refer to the fact as a sign of the renewed vigour of his intellect.
After losing sympathy with the Plymouth Brethren, Linnell never again joined any body of professing Christians, being satisfied to worship in his own way, and in accordance with what he believed to be the direction of Scripture. He never at any time of his life adopted what is called 'family worship' in any shape, considering it too formal and unreal a thing, and, moreover, a hindrance to business and work. Accordingly, all worship, prayer, etc., on the part of himself and his family was of a private nature, as directed in Matthew vi. 6.
He had the greatest objection to anything like formalism, considering that it was the death of the spirit. In this respect, Dissenter though he was. he objected quite as much to the extemporary prayers of the non-episcopal bodies as to those of the Established Church, considering them inspired by vanity more than by spiritual fervour. For the same reason he was opposed to anything like a regular ministry. Such, he held, always resulted in what was virtually a priesthood, or, in other words, in a domineering attitude in regard to spiritual matters towards those over whom they were placed. His contest was against what he was wont to describe briefly as the 'one-man system.' He did not consider it healthful for any one man to be the final judge of what was true or right in regard to doctrine or practice. Every man so placed as the arbiter on points of truth must, he held, from the very nature of man, end by becoming a pope and usurper. Hence his lifelong protest against all systems which allowed of such a state of things.
His dislike, and at the same time his criticism, of this system is set forth in the following vigorous lines
'As Christian perhaps you'd get on faster
If you had not a hired pastor;
He gives you words, 'tis true, as sweet as honey,
And in exchange he gets your ready money
And if he gets not that, he gets the power,
Sweeter to many than the richest dower.
He's always uppermost, pre-eminence he seeks,
Therefore he always teaches, preaches, speaks
And so the one-man system is established sure,
And, through the lack of faith, will for a time endure.'
As was Linnell's attitude towards ecclesiastical systems, so it was to some extent towards medicine. His intolerance of all arbitrary domination, together with his strong sense of individual responsibility in forming a right judgment on all subjects, led him to bold decisive opinions in this respect also. He would never put himself 'into the hands' of any medical man, nor would he take medicines without knowing what he was swallowing, and something about the drugs they contained. For this reason he always required his physician's prescriptions to be written so that he could himself understand them. He held that the chief use of a doctor was to instruct the patient as to the nature of his complaint, and how he had incurred it, so that he might avoid similar error in the future.
In regard to his own health, he had a theory which probably served him in good stead of a great deal of physic. He held that Nature is all the while endeavouring to keep a person well, or to get him well if ill, and that the best medicine is patiently to aid her efforts. In this respect, also, as in many others, he appears to have taken a hint from Mulready, who once when ill, being asked what he had taken, replied, 'The best of all medicines — nothing.'
In 1835 Linnell sent to the British Institution a small panel (9 by 15 inches) entitled 'Windsor Forest,' which was purchased by Mr. Vernon for 30 guineas (and of which an engraving appeared in the Art Journal for 1851). It afterwards went, with that gentleman's collection, into the National Gallery, where for a time it was almost the only specimen of a work by a living artist.
Ten years later (1845) another of Linnell's landscapes found its way into Mr. Vernon's collection, and with it subsequently to the National Gallery. The picture in question was 'The Windmill,' a beautiful little composition (17 by 21 inches) with cows in water, and a delightful breezy sky. It was sold to Mr. Vernon from the British Institution for 50 guineas. This picture also was engraved for the Art Journal. A replica of it, painted in 1848, sold for 150 guineas.
These and some few other landscape and figure subjects were disposed of at small prices, but as a rule they came back from the exhibitions to hang upon the artist's own walls and accumulate in his studio. At length an important factor in Linnell's career came upon the scene in the person of Mr. Ralph Thomas, barrister-at-law, and, in a private way, picture-dealer. Thomas was something of a character, being what is usually called a self-made man. He had originally pursued some humble calling, but, being dissatisfied with it, he devoted himself to study, and became successively book-seller, auctioneer, and barrister. He was, however, above all a shrewd business, money-making man.
Linnell and Thomas met for the first time on October 30, 1845, when, as the former records in his journal, he had occasion to call and see the lawyer at his office in Chancery Lane. The same day Mr. Thomas went to Porchester Terrace to see Linnell's pictures, and he appears to have been so struck with them that he at once opened negotiations to do business. He proposed to sell to the artist a house he owned on the Terrace, Hammersmith, valued at £480, taking pictures in exchange for it. By November 10 terms had been agreed upon, and in due course the house — No. 3, Hammersmith Terrace — passed into Linnell's possession, and ten of his pictures, together with some sketches, into Thomas's.
This was the beginning of a number of business transactions between the two that proved mutually advantageous. On March 4, 1846, Thomas made Linnell an offer of £1,000 for fifteen (afterwards increased to seventeen) pictures, which was accepted. The pictures, some of which required retouching, were all delivered, and the money received, by May 8. About the same time Linnell worked upon an unfinished picture by William James Muller, who had died a year previously at Bristol, for his new patron. The picture was the artist's 'View of the Ruins of Pinara, Asia Minor.' Linnell completed it from Muller's original water-colour sketch, and received 50 guineas in payment for his work.
Among the pictures which thus came into Mr. Thomas's possession were several notable ones. 'The Meal in the Wood: Woodcutters in Windsor Forest' (30 by 43 inches), a sketchy replica of a previous 'Woodcutters' painted in 1816, was sold at Christie's in 1848 for 200 guineas and was subsequently bought by Mr. Birch, of Birmingham, for 300 guineas. It shows a clearing in the forest strewn with the trunks of trees. In the foreground are a number of figures, some of them seated, eating, others at work; in the distance is a wooded glade.
'The Cowyard' (a small panel), already mentioned as one of Mr. Sheepshanks' gift to the nation (purchased by him for £78 15s.), is, perhaps, the gem of that collection, the drawing of the cows being exceptionally fine.
'Noon,' another of Thomas's purchases has already been mentioned.
The barrister art-connoisseur and dealer was thus the means of bringing grist to the artist's mill, and, at the same time, of helping to make his works known. As a set-off to the benefit thus conferred, Linnell was enabled to do Thomas a good turn by procuring the coif, a coveted distinction, for him. His journal contains the entry:
'January 12 — Went to Lord Lyndhurst to ask him to give Mr. Ralph Thomas the coif, but could not see him.'
This is followed by another entry, on February 24, to the effect that, at the request of Mr. Thomas, he wrote a letter to Chief Justice Tindal, enclosing one from Mr. Thomas, applying for the coif for him. The application proved successful, and thus to some extent Thomas owed his serjeantship to Linnell.
Thomas proved to be the forerunner of a host of dealers, who now began to compete with each other for the artist's work, and continued to do so for many years to come — almost, indeed, to the day of his death. Mr. Gibbons, of Regent's Park, a private collector, was the first to follow Mr. Thomas with purchases to any extent. In September, 1846, he bought Linnell's portraits of William Mulready, R.A., and William Collins, R.A. In November he bought also the portrait of Samuel Rogers, and the painter's copy of Mr. Harman's Vandervelde. He also purchased at this time a small landscape — 'The Gateshead Windmill' (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1847); and in the following January (1847) he acquired the picture then in hand, and exhibited in that year's Academy, entitled 'Mid-day,' giving for it 100 guineas.
There is a story connected with Mr. Gibbons' early purchases which must not be left untold. Mr. Webster, R.A., was always Linnell's good friend, and a great and sincere admirer of his art. It was to him at this time a matter of as great regret as astonishment that the artist's pictures continued to crowd his walls, whilst those of inferior men found a ready market; and it is to his credit that he did what he could to make them known and appreciated.
On one occasion when he was executing a commission for Mr. Gibbons, he asked that gentleman if he knew John Linnell; and upon his saying he did not, proposed that they should walk round to his place and call upon him. Mr. Gibbons was agreeable, and they went; but though Linnell's walls were covered with pictures, the art-patron saw nothing that took his fancy, and they left without his purchasing a single thing. Webster was annoyed, and told Gibbons that he was surprised that he had not bought anything. The latter replied that he had seen nothing that he cared for.
After parting with Gibbons, Webster returned to Linnell's, and expressed his regret that his friend had selected nothing. Linnell replied that it was very kind of him to try to get a purchaser for some of his works, and thanked him for his good-will. Webster, however, was not satisfied, and said he would like to buy something himself. He had, he said, just then a little money, and he would like to have a bit of his work, if there was anything he would sell at a price within his reach. He finally chose a small picture, 9 by 15 inches, entitled 'The Woodcutters' Repast,' and asked him what he would take for it. Linnell said he would sell it to him for 40 guineas. Webster agreed, and the picture was duly paid for and carried home, where it was hung in a central position, surrounded by some of Webster's own canvases.
A few days later Mr. Gibbons again called to see how his commission was progressing, and his eye at once fell upon 'The Woodcutters' Repast.'
'What is that?' he exclaimed. 'Is it yours?'
No — ; of course it isn't,' said Webster. 'I can't paint half as well as that; I wish I could. It is one of Linnell's — one of those you could see nothing in.'
Gibbons now admired the picture so much that he wanted to buy it; but Webster said he would not sell it — he would keep it as long as he lived, which, in fact, he did.
Gibbons, however, was so taken with the little picture that he asked his friend to take him to see Linnell's works again. Webster accordingly went round with him, and the result was that he at once bought several pictures, and afterwards became one of the artist's best customers at that time.
Two months later (March, 1847) a still more important patron made his appearance. This was Mr. Joseph Gillott, the well-known pen-manufacturer of Birmingham, who gave a number of commissions for pictures, and also purchased (for £1,000) a famous picture then in progress, 'The Eve of the Deluge.'
This was the first picture for which Linnell obtained a large price. He thought he had excelled himself in it, and, in order to pique curiosity, he kept it covered with a drapery when he was not working upon it. Over it he wrote the words 'Aspetta tu vedrai' (Wait; and you shall see).
Mr. Gibbons was one of the very few who were permitted to look at it. He admired it greatly, and was disposed to become a purchaser. Linnell asked him to name a price, but he would not. Mr. Gillott called and saw it a few days afterwards, and asked the painter what he would take for it. Linnell asked him to make an offer.
'But I might offer more than you want for it,' Mr. Gillott replied.
'I will write the amount I wish for it on a piece of paper,' the artist answered; 'and if you offer more, you shall have it at my price.
Gillott offered £1,000, and the artist then showed him the paper on which he had written his price: it was £1,000.
'The Eve of the Deluge' was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1848, and is one of Linnell's greatest pictures. In size it is one of the largest he painted, being 59 by 88 inches. On a rocky eminence to the right is seen the ark, with animals and birds flocking into it. In the foreground is a group of seven figures. Another figure, followed by two greyhounds, approaches from the left; while beyond a rocky gorge in the foreground is seen a distant view. It is evening, and the stormy sky is lit up by the setting sun.
This picture may be said to have set the final stamp and seal to Linnell's growing fame. It quite took the public by surprise, 'from the sublimity and daring with which the painter invested his subject.' Even Turner, who was not a man to give rash judgments on pictures, remarked to Gillott, who took him to see it in the Academy, that it was no common work.
But, notwithstanding the intrinsic merits of the picture, the effect it produced was greatly aided by an altogether fortuitous circumstance. William Westall, A.R.A., the water-colour painter, happened also to exhibit the same year a canvas representing 'The Commencement of the Deluge.' It was known that Westall had been working on his picture, for some time, and great expectations were entertained of it. Though undoubtedly a fine work, it appeared flat and colourless in comparison with Linnell's glowing canvas; and being both on the line, and in near juxtaposition the one to the other, the effect was unfortunate for the Associate.
'The Eve of the Deluge' was purchased at Mr. Gillott's sale in 1872 by Mr. W. Agnew, and subsequently became the property of Mr. Angus Holden, M.P., of Bradford.
About the same time (1847) was painted 'The Last Gleam before the Storm' (canvas, 35 by 50 inches), which, with its grand clouds and gloomy landscape, constitutes another of the artist's masterpieces of composition and colour. The 'Last Gleam' was exhibited in the British Gallery in 1848, and, like the former, was purchased by Mr. Gillott, the price being £250. Twenty four years later it was sold at his sale at Christie's for £2,500. As a result of this sale — which, of course, did not in the least benefit the painter — a curious thing happened: Linnell had his income-tax doubled.
In the same year (1848) was painted for the same munificent patron 'The Return of Ulysses,' on a canvas 48 by 72 inches. It was exhibited in the Royal Academy in the following year, and subsequently in the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. The picture represents an incident taken from the 'Odyssey,' and bears the quotation, from Chapman's translation of the 'Odyssey':
'And first brought forth Ulysses: bed, and all
That richly furnisht it; he still in thrall
Of all-subduing sleepe. Upon the sand
They set him softly downe; and then, the strand
They strewed with all the goods he had, bestowed
By the renowned Phaeacians.'
In the foreground Odysseus is being carried ashore by four men, followed by other figures; while the rocky shore of Ithaca and the sea are seen stretching away in the distance.
Although what is called a 'self-made man,' Mr. Gillott had very fine perceptions in art, and seldom made a wrong judgment; and it is to his credit that be was among the first to give Linnell large prices. It need hardly be said that he was a 'character' in his way — not to say an oddity. When he came to town he used to put up at Furnival's Inn, where he had a suite of rooms, and where he was wont to feast his friends in the most sumptuous manner.
Linnell eschewed his dinners, but on one or two occasions took tea with him, and used to recount with amusement how the queer little pen-manufacturer would empty out the pot, and make fresh tea for every cup they drank, saying that they could not drink it stale.
Gillott continued to give Linnell commissions, and to buy largely of him for several years. Among others who commenced dealing with him about the same time as Gillott was Mr. Weathered, who, in September, 1847, made the first of a series of purchases which extended over twelve years.
Thus began that full tide of success which kept the artist's brush busily employed for the rest of his life.
Last modified 7 December 2001