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.
Settlement in Surrey — Tunbridge Wells — Balcombe — First Visit to Redhill — Purchase of Redstone Wood Estate — House Building — Further Purchase of Land — Mr. Holman Hunt — Encouragement of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — 'I like Good Ale; I like Good Wine' — Anecdote of Gambart the Dealer.
E now come to John Linnell's last change of residence, and the most important of all. For upwards of twenty years he had lived at Bayswater, and during the earlier of those years he was kept so busy with portrait-painting and engraving, as well as with his landscape work, that he had little leisure for visits to the country, which were in consequence few and brief. For many years he seldom went away from home, unless it were on business, and then he returned as quickly as possible. His early sketches in Wales, in Windsor Forest, the Isle of Wight, and elsewhere, supplied him with abundant material for his pictures; besides which he still had the country, so to speak, at his door.
When he first built himself a house in Porchester Terrace he was surrounded by fields: He had only to go a few steps to be in the midst of rural sights and scenes, while Hampstead could still be reached by open field-paths. In 1830 he made a chalk study at the north end of Porchester Terrace of a bank with sheep, etc., and from this sketch he painted the picture entitled 'Morning,' which was exhibited at the British Institution in 1832. In 1834, again, he made oil studies from nature at a brook near Wale's Tea-Gardens, Bayswater, from one of which he painted his picture of 'The Hollow Tree' (or 'The Nest'), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836.
But gradually, as the demand for his landscapes increased, and, concurrently, as the education of his sons and daughters took up less of his time, he found more leisure for trips into the country, and indulged himself to the utmost of his ability. Moreover, as Bayswater was now becoming more and more built up, he found these visits needful, not only for himself, but for his sons, three of whom were now Royal Academy students (having been admitted in 1840), and were no longer satisfied, as formerly, to make studies of the scraps of 'nature' left in the neighbourhood of their home, and in Kensington Gardens.
Accordingly, he went in 1840 with his three sons to Sevenoaks, and having procured them a lodging in the town, he returned to London. This was their first excursion into the country, and they made studies in Knoll Park, at Little Under-River, and at 'Rook's Hill.' A few days afterwards our artist took Mrs. Linnell and family to Under-River, where they remained until the end of September, he staying with them from Saturday till Monday, and making excursions with his wife and children about the locality.
In July of the following year he accompanied Mrs. Linnell and family to Thatcham, where they remained until October. As before, Linnell went down from Saturday till Monday, visiting, and generally making studies at, Cold Ash Common, Beacon Hill, Kingsclere, Newbury, and Donnington. Thatcham was visited again in like manner in the following year. During the next four years no excursions to the country were made, both the artist and his sons being too fully employed at home painting and engraving to be able to spare the time.
In 1847 Linnell repeated his visit to Little Under-River, and in July took lodgings in the village for his family. These relaxations from labour became more and more enjoyable to him, and in order to make the most of them he used to hire a covered van and make excursions to places in the neighbourhood. In this way he visited Brasted Chart, Westerham, and Sundridge (where there are some fine pinetrees), also Tunbridge and Tunbridge Wells, Erridge's Rocks, Penn's Rocks, etc., and made studies at Under-River and at Wimlet Hill (or Rook's Hill).
Returning to London after a few days, he sketched out a design in chalk and crayons for the subject of the 'Disobedient Prophet killed by the Lion' (introducing the Sundridge pines). Then, visiting Under-River for a day or two at a time, he made more studies in chalk and crayons, and driving to Sundridge with his son James, who assisted him, he proceeded with and completed his study of the pinetrees.
In 1848 Linnell settled his family for the summer at Balcombe, just over the Sussex border, running down himself for a day or two at a time whenever he could, but chiefly at the end of the week. In October he spent several weeks together making studies from nature in this charming neighbourhood. These sketches are amongst the finest he ever did, and a number of them were exhibited, along with his other works, at the Old Masters Exhibition in 1883.
There being nothing now to tie him to London, Linnell resolved to gratify his love for the country to the full. Bayswater was now built up on all sides, leaving very little of the 'Nature' a landscape-painter requires, and hence for some time he had felt a growing need for change. In May, 1849, therefore, he went with his son James to Edenbridge to look out for a suitable locality in which to settle within easy reach of London. At Redhill Junction there was a delay, and they took the opportunity to walk up the hill to Redstone Wood. Linnell had previously noticed a wooded knoll on the left of the line from London to Brighton, and had remarked that it seemed just the place for an artist's cottage.
A nearer view of the spot enhanced his satisfaction with it, and to his surprise he found that it was for sale. Well wooded, overlooking a magnificent stretch of country, and in the midst of a thoroughly agricultural district, it seemed the very place for the home of a landscape-painter, and so convinced was Linnell of the fact, that, after making the necessary inquiries and investigations, he resolved to buy it.
His solicitor told him the price asked by the vendor was excessive. Linnell's reply was: 'Never mind, the land will prove a good investment; it will give me foregrounds — indeed, most of the materials I need for my pictures.'
It was a small estate, consisting of about eleven acres, and belonged to a Mr. Allsop, of the Stock Exchange, a well-known follower of Robert Owen, the Socialist, to whom he afterwards introduced Linnell, who, it may be mentioned, had but a poor opinion of his 'intellects.'
Linnell's first visit to Redstone Wood occurred towards the end of May. By June 20 he had agreed upon the purchase, and on July 19 he had sold out Bank of England stock to pay for it.
In the meantime he had taken lodgings at Redhill for Mrs. Linnell and family, and the summer and autumn were spent in excursions about the neighbourhood, the artist himself spending as much time in the country as he could spare from his work in London. Superintending the building of his house, which he at once set about erecting, necessitated the taking of lodgings at Redhill again in the summer of 1850.
It had at first been his intention to build only a small cottage for use in the summer months, purposing still to reside the greater part of the year in his house at Bayswater. He soon changed his mind, however, in this respect, and employed an architect to draw up designs for a substantial house such as would meet all the requirements of his family, which now numbered four sons and five daughters, the two youngest ones, Thomas and Phoebe, being twins.
The original plan of the structure was his own, and the execution of the design might have been his, too, considering its many defects. But it is roomy, convenient in spite of faults, and on the lower floor well lighted. As regards light, when building his house at Bayswater, Linnell had been prevented from making his windows as large as he would have liked because of the window-tax; but now that that objectionable impost was done away with, he resolved to have all the light he wanted. Hence all the principal windows at Redstone were made of the largest size, and in the chief rooms they were in such a position as at one season of the year or another to afford glimpses of the sunset.
The house occupied the better part of two years in building, and it was not until July, 1851, that the family finally removed into it. The house in Bayswater was then let, and henceforth to the end of his days Linnell lived and worked at Redhill. Some four or five years after acquiring the Redstone estate, Linnell added to it by the purchase of thirty-one acres from Lord Somers. The addition consisted of three arable fields and some woodland adjoining Redstone. From one of the fields, which was planted with barley, Linnell painted a 'Harvest' picture, seeing which the farmer who rented the land remarked that he supposed that the artist would get more out of the field than he should, meaning that the painting would probably fetch more than his year's crop.
Subsequently Linnell added still further to his landed property by the purchase of the Chart Lodge estate, consisting of thirty-two acres, which, being in Chancery, was sold at the Auction Mart in 1862, his little demesne now consisting in all of about eighty acres. A large portion of it was woodland, and this he kept almost intact, hardly ever felling a tree, or even so much as lopping a branch.
In all this Linnell had an artist's eye to the enjoyment of his surroundings; and on every side of him, as he went about his grounds, were presented to his sight views such as few landscape-painters could enjoy from their own domain.
Situated as his house was on the slope of the hill, he had, on the one hand, a charming bit of woodland; on the other, a wide stretching vale, with the blue hills in the distance. Upon these and the sunset he looked from his library window; and it was his delight, when the weather permitted it, to sit in the open, facing the west, and watch the magnificent panorama that gradually unfolded itself to his eye, as the sun, coming down from his noonday elevation, sloped through the lingering afternoon, shedding gold upon the fields and woods, and finally disappearing with deepening and ever-varied splendours.
On the summit of the hill, whence naturally there is a still broader view, extending to Leith Hill on the one hand and to Cookham Hill on the other, he would often sit throughout the summer afternoon, possibly with a sketch-book before him, making note of a bit of sky, a sunlight effect upon the near woods, a distant hill-slope, or what not; or it might be allowing his wonderful memory to be impressed like a photographic plate with facts of sky and cloud and weather, to remain there until the time came for them to become instinct with life and reality upon his canvas.
It is of importance to note this, because Linnell never painted topography, but aspects of Nature. The distinction may not be easily intelligible to the matter-of-fact mind, although to spiritually artistic natures the truth will be at once apparent. In the one case, the painter, if unendowed with the imaginative gift, seizes upon and records dry, hard details; in the other, he is seized upon by the phenomena, and tells to the best of his ability what they convey to him.
A writer recently, in a somewhat dithyrambic strain, gave a glowing description of the impressions produced upon him by a day's sojourn in the domain chosen as his home by this most idiosyncratic of English artists.
'From morning till night,' he writes, 'the panorama changes, and from the slopes and summit of the hill upon which the colony nestles the whole is visible, from the golden sunrise, gradually clearing the mists of the valley, through the broadening day, the down-closing of the star-spangled lid of night.
'In every direction there is a more or less remote horizon, here with beautiful outlines and an ever-changing phantasmagoria of colour, yonder with shadow mingled with the light to the verge of gloom and mystery. One does not wonder that the place was a continual inspiration to one who has left an indelible name in the annals of English art. At every turn there is a picture; wherever the eye lights, whether on earth or sky, there is beauty to entrance the mind, and to enthral the heart, too, if it have any tenderness for the Divine. And on every hand there is life; on the ground at our feet a life innumerable as the blades of grass, and so varied and wonderful that the mind never ceases to see freshness and newness in it; in the over-arching space above a life grand and majestic, as of the ceaseless procession of armies, or of all created things moving to another ark; and at night the shapes of the processioning creatures are picked out with stars
'The thick wood that clothes the hill-slope is full of charming "bits," to use the language of artists — bits that, paint they never so deftly, will possibly elude their brush. Here the bright light trickling through the undergrowth, and falling like glittering diamonds upon the leafy floor, there falling with a splash of golden colour upon a lichen-covered trunk. Above the wood, where the hill-brow bares itself to all the winds, the eye wanders over far fields to distant and more distant hills. Meadows and cornfields, with woodlands, hedgerows, farms with their hay and corn stacks, fill the intervening space with endless diversity of colour. Yonder is a brown, heath-like space, and near it a piece of water glistening like burnished steel; over it there is a shimmer of heat, though the wind comes from the east; beyond, hills in mist. The diapason of colour runs up from the glowing yellow of a field of charlock to deeper and deeper shades of purple; and over all is the vast transparency of blue.
'It is enough to make one break his palette and throw away his brushes in despair. But the artist who first settled down here, John Linnell, set himself to paint the whole, and succeeded to a marvel in transferring to his canvas the varied beauty of the landscape.'
Here it was, then, that, from the summer of 1851 till the end of his days, Linnell continued to dwell in quietude and repose, living, as Mr. Holman Hunt, who visited him shortly after he had settled in his new abode, puts it, like a patriarch, with his grown-up family about him, painting the pictures which were a wonder and delight to all who saw them, and in his leisure time devoting himself to those studies which had become dearer and of more serious import to him than the labour by which he earned his bread.
'This,' he observed to an artist who visited him somewhat later — 'this is the serious labour of my life.' Then, pointing to a landscape on the easel, he added, 'That is but my recreation.'
His eldest son, who, having remained unmarried, always lived with him, describes him as being ever filled with fresh delight by the varied and neverending beauties of nature about him. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter — it was always the same. In the infinite panorama that moved to the music of his heart he found an unfailing interest, and was in consequence never dull or lonely. He never tired of it; he never grew weary of his work. If his hand flagged, he turned to his books for rest; from his books he turned again to his easel. He rose early, and was out and about directing the men who were at work in the grounds; and if there happened to be any building or alterations or repairs going on, he would be constantly about, directing and superintending, and allowing nothing to go wrong for want of the master's eye.
This he continued to do to the last, never relinquishing his authority, or trusting wholly to others. It was part of his principle. A household, he considered, should be controlled and directed like an army. There might be counsel with subordinates, but no divided authority. Hence he would call himself [...], 'the master of a house or family,' and such in reality he was. In this respect it is characteristic of him that, whilst ever holding the command, he did not govern by command so much as by injunction. He held that in this he was following the Biblical example, inasmuch as the commandments do not command, but rather enjoin, the original Hebrew saying, not 'Thou shalt not kill,' 'Thou shalt not steal,' etc., but 'Do not kill,' 'Do not steal,' thus showing how rigorously he applied the lessons derived from his Scriptural studies.
Although a generous host to those who were congenial to him, he did not care to have too many guests at a time. He liked best to have those about him who had ideas and could express them, and especially those who had a love for nature and an eye for beauties of landscape such as he could offer them.
Those who visited the artist invariably went away wonderfully impressed with much that was peculiar, and some brusqueness, perhaps. but also with an originality, a vigour, and oftentimes a brilliance of thought, very rarely to be met with united in one person.
Mr. Holman Hunt, who, as I have said, visited Linnell about this time, has favoured me with a few notes of his recollections of this visit, and I cannot do better than give them in his own words. Linnell had from the first recognised the high aims and the undoubted abilities of the gifted young men who banded themselves together as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and who, determined to do doughty deeds for the cause of art, only succeeded for long years in raising a dust of obloquy and scorn. But, not content merely to be satisfied himself of the rightness of their endeavours, he must needs seek them out and give them his God-speed to help them on. This is the light in which one of the brotherhood regarded his encouragement:
'About his generous recognition of our school when it was new, and had enemies innumerable and savage among the elder of the profession, I can never speak with too much admiration. His very position at the time (having won, after a hard struggle, recognition and patronage from the art world, and without any aid, and therefore in opposition to the Academy) was an encouragement to us to continue our fight with hope as long as possible. And his seeking us out on one varnishing morning, and giving us a cordial invitation to come and spend a Sunday with him at Redhill, was a proof that independent judgment in a generous mind would champion us.
'At this visit he was most hospitable and cordial. The house was new; the fare was simple, but most liberal, and the host was reigning in patriarchal state. After the mid-day dinner, taken in a large hall with the door open to the breezy hills, some choice wine was brought up from the cellar, and over this he assured us of his admiration of particular works which we had done, and of his confidence in the course we were pursuing. In the afternoon he took us out for a walk on his little domain, then clustered with trees, which only here and there had an opening.'
In regard to Linnell's 'choice wine,' it is worthy of remark that as soon as he could afford it he kept a good cellar. His motto was, 'Moderation in all things, but the best of everything.' He was very careful in choosing his wine. He would go down to the docks himself and make his selection, and when he had obtained the order for it, he would fetch the cask himself, and never lose sight of it until it was safely deposited in his cellar. No man was ever more careful to see that a thing was done well by doing it himself; and his energy in the prosecution of an object never flagged until it was accomplished. Nor did anyone, perhaps, ever more enjoy the fruits of his labours. Having got his wine, he made the most of it. In one of his poetical fragments he says:
'I like good ale, I like good wine,
But I don't care a jot for brandy,
Not even when with water mixed
And sweet as sugar-candy.
'I like a glass of good home-brewed,
Or a glass of port or sherry
But what I like best, with all the rest,
Is a friend to make me merry.'
Those hearing him recite Tom Taylor's 'St. Swithin's Day,' which he greatly admired, might have deemed him a devoted son of Bacchus, and perhaps less sincerely religious than he really was. But, despite some apparent contradictions in his character, there was a striking congruity throughout, and in regard to this, as in other respects, Linnell was ever prepared to justify his point of view. His attitude in this regard is aptly shown in the following lines, in which the vine and the divine are equally celebrated:
'The purple grape, in sunshine blushing,
Yields its sweets alone by crushing
When most trodden under foot,
Then flows its blood in liquid fruit,
Which the wise will store away,
To cheer their hearts another day.
'So the truth when most oppressed
Sheds its benefits the best
Its glories shine, 'tis proved divine,
And those who treasure it are blessed.'
After Linnell's removal to Redhill, and he began to produce more and more brilliant landscapes, the demand for his works greatly increased. He could hardly paint pictures quickly enough, and frequently they were bought and paid for while still in their initial stage. The dealers found a ready market for all they could get, and for a time the demand seemed never satisfied. To this, perhaps, is largely attributable the circumstance that, while so many of his contemporaries are represented in our public galleries, and especially Turner and Constable, only eleven specimens of Linnell's works are to be found divided between the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum, and these for the most part are of minor importance.
In 1851, soon after his settlement at Redhill, Mr. Oxenham, the dealer of Oxford Street, appeared upon the scene, and, as will presently be seen, made a number of purchases. Then, about a year later, Mr. E. Gambart sought Linnell out (for in no case did the artist ever go after a dealer), and for two or three years became a large buyer, giving good prices.
Linnell used to relate an amusing anecdote of Gambart. He gave Mr. Holman Hunt a commission, when he went to the Holy Land, for a large picture similar to his ' Light of the World.' Mr. Hunt painted for him 'The Scapegoat,' which, when delivered to the worthy dealer, so greatly disappointed him that he refused to accept it. Visiting Linnell about the time, Gambart complained of his treatment by Hunt, and said:
'I wanted a nice religious bicture, and he bainted me a great goat!'
The dealer had reason afterwards to regret his refusal of the picture, as the artist obtained a larger price for it than he had agreed to give.
Shortly after Gambart, Messrs. Hooper and Wass, amongst others, became extensive purchasers of Linnell's works, and their commissions continued for several years.
Last modified 7 December 2001