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.


Blake and Linnell — Beginning of their Friendship — Gilchrist's Statements about Blake — Blake and Varley — The 'Visionary Heads — Estimate of Varley — Letters by Varley — His Death — Blake's 'Inventions' for the Book of Job' — 'Vala' — First Letter from Blake — Memoranda about Blake.

decorated initial 'G' ILCHRIST, in his 'Life of William Blake,' states that Blake was introduced to Linnell 'about 1813.' This is an error, and has been copied into nearly all the subsequent biographies of Blake. As a matter of fact it was not until 1818 that the two became known to each other. They met in the early days of their acquaintance at Linnell's house in Rathbone Place, and his residence there did not begin till towards the end of 1817. He went to see Blake 'in company with the younger Mr. George Cumberland,' of Bristol. Blake was then living in South Molton Street, Oxford Street, where he rented a second floor. Gilchrist goes on to say, also erroneously:

'The intimacy between the two arose from the younger artist applying to the elder to help him over some engravings then in hand, from portraits of his own.' Linnell did not seek Blake's acquaintance for that object, although he gave him work to do after he had become intimate with him. The former's own account of the matter is: 'We soon became intimate, and I employed him to help me with an engraving of my portrait of Mr. Upton, a Baptist preacher, which he was glad to do.'

The date of the engraving is 1818-19. It was laid in by Blake, and then worked upon and completed by Linnell. The price paid to Linnell for this engraving was 50 guineas, Blake receiving 15 guineas for his share of the work.

Blake was glad of this work, because, as Linnell records, he had scarcely enough employment to live by at the prices he could obtain. 'Everything in art,' he adds, 'was at that time at a very low ebb. Even Turner could not sell his pictures for as many hundreds as they have since fetched thousands.'

A similarity of thought between the two men soon led to a very close intimacy between them, and they remained fast friends until the death of the elder closed as kindly a chapter of friendship as is anywhere to be met with in the annals of art or literature.

Referring to these early days of their acquaintance, Linnell writes:

'I soon encountered Blake's peculiarities, and was sometimes taken aback by the boldness of some of his assertions. I never saw anything the least like madness. I never opposed him spitefully, as many did. But being really anxious to fathom, if possible, the amount of truth that there might be in his most startling assertions, I generally met with a sufficiently rational explanation in the most really friendly and conciliatory tone. Even to John Varley, to whom I had introduced Blake, and who readily devoured all the marvellous in Blake's most extravagant utterances — even to Varley Blake would occasionally explain, unasked, how he believed that both Varley and I could see the same visions as he saw — making it evident to me that Blake claimed the possession of some powers, only in a greater degree, that all men possessed, and which they undervalued in themselves, and lost through love of sordid pursuits, pride, vanity, and the unrighteous Mammon.'

Linnell was busy putting down autobiographical notes at the time that Gilchrist's 'Life' was published, and after reading it he makes the following note : 'As, however, Blake's "Life" has just been published, I shall only say now that several matters related therein are, in my opinion, great exaggerations. The story, for instance, of Blake and his wife acting Adam and Eve, and asking Mr. Butts to walk in, is so entirely unlike everything I have known of him, so improbable from the impracticability of the thing on account of climate, that I do not think it possible, but believe it must have grown into the story related in Gilchrist's "Life of Blake" through its travels "about town," as stated. Blake was very unreserved in his narrations to me of all his thoughts and actions, and I think, if anything like this story had been true, he would have told me of it. I am sure he would have laughed heartily at it if it had been told of him or of anyone else, for he was a hearty laugher at absurdities.'

It must be granted that Linnell had a right, from his long and close intimacy with Blake, to speak like this. It was an intimacy which began, as Gilchrist observes, when most, if not all, of Blake's old friends had disappeared, chiefly through death, and he was almost entirely alone. It is one of the younger painter's greatest glories, and one of the things for which the world owes him a debt of gratitude, that he not only perceived the great qualities of Blake, but that, although then but a struggling artist himself, and in a sense (it may be said) his pupil, yet he became his thoughtful and generous patron, and saw that to the end of his days he was wanting in nothing that would add to his comfort or content.

In Varley Blake found an erratic though, in many respects, a congenial spirit. Varley had a strange leaning to subjects crepuscular and occult, as, for instance, to physiognomy, phrenology, palmistry, astrology (practising the latter professionally, and charging a fee for calculating nativities), etc. ; but he could never make any headway in his endeavours to convince Blake of the truth of astrology; nor could he induce him to regard it with favour.

'Your fortunate nativity,' he would say, 'I count the worst. You reckon to be born in August, and have the notice and patronage of kings, to be the best of all; whereas, the lives of the Apostles and martyrs, of whom it is said the world was not worthy, would be counted by you as the worst, and their nativities those of men born to be hanged.'

The criticism shows that Blake, in spite of his visionary tendencies, was, after all, of a less credulous and more ratiocinative nature than Varley, of whom Linnell says: 'Varley believed in the reality of Blake's visions more than even Blake himself.'

In regard to the famous 'Visionary Heads' drawn by Blake for Varley, and in his presence, the latter believed that his friend saw the spirits of the men he drew — in short, that William Wallace, Edward I., David, Solomon, etc., actually appeared to him as they still live, disencumbered of the flesh, in the abodes of the departed. Indeed, the famous water-colourist would seem to have been the intellectual father of much of the spiritualism of these latter days. He regarded Blake as nothing more nor less than a 'medium,' to use a name which came into vogue at a later date. He was fond of arguing with him, and so drawing him out. Linnell was equally fond of listening and learning what he could from the talk. A sketch which he made of the two men as they sat arguing together in his parlour at Hampstead gives us very characteristic portraits of them, the one calm and dignified, the other all impulse and excitement.

After referring to these matters in his autobiography, Linnell concludes with some remarks on Varley which will suitably find a place here:

'Poor Varley! what a lesson his life afforded! . . . Varley, though always calculating nativities, could never calculate probabilities. His wishes were his guides, and he profited scarcely at all by experience, and put implicit confidence in the most treacherous and crafty people. His want of Christian faith and conscience prevented him from acquiring the wisdom that might have saved him from a miserable end. All his acquaintances benefited by his generous activity to serve them, and no one more, perhaps, than myself. It was extraordinary how easily Varley acquired a large and valuable professional connection among the nobility and others, and how ready he was to recommend to their notice and employment his brother artists. I believe that Mulready was greatly indebted in that way to Varley. . . . His best friends looked with regret upon his want of sagacity. Like Haydon, he was always trying for a loan from any friends he made, so that many of his best friends were compelled to avoid him. I remember him once saying to me, "Well, thank God, I am nearly out of debt. I have only two writs against me, and one judgment upon which my goods can be seized; and the lawyer is such a good fellow that he will wait if I give him a picture, which, by-the-bye, I want you to put the figures in to-morrow."'

Amongst the mass of correspondence left by the artist are a number of letters and notes by Varley and his wife. Nearly all of them contain applications for money; some of them are requests for payment for work done; but the majority are gruesome appeals for the loan of a few shillings, scribbled on dirty bits of paper in lead-pencil. Two or three will suffice to show at once the nature of the man and the straits he was put to.

Dear Linnell,

I have just been arrested, and I can give bail provided I can get a few pounds. Do you not think that (if) Mr. Harrison knew that I was now locked up, he might lay out 8 or 10 with me in drawings? Or, if not, do you think if I were to send the picture and frame of Bamborough, or any other drawings besides, he would let me have 6 or 7? I shall lose 3 guineas to-morrow morning if I do not get out, and be put to expense besides. Therefore, if you can, by the sale of my drawings, or any other means, assist me to get out to-night, I shall be able to go home for good, and my affairs will then be arranged, as all the writs will be done away with. In serving me thus, I think it is the most important time I know of. I have seen one creditor who is willing to take the writ out of the office.

I am, yours truly,
J. Varley.

Should any delay occur with the principal creditor, I know that paying-time will turn him to my side (?). All this may be considerably for the best, as I can then go home and see Mr. Woodburn, who wishes to have some drawings of me.

I should like to see you if you think you may not lose too much time. I can get bail on a receipt.

I am at Mr. Wilson's, the officer, Warwick Court, Holborn.


Dear Linnell,

If you can induce Mr. Woodburn to take the drawing I sent to-day, I would commission you to make it a bargain for him, as every pound will be worth three to me just now; and it makes a suitable variety. He may allow for the disadvantage of candlelight.

I am cautious of venturing out just now, but will manage some time this evening to see you.

Yours truly,
J. Varley.

Most of the epistles are undated, but here is one with the year and day of the month on it. The 'in cogg.' is delicious.

Dear Linnell,

December 26, 1829.

I have sent the frame, and if it suits, and you can send me some money, it will save much time. If you can send it by the bearer, enclose in a paper directed to "Mr. Smout's, No. 46, Gerard Street," and I will send you an acknowledgment this afternoon. I am at 41 (in cogg.), but don't want it to be directed to me.

Yours truly,
J. Varley

Some of the letters, as the following — without signature — refer to business:

Dear Sir,

I think you have done them beautifully The Scorpio is quite magnificent, and Lady Ebrington greatly improved and very interesting. Leo has quite the right forehead now. If the upper eyelash of Aries could be made to shade or soften itself into the eye it would be better; and the dark line at the lower point of the chin lightened, with perhaps a little touch at the inner corner of the eve, might improve it. It looks very well.

The Scorpio, Aries, etc., refer to some engravings that Linnell did for Varley's little work on astrology.

According to Linnell Varley — talented, generous to a fault, the soul of good-humour, and good-fellow-ship, whose house was at once a home for the destitute of the artistic and literary professions, a rough-and-ready academy for aspirants in the arts, and a Bohemian club where all the freest and most fruitful spirits of the time could meet and ventilate their notions and aspirations — Varley, the Father of Modern Water-Colour Art, died in a debtor's prison!

But this appears to be a mistake, as I have it on the authority of Mr. William Vokins, the well-known picture-dealer of Great Portland Street, that he died in his house. He died, however, as he appears always to have lived — in debt. It was a sad end for such a man — for one with so much talent and so much good-nature. Possibly much of his misfortune was brought upon himself by his improvident habits, and his dreamy, speculative, and happy-go-lucky nature; and yet one cannot but think — to have recourse to his own astrological way of looking at things — that there must have been something malefic in the aspect of the stars of a man who, besides being afflicted with an idiot son, as well as thrice burned out, was many times in prison for debt. And yet, 'all these troubles are necessary to me,' he once said to John Linnell. 'If it were not for my troubles I should burst with joy!'

In 1819 Linnell painted in oil for Varley the heads of William Wallace and Edward I., life size, from Blake's drawings. Gilchrist, in his 'Life,' says that he painted also the famous 'Ghost of a Flea.' Linnell, however, makes no mention of the latter either in his journal or in his autobiography, although it is to be presumed that Gilchrist obtained his information from our artist. The original drawings of the 'Ghost of a Flea,' together with thirty-six of the Visionary Heads, Linnell purchased from Blake, and they are still in the possession of the Linnell family.

About 1820, if not earlier, Blake produced his first set of twenty-two water-colour drawings, or 'Inventions,' as he calls them, for the Book of Job. These were probably the last works of his that his old friend Mr. Butts purchased. Soon after that gentleman replaced the series in his hands to serve as an incentive to others to give him commissions for sets. Linnell, however, was the only person from whom he obtained an order. This was given in 1821. The outlines of this replica set were traced from the original drawings by Linnell on September 8 and 10 and were then finished by Blake. Gilchrist has made an error in regard to the date of these drawings of Job, and it has led to his mixing together the replica set Blake made for our artist and the engravings he afterwards executed for him from them. The engravings were begun in 1823, and the agreement referred to by Gilchrist has reference to them alone. The agreement reads as follows:

'March 25, 1823. — Mem. of agreement between W. B. and J. L. W. B. to engrave the set of plates from his designs to "Job," in number 20, for J. L. J. L. to pay W. B. 5 per plate, part before,and remainder when plates are finished. Also, J. L. to pay Mr. B. 100 more out of the profits of the work as the receipts will admit of it. J. L. to find copperplates.(signed) W. B., J. L.'

No profits accrued from the engravings, the sale of which barely covered the expenses Linnell, however, seeing that the plates and the stock of engravings remained in his hands, treated Blake in a generous manner, and gave him an extra which was disbursed to him from time to time, according to his needs, between March, 1823, and October, 1825. The sum which Blake thus received — in all 150 — was the largest he had up to the latter date received for one commission

In a receipt for the 150, dated July 14, 1826, it is set forth that the sum was paid 'for the copyright and plates (22 in number) of the "Job," published March, 1825, by William Blake, author.' The replica set of drawings executed by Blake for his considerate friend and patron are still in the possession of the Linnell family. The plates also still remain in the same good keeping.

Perhaps it was in recognition of the artist's many kindnesses to him that Blake, towards the end of his life, presented him with the original and only copy of his prophetic poem, entitled 'Vala; or, The Death and Judgment of the Ancient Man' (dated 1757), which is shortly to be published.

Linnell, in addition to his other services to Blake, introduced him to some of the best friends of his declining years. Besides John Varley, he made him acquainted with Richter, Holmes, Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, C. Calvert and Frederick Tatham (the son of Mr. Charles H. Tatham, previously mentioned). Most of these men Blake met the first time at Linnell's house, who, now that he was married, was a generous and kindly entertainer of his friends.

Blake's visits were chiefly associated with Cirencester Place and Hampstead, whither Linnell subsequently went to live, retaining the house in Cirencester Place as a studio. Blake had in the meantime removed from South Molton Street to Fountain Court, Strand, whence on Sundays, in the fine weather, he used to make his way up to Hampstead to spend the afternoon with his friend, the elder members of whose family can remember Blake's visits, and recount with pleasure their recollections of the wonderful old man, and his strange and fascinating talk.

It was from Fountain Court that the first of a small series of letters from Blake, which the family still set great store upon, was written. It was addressed to 'Mrs. Linnell, Collins' Farm, North End, Hampstead.' He had been to see his friend off by coach to Gloucester, and he thus reports the occurrence:

Tuesday, October 11, 1825.
Dear Madam,

I have had the pleasure to see Mr. Linnell set off safe in a very comfortable coach, for we both got in, together with another passenger, and entered into conversation, when at length we found that we were all three proceeding on our journey. But as I had not paid, and did not wish to pay for or take so long a ride, we, with some difficulty, made the coachman understand that one of his passengers was unwilling to go, when he obligingly permitted me to get out, to my great joy. Hence, I am now enabled to tell you that I hope to see you on Sunday morning as usual, which I could not have done if they had taken me to Gloucester.

I am, dear madam,

Yours sincerely,

William Blake.

Linnell's journal contains a number of references to Blake. On August 20, 1819, the artist went with Mr. B. to see Harlow's copy of the 'Transfiguration.' They made a number of similar art visits together. On April 24, 1820, there is the entry, 'Went to Spring Gardens (Exhibition) with Mr. Blake. Met the Duke of Argyle.' In the following year they went together, on March 5, 'to the British Gallery,' Blake afterwards dining with Linnell at Cirencester Place. Then on April 30 and May 7 respectively there are visits 'with Mr. B. to the Water-Colour Exhibition,' and 'with Mr. B. to Somerset House (Academy) Exhibition.' There are similar entries in 1823. In that year also — on April 4 and 24 — Linnell went 'with Mr. Blake to British Museum to see prints.'

Sometimes these art journeys were varied by visits of a social character or to the theatre. Thus, on May 8, 1820, they went together to see Mr. Wyatt, also to see 'Lady Ford — saw her pictures.' On August 26 (Sunday) occurs the entry, 'Went to Hendon, to Mr. Woodburn's, with Mr. Blake.' In the same year, on March 27 and June 8, they went twice to Drury Lane Theatre together. There are only two entries of the kind in 1822, one of which states that 'Mr. Varley and Mr. Blake dined at Cirencester Place.' There were one or two entries in 1825, after which they cease.

Blake had now become too weak and too bad in health to venture on or care for social entertainment or miscellaneous visiting. This fact accounts for the letters we have, written by him to the artist during the years 1825 and 1826. Most of them refer to business matters, which had formerly been arranged by word of mouth, but had now to be largely conducted by correspondence, Blake not being able to get about as before.


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