Tim Linnell [email@example.com], a descendant of the artist, has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web his scanned text of this biography. George P. Landow has adapted it for html, adding links to the original text.
Early Masters — Copying at Christie's — William Varley — Introduction to John Varley — Mulready — Sir Benjamin West — Becomes a Pupil of Varley — William H. Hunt — Twickenham — Study of Nature — Cornelius Varley — Astrology — A Famous Prediction — Painting v. Boxing — Turner and Girtin.
ITHERTO the youth's artistic studies had consisted almost entirely of copying, and that chiefly from Morland; although he had about his twelfth year (1804) begun to draw from the cast, as we have seen. He was now to launch out into a broader path, and to get fairly on the way to an artistic career. About this time (most probably in 1804) he made the acquaintance of three or four men who had in their several ways a special influence upon his future. Happening one day to be lingering with his sketchbook in Christie's saleroom, in King Street, St. James's, he was attracted by a picture of Girtin's, and was furtively making a note of it, when he was seen by William Fleetwood Varley, the youngest brother of John Varley, the famous watercolour painter, and himself a fair artist in that medium.
Struck by the boy's intelligent look and by his diligence, William Varley got into conversation with him, and ended by asking him to go and see his brother, who was the best known teacher of the time.
John Varley was then living at No. 2 Harris Place, a sort of blind alley running out of Oxford Street, near the Pantheon. There Linnell went to see him. Varley, who was born in 1777, was now in the heyday of his powers, having first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798, and in 1799 brought back from Wales those drawings which made an epoch in art, and won for him the proud title of Father of the English School of Water-Colour Painters. He was greatly to the front in those days, and about the time when young Linnell called upon him he was very busy with others — among them being James Holmes — in establishing the Society of Painters in Water-Colours (1804), to the exhibitions of which he sent a large number of pictures. While his most carefully executed works show him to have been a master of some of the great truths in Nature, a large number of his pictures are inferior and commonplace in quality, as may be seen from the specimens at South Kensington.
Linnell was kindly received by Varley, who carefully examined his work, and questioned him as to what instruction he had received. Greatly impressed with his abilities, he gave him all the encouragement he could, and allowed him to visit him as often as he liked.
On his first visit to Varley he met William Henry Hunt, afterwards the famous painter of rustic and humorous subjects and of flowers and fruit, and the two became great friends, and went out sketching together. Hunt had just become a pupil of Varley's, as Linnell was to be a little later, and was so much in advance of his friend, that the latter looked up to him, wondering if he should ever be able to accomplish as much as he had then attained to.
Shortly after Linnell's introduction to him, Varley removed from Harris Place to 5, Broad Street, Golden Square, where the youth met William Mulready for the first time. Mulready was a young Irishman, born in Ennis in 1786, and consequently Linnell's senior by six years. He was then living with Varley, having married his eldest sister. In his autobiography, written many years later, Linnell several times makes mention of this first meeting with Mulready; and it was, indeed, to him a memorable event. For instance, he writes: 'Mulready had already married Varley's sister before I knew Varley, for when I first saw Mulready at Varley's in Broad Street, his wife and first child were in the room.' Again he writes: 'Mr. Mulready was living in Varley's second floor, and painting upon his picture of " St. Peter's Well," when I first saw him. This was on a visit to Varley before I was placed under him by my father.
A frank, genial, large-hearted, and handsome young fellow, of good proportions, Mulready no sooner made the acquaintance of the quick and eager young student than he perceived the strength and originality of his talents, and at once took him into his confidence and under his protection. Both seem to have been attracted to each other at the same time, most probably by a mutual respect for each other's powers. Mulready asked the youthful artist to give him his opinion on the picture he was working upon, and Linnell on his part soon became so greatly impressed with the young Irishman's powers that he wished very much to become his pupil. This, however, was a little later. Mulready was then a Royal Academy scholar, and was looked up to as one of the most promising young artists of the day.
Meanwhile, Linnell had become acquainted with another painter, who also gave him all the aid and encouragement he could. This was Sir Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy, to whom he was introduced by Andrew Robertson, the Scotch miniature-painter. West, who then resided in Newman Street, Oxford Street, that thoroughfare and the district round about forming the artist quarter of those days, received the young aspirant with kindness, and greatly praised some chalk sketches on blue paper which he had taken to show him. A few of these drawings are still in existence, and are undoubtedly among the first he made from Nature. They display, for one so young, great facility in drawing with the point, together with astonishing firmness of line and good perspective.
Without formally taking him as a pupil, West allowed him to visit his studio, and gave him valuable advice and instruction. In his autobiography, Linnell says: 'To Mr. West I went once or twice a week to show him my attempts at drawing from the cast. I had only been permitted by my father to take this new path and forsake the copying of Morland by the earnest representations of John Varley backing my own more earnest entreaties. ... My visits to him (West) were in the morning just before he began to paint.'
He goes on to say that West often worked upon his drawings with chalk, and gave him clear and simple instruction. 'I often stayed and saw him paint on his large pictures. ... Mr. West expressed himself much pleased with some black and white chalk studies of mine made in company with W. Hunt. The objects were only some workmen with barrows, etc., in the excavations then making for the houses of Russell Square.'
Linnell always gratefully remembered these acts of kindness of the veteran artist, and seems to have derived considerable benefit from his advice and instruction, although he was never greatly struck with his laboured and somewhat lifeless compositions. The friendship between the two lasted for several years, during which Linnell was ever welcome at the President's studio. After leaving Newman Street, West went to live in a house on the Terrace at Hammersmith. There, too, Linnell visited him, and one of his recollections was of having seen hanging on his wall a small painting by himself of the river near that point with boats. Afterwards this picture came into his own possession, as well as the house in which he first saw it.
Linnell's pupilship under Varley appears to have begun at the end of 1805 or the beginning of 1806. As we have seen, it had been his desire to become the pupil of Mulready; but at the latter's suggestion he put himself under Varley, although he always received valuable help from Mulready. On this subject he writes: 'My first desire and earnest wish was to be under Mr. Mulready, whose work and personal qualities made a great impression upon me. He was so far above me in everything, and at the same time so communicative, that I might be said to be under his influence more than Varley's.' He goes on to say that Mulready was at the time of his asking to become his pupil living at No. 9, Upper Cleveland Street, Fitzroy Square, having then removed from Varley's house in Broad Street, where Linnell saw him at work on his 'St. Peter's Well.' This picture was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1806, and in the catalogue his address is given as above. Hence we get an approximation to the date of Linnell's going under Varley.
The prospects that Varley held out to Mr. James Linnell of his son's advancement under his guidance must have been very tempting; for though his price for board, lodging, and tuition for a year was only £100, it was a large sum for a struggling tradesman, who had, moreover, not only to pay that amount, but to lose, in addition, what the boy had been earning by his copies of Morland and others. Nor were Varley's representations sufficient without the further enforcement of the youth's own earnest wish to be allowed to benefit by this chance of tuition, and his confidence that he would thereby be enabled to earn still more than he had done before.
For a year, therefore, John Linnell became Varley's inmate and pupil. This was a great change for the young artist, and he profited greatly by it. For one thing, it freed him from the drudgery of slavish copying, against which his artistic nature began to revolt more and more. Varley's motto was, 'Go to Nature for everything,' and henceforth Linnell adopted it as his own. In order the better to enable his pupils to carry out his advice, Varley in the summer took a house at Twickenham near to the river, and sent them out into the highways and byways to make such transcripts as they could.
But although the pupil of Varley, for whom he had ever a great admiration, Linnell himself acknowledged that he received more valuable instruction from Mulready than from anyone else. 'Indeed' — so he wrote when nearly seventy years of age — 'I feel bound to say I am more indebted to him than to anyone I ever knew.'
Linnell used to say that no one could know Mulready as intimately as he did without having all his faculties greatly stimulated. His opinion was that Mulready's influence upon him was such that his powers were taxed beyond his strength. He was, he thought, inferior to Mulready; and physically this was no doubt true, the latter being a strong, broad-set, active man, standing five feet ten, while Linnell's stature, even in his prime, did. not exceed five feet five inches. In his old age, when he had come to stoop somewhat, his stature was even less than that. Yet, in spite of this inferiority of physique, Linnell lived to be the older of the two.
During the summer at Twickenham, Linnell spent a great deal of his time with Hunt on the river and in the neighbouring lanes and fields — sketching and painting, using oils, and working on millboard. There are several sketches in the pos-session of the Linnell family which he and Hunt painted at this time, one of them showing Hunt's work on one side of the millboard, and Linnell's on the other. They exhibit a good deal of firmness of touch and boldness of execution, with considerable richness of colour and tone, and commendable fidelity to Nature, Linnell's on the whole appearing to exhibit the most power.
The secret of Varley's success as a teacher appears to have lain in the fact that he sent his pupils to Nature, and confined his tuition to giving a general superintendence to their work, but infusing into them his own enthusiasm. Probably, if the truth were known, the latter would be found to be the chief element of his success, for he was undoubtedly a man of great personal qualities.
He was a hearty, good-natured soul, full of life and vitality, and generous and unsuspicious to a fault. He had the defects of his qualities, and was accordingly easily imposed upon by the crafty. His sagacity appears to have been at fault in regard to his marriage. His wife was Esther Gisborne, a sister of John Gisborne, the friend of Shelley. She had been previously married; but Varley seems to have been unaware of the fact that she had a son, and he showed a disposition to rebel when he learned that he had a third person to provide for. He was, however, finally softened and brought to terms by his mother.
As already intimated, Linnell's admiration for John Varley was very great. He had a high appreciation of the sterling qualities which went to the forming of his character. He used to say that if John Varley was not a religious man, he was, at least, not a hypocrite. His mother, who lived with him, and whom, of course, Linnell knew, was a very religious woman, and indirectly, as the sequel will show, had an influence on the young artist. But John Varley turned a deaf ear to her admonitions, and, indeed, seems to have scouted her religious notions. His mind ran in other directions, and Linnell's judgment — for even then he had a clear insight into character — was that he might not have been a better man, if so good, if he had made religious professions, which is no doubt true.
The only one of the Varley brothers who was at all religiously inclined was Cornelius, the next in age to John. He took after his mother, and, like John and William, was a water-colour painter. Several of his works may be seen at South Kens-ington, along with many of John's, and one or two of William's.
While Linnell was studying under John Varley, Cornelius Varley was often at his house, and the young artist conceived considerable respect for him. He presented a striking contrast to his broad, bluff King Hal of a brother, being small, dapper, and as sharp as a needle. He had a bright, pleasing face, with sparkling eyes and prominent features. In his painter's language, Linnell used to say he was 'all high lights,' the prominences of his forehead forming two, his nose and cheeks making three others, and his chin a sixth. He was a man of considerable originality, of a scientific turn, full of schemes and inventions (being among other things the inventor of the 'Graphic Telescope '), and such a rapid and incessant talker that it was difficult for anyone to get in a word while he was present. He was one of the first members of the Water-Colour Society, and took credit to himself as having been the first to propose its formation. Cromwell Varley, the electrician, was his son.
In regard to schemes and notions, John Varley was much like his brother Cornelius, except that he was not by any means so scientific. He invariably had some invention on foot, and, among other things, used to describe to his friends a machine upon which he was engaged, that, when perfected, would enable men to fly over the ground at lightning speed. But John Varley's bent was mainly to things of an occult nature. He was a believer in judicial astrology, and had a very creditable knowledge of the 'science,' if one may take the word of those who knew him. He was one of the first calculators of human probabilities of his day, and was credited with a number of very happy prognostications. Once he foretold that on a certain day he himself would be in danger from water, because under the constellation Aquarius. He resolved, therefore, not to venture out of the house that day; but, going downstairs, he fell over a bucket of water and broke his shins. Linnell used to say that, in consequence of this accident, Varley used ever afterwards to wear tin leggings.
He was much happier in another of his prognostications. Amongst the number of his friends was Mr. (afterwards Sir) Augustus Wall Callcott, R.A.; and once when they and several others, including Mulready, met at Callcott's house, Varley proposed to take the latter's horoscope. Callcott gave him the necessary particulars, and a few days subsequently Varley gave Mulready a sealed envelope, and asked him to take charge of it and produce it on Callcott's forty-eighth birthday, as something eventful would then happen. Mulready had forgotten about the horoscope incident, but took charge of the document. Sixteen years afterwards, on Callcott's forty-eighth birthday, whilst seated at the latter's wedding-breakfast — for he happened to be married on that day — Mulready was asked to produce the sealed envelope, and read what it contained. He did so, and to the intense amusement and astonishment of everybody present, the document predicted that Mr. Callcott would be married on his forty-eighth birthday, and that immediately after his marriage he would go abroad. The second item in the prediction was no less true than the first, for he and his wife (the widow of Captain Graham, R.N.) went abroad to spend their honeymoon, and stayed on the Continent a couple of years.
This striking prediction greatly redounded to Varley's fame as a reader of the stars. He is said also to have foretold the death of William Collins, R.A., to the very day.
To some persons Varley's predictions appeared to bear the impress of Satanic origin, so incredible were they. Possibly James Ward, the landscape and animal painter, was not exactly of that opinion; but he thought there was something unholy about his horoscopes, and destroyed those he had had done of his children, because they turned out so true — surely a queer reason for such an act.
Varley seems to have been equally clever at reading people's destiny from their hands, palmistry also having been one of the 'sciences' he cultivated. Nor was he above taking a fee in either branch. A strange character truly! Had he been living to-day, one knows not where he would have been wanted the most — in West-End drawing-rooms to read palms, or in the police-courts for reading the stars.
This genial cultivator of the occult sciences was likewise an ardent believer in physiognomy, and had some peculiar theories in regard to the influence of the planets on the human face, which he set forth in a work entitled 'Zodiacal Physiognomy.'
He was also the author of two works on art, 'Observations on Colouring and Sketching from Nature,' and 'A Practical Treatise on Perspective.'
It must have been a lively society into which John Linnell was thus suddenly thrown, and in the midst of which he spent much of the next few years of his life, for he remained a member of the Varley circle long after he had finished his studies under its head. A man is very much what his early surroundings make him, for in youth he is all receptivity and assimilation, while later it becomes more and more difficult to accept ideas at variance with those which have been first received and adopted. That Linnell must have been greatly influenced by the Varley circle and surroundings there can be no doubt. Happily, he was of a strong moral constitution, and of a reflective disposition, that inclined him even then to accept and reject in accordance with what appeared to him just and wholesome.
The chief evil that he fell into was in allowing himself to be led to tax his powers in emulation of the feats of strength and endurance performed by men who were older and much more physically developed than himself. The effects of these indiscretions he did not feel so much then as somewhat later in life. With Mulready, with his splendid physique, and an adept in most manly exercises, he was tempted to take long walks, to run and leap, and otherwise put forth his powers far beyond what was judicious for a youth of his age, and of his delicate and sensitive organization. A favourite resort of theirs was the river at Milbank, then of quiet and rural aspect.
Mulready doubtless thought he was toughening his young companion, or he, generous and high-minded as he was, would not have put him to the strain he often did. With the same end in view he taught Linnell boxing. This was a special delight of Mulready's, and wherever he was, there boxing became the order of the day. John Varley's house, Linnell used to say, was a regular school of boxing; everyone practised it, and Varley himself and Mulready used to have great bouts with the gloves. But the former, big, broad-shouldered, 'elephantine,' though he was, was no match for his sturdy brother-in-law, who knocked him about so much that after a set-to he was glad to go and lie down in the corner of the room and rest.
In fact, very few men could stand up long before the tough young Hibernian, who was an adept in this as in most other things requiring great nerve and strong physique.
Linnell tells an anecdote showing his nerve which, as it does not appear to have been previously put upon record, is worthy of mention here. Being desirous of making sketches of a lion, he obtained permission to visit the collection of wild beasts then to be seen at Exeter 'Change, which formed the nucleus of what afterwards became the present zoological collection at Regent's Park. But going one morning when the keeper was absent, he made his way into the inclosure where the lion's cage was, to find the king of beasts loose and himself confronted by his tawny majesty. The story goes that for three-quarters of an hour, until, in short, the keeper returned, Mulready kept the lion at bay by the power of his eye.
But to return to his feats pugilistic. On one occasion there was a disturbance at the Academy in consequence of Sam Strowger, the famous R.A. porter and model, having been insolent to the students. Mulready took up the cudgels for the latter, challenged Little Sam,' as he was called, to fight, and he being also a noted boxer, and nothing loath, they repaired to the street, followed by all the students, to have the matter out. But when the obstreperous porter saw the young artist with his coat off and his shirtsleeves rolled up, he called down his towering spirits, cried off, and humbly apologized for his ill-manners. But this was later, when Linnell also was an Academy student.
Our artist also became an adept in the use of the gloves, and it was one of his delights at night, after the Academy lessons were over, to go with the others and practise the manly art. Tradition has it that he once drew blood from George Dawe (son of Philip Dawe, Hogarth and Morland's pupil), afterwards an Academician, who was another of the Varley circle. Certain it is that the gory glove long hung in Linnell's studio, at once a trophy of his prowess and a memento of the brisk and enjoyable days spent with the Varley set.
Thus it was that John Linnell studied art under Varley, and was taught to be manly and to paint by Mulready. But not these two only were his masters; he was of such an eager and receptive nature that he learned from all about him. While he and Hunt were roaming about the country around Twickenham, rowing up and down the river, and sketching everything that came in their way, he was for ever comparing notes with his companion, and absorbing from him all that was useful and to his profit.
Besides Callcott, Mulready, Dawe, Hunt, etc., Linnell used to meet at Varley's many of the members of the newly-constituted Water-Colour Society (which at that time held its exhibitions in Brook Street, Grosvenor Square), including Cristall, William Havel, James Holmes, Copley V. Fielding, and others.
Of some of these men he does not appear to have had a very high opinion. Cristall he did not consider a colourist at all. He drew gods and goddesses after the then approved conventional Greek model, and as the conventionalism that never attempts realization from Nature was ever Linnell's abhorrence, it is not to be wondered at if he did not think much of his productions. Of Havel he had a higher opinion; he looked upon him as a clever watercolour painter, and admired his works.
Callcott was only an occasional visitor. He followed Turner in doing both landscape and marine painting, and, strange as it may now seem, he was considered at that time to stand next to Turner, whom it was then the fashion to call 'the great Turner.' Since the death of Girtin the latter was accounted the greatest genius in watercolour painting. ' He was regarded,' Linnell wrote, 'as the inheritor of all that Girtin had discovered, and to which he was adding largely.' The great Turner himself Linnell did not meet until much later.
Last modified 1 December 2001