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.
Love of Nature — 'Advice from the Country' — 'Summer' — 'The World of Beauty' — Blake's Influence on Linnell — Parks — 'The Woodcutters' — 'The Hawthorn-Tree' — 'Up Rays.'
N speaking of Linnell's art, one would fail to give its true character if one did not point out the depth and sincerity of his love of nature. In that his noble landscape art had its root; to that rich soil it owed all its wonderful efflorescence in the latter half of his life. Nothing more striking is to be met with in the lives of men of genius. Born a Londoner, and brought up almost within stone's-throw of Drury Lane and the Seven Dials, he yet developed a love of nature and a power of realizing it in art that was on a par with the highest expression of the great poetical painters of the past.
It was manifested and had its early fostering in those rambles, now along the Thames at Millbank — at that time charmingly rural — now higher up stream by Richmond, Teddington, and Hampton Court, sometimes with Mulready, sometimes with William Hunt, not unfrequently alone. The growing delight impelled him to take those long and often solitary walks of which record has been made, at one time through Kent, at another in the Isle of Wight, or in Wales. And everywhere he felt the spirit of Nature as a something mysterious and divine, as a brooding and indwelling presence, some of whose deeper moods might from time to time be surprised and transferred to canvas in all their burning fervour of colour and entrancing witchery of form.
In a hundred pictures we have the record of his poetic perceptions; in hundreds of studies from nature he has shown us how he obtained his mastery. But from these we do not learn the whole story: for that we must go to his writings. He tells us that 'in going to draw nature you must bear in mind what you see depends upon what you take with you.' It is not by simply going and copying what we behold with the external organ of sight that we can attain to his excellency of transcription ; we must take with us that devoted love which is as the 'open sesame' that unlocks and reveals all secrets. In other words, it is necessary to bring to the study of Nature a cultivated mind and a heart attuned to her rhythmic utterances.
Constable has said: 'No arrogant mind was ever permitted to see Nature in all her beauty.' Linnell has given expression to the same truth in several of his poetical pieces, as, for instance, in the following, which he entitles 'Advice from the Country.' It was written, as were all his verses, after his removal to Redhill:
'Live in the country if you can,
If you're a thoughtful, sober man,
If you love to look upon Nature's face,
Where the sky is clear, and a heavenly grace
Shines out in all the eye can see,
Urging a secret bended knee,
In thanks and praise for the wondrous things
Which every season round us brings.
'Live in the country if you can,
If you love the mind of God to scan
In the only book through every age,
The only key to Nature's page,
And where the choicest treasure lies
Far from the sight of carnal eyes
But where, if born of God above,
You'll read the mystery of his love.
'Live in the country if you can,
Cease from toil and cease from man,
If fashion has not chained you down
To a ceremonious life in town.
'But if you to the country come,
Parting from city's busy hum,
Be sure you leave it all behind,
And bring a lowly, docile mind,
If peace you wish and hope to find;
For your reward will ever be,
Just as in the sweet country,
Where you may learn, if you do not know,
That you reap according to what you sow.'
The same reverent spirit in which he approached nature is expressed in the following lines, which at the same time show his fervent piety
'Not in tree or mountain,
Not in cloud or sky,
Not in brook or fountain,
Or what human eye
Can apprehend or art can amplify,
Is God's own presence to the soul made nigh,
Unless his love, through his Spirit given,
Be poured into the heart.
'Then God is seen in all his works,
The all and every part,
In mountain, tree, and sky,
In sun, and moon, and stars,
In all far off or nigh.
And his love is seen in all,
As never seen before;
He is nigh in the lightning-flash,
And close in the thunder's roar;
But nearest of all his love is felt
In the rain when it down doth pour.'
Such was his attitude towards that world of beauty to the study of which he gave so unswerving a devotion; and both in his life and his work he acted upon his perception in the most humble and obedient spirit. Whatever of brusqueness or suspicion there was in his manner towards men was mellowed into gentleness and trust in the presence of Nature, and of the Creator whose hand brought it into existence. In that presence his whole being became, as it were, transfused with a feeling of reverent humility.
By long discipline he seems to have attuned his mind into almost perfect harmony with Nature's varied moods. How intimately the poetic worked with the artistic sense in this respect is shown by the following fragment, entitled 'Summer': 'The summer is past like a grand melody with its chorus, and the great Master's hand has upon Nature's harp wrought wondrous music of evervaried sweetness and energy — gentle sultry calm, with choruses of thunder; and now the note is changed into the plaintive minor key, awakening quiet sadness in the mind, with some forebodings of coming winter's blast. It seems as if there was a lull after the struggle of the elements, after the efforts of the earth's fruition, and the gathering in of her bounteous produce, but for which man would be extinct. No one hath seen God, yet we see him every hour in his acts.'
This attitude towards nature and the Divine spirit which dwells within and works through it was not attained at once, but gradually, partly through his own observation, partly also through the study of the Old Masters. Later his whole being became kindled, as it were, into a higher and more intense life through the study of the inspired writings, and his attitude towards the beauties of creation was much the same as that of the prophets and poets of the Hebrew Scriptures. The very strength of his emotions frequently communicate to his verses — often rough in form and hampered by his lack of lyric art — something of the fervour of true poetic insight. The following little poem, which is, perhaps, one of his best as regards form and feeling, is doubly interesting because of a certain reminiscence of Blake that it carries with it. The first three stanzas especially remind one of some of his 'Songs of Innocence
'THE WORLD OF BEAUTY.
'What a beautiful world! only look
At the fields and the trees and the flowers,
And the clouds how they show in the brook,
On the hills how they're breaking in showers!
'Oh, look at those beautiful sheep,
As they feed on the side of the hill
How happy they seem as they ramble the steep,
Wandering whither they will!
'And where they've climbed the height,
And where the sky looks so blue,
How they look like angels of light,
They sparkle so out to our view!
'Then why not so happy as they,
When I beyond them am so blessed?
'Tis the thought of how fleeting the hours of the day,
And how soon all this beauty must come to decay,
That makes my heart sink in my breast.
'But only one moment that pang of the heart,
Which the frailty of nature revealed;
There's a firm ground of hope when from this world I part,
There's a better which now is concealed.'
I have previously referred to Blake's influence on Linnell. In nothing does it appear more marked than in the enlarged perception and deeper poetic insight which it gradually brought about. When the latter's life is studied intimately in his works and his writings the inspiring cause may be seen. At first he was not, perhaps, ripe enough to benefit to the full from the mystical poet-artist's influence, and it had by no means produced its complete effect when all that was earthly of Blake was laid in the unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields; but gradually and insensibly the work went on until he united to his other powers some of the latter's contemplative spirit, and he became a great poetic interpreter of nature.
At first Blake's influence on Linnell was shown in his impatience of forms and ceremonies, and in his reliance on the spirit alone. With this came a broader perception and a deeper and more spiritual philosophy. That he never attained to that visionary altitude which characterized the former is due, perhaps, not so much to a more circumscribed imagination or less spiritual perception, but to a keener love of nature and a greater and possibly saner unity with it.
A man may become so wrapped up in his contemplation of nature as to be thereby unfitted to look at things in any but the one aspect. Such to some extent was the case with Linnell in the latter half of his life. Thus he came to be impatient of man's interference. Nature, and nature only, was his desire. In his own words, he would have nothing touched, or, if it must be, then as little as possible. He wanted nature's own expression, free and unsophisticated: in that he found delight and inspiration; in that lies the charm of so many of his landscapes.
Hence it arose that he came to dislike the formality and restraint of parks, and the studied picturesque in landscape-gardening.
'Of all places in the country,' he says in one of his occasional writings, 'parks are to me the most desolate. There seems to be a dearth of intelligence and sympathy with Nature, or rather with the design of the Creator, whose thoughts or intentions are not perceived because men seek to bend Nature to express their sense of their own importance, their riches and powers; and they put Nature as far as they can into a kind of livery, as they do their servants, degrading both with what pretends to be ornament. The landscape is reduced to a toyshop sentiment on a large scale; everything is denuded of those accompaniments which give the true expression of grandeur or beauty to the scene.
'It is true the trees are left to grow unrestrained, looking like aristocratic swells, isolated from all undergrowth; and, with the ground shaved under them, they look like large toy-trees placed upon a green board. It is not until one gets upon a common, near a forest, or into farm lands, that one begins to breathe again, and feel out of the influence of man's despotism. Man stamps his own thought and character upon everything he meddles with, and, unhappily in most cases, he obliterates the work of God and substitutes his own.'
In some of his poetic pieces Linnell manifests a rare perception of nature's methods, and not unfrequently hits upon a happy, though perhaps quaint, form of expression, as in the following, entitled 'Summer':
'And must the summer die
Before you come to see
The fervid beauty that doth lie
In every flower and tree,
Asking your admiration with a modesty
That to the beauty addeth intensity?
'For your pleasure it is there,
And therefore so enticing looks,
Aided by balmy fragrant air
And sounds of happy birds in leafy nooks.
'The nightingale is yet a guest, sweet bird,
Who like a cheerful guest, unasked, unflattered, sings;
The cuckoo, seldom seen, may yet be heard,
Measuring the woodlands as he flies on level wings.
'Soon will the ripened bending grass,
Emblem of man, who alike to earth is bound,
Feel the mower's scythe through its heart to pass,
And in its fall shed from its slaughter-ground,
Like a martyr'd saint, a perfume all around.'
Thus Linnell became after his settlement at Redhill a simple child of Nature, and all his pictures painted after that time, especially those of his best period, strike one as being as intimately in accord with, and as truthfully interpretative of, Nature as the reedy notes of the shepherd feeding his flocks. By living continuously in her midst, with but few distractions from her contemplation, and those chiefly of a character to increase his devotion, he became, as it were, her confidant, knew her moods as a devout lover would, and was intimate with all her operations. Thus, though he may strike us sometimes as being prosy, and not unfrequently prolix, yet there are times when he approaches the rapture of the poet and seer, especially when he touches religious themes. Then we are permitted to see the reason of the close sympathy between him and Blake. These moods, however, are not the rule. His art is based on a more median plane. It delights in the pastoral, and revels in the homely rather than the idyllic life. Howbeit, there is never anything common or gross in it, while the fine thread of poetry running through it saves it from the reproach of being mere transcription. A number of pictures might be named, painted at this time, the like of which for poetic perception and sympathetic rendering of English landscape are rarely to be met with. Amongst them may be mentioned 'The Woodcutters' (21 by 28 inches), showing an open space in the midst of Windsor Forest, such as Pope described in the lines:
'There, interspersed in lawns and opening glades.
The trees arise that shun each other's shade.'
This landscape, painted in 1855, fully justifies Ruskin in his 'Modern Painters,' where he says:
'The forest scenes of John Linnell are peculiarly elaborate, and in many points most skilful.' It is rich in colour, and admirably though, like all his works, simply composed. Another characteristic picture belonging to this period (1853) is 'The Hawthorn-Tree' (39 by 54 inches), showing, in the foreground, large trees meeting overhead, with figures beneath listening to a shepherd-boy playing on a pipe; sheep, a thickly-wooded slope in the middle distance, and a distant landscape to the right, fill up the canvas. All is harmony and proportion; and, as is usual in Linnell's landscapes, the view, wandering from the focus of interest in the foreground, is lost in cloudland, for the forms of which he had almost a sculptors eye and hand.
The same or similar qualities are seen in 'On Summer Eve by Haunted Stream,' showing a tender sunset sky over a distant hilly landscape; in 'The Road through the Wood;' in the 'Wheat Harvest' of 1854 (36 by 57 inches); in 'The Dusty Road' (1855) ; in 'Sheep reposing,' representing a boy watching some sheep lying under the shade of a wooded knoll; in 'Sunny Scenes' (catalogued as 'The White Cloud' in the 'Old Masters' of 1883), in which we have one of Linnell's finest effects of aerial movement and transparency of cloud-forms; and, not to mention any more, in the 'Harvest Dinner,' shown at the International Exhibition of 1862, and sold at Christie's in 1879 for 1,690 guineas.
The last-named picture was bought by Messrs. Thomas Agnew and Son, and was one of the first, if not actually the first, of a series of purchases and commissions extending through a period of ten years. During this time Mr. William Agnew's relations with the artist were of a very intimate nature; they were based on sincere mutual respect, and were broken off through what can only be characterized as an unfortunate misunderstanding.
During a part of the same period Mr. Arthur Tooth, amongst others, was a customer for a number of pictures. One of his purchases was a picture named 'Up Rays,' which exhibits a small arc of the sun above a cloud low on the horizon, with vivid rays of light shooting upwards. A companion to it is entitled 'Down Rays.' When he bought the first-named picture, Mr. Tooth asked the artist to do some retouching on it, and, wishing specially to have it by a certain day, he undertook to send Linnell a salmon if he did not disappoint him. The artist promised that he should have it in time. On the morning of the day appointed for the picture to be delivered to him, Mr. Tooth telegraphed to Redhill, requesting that it might be sent on without fail In reply he received a telegram desiring him to 'send the salmon first.' The fish was duly forwarded, and in acknowledgment Linnell sent the following lines:
'That which rhymes to gammon
Has just arrived thro' mammon,
Relating to an art sale,
And thereby hangs a tail.'
Last modified 7 December 2001