lthough largely ignored today, John Linnell was amongst the most important of all Victorian artists. If he is remembered at all today, it is as the domineering father-in-law of the visionary artist, Samuel Palmer, or as the close friend and patron of William Blake. Yet he is worthy of further study, not least since the documentary records he has left are uniquely complete.
Following a successful but undistinguished career as a portrait painter, indulging his taste for landscape art as little more than a hobby, Linnell was to become the single most successful landscape artist of the second half of the nineteenth century in purely financial terms. As such, his fortunes were bound in absolutely with the progress of Industry and Commerce in Victorian Britain, and with the rise in fortunes of art dealers over patrons as a source of commissions and income for artists. As the new industrialists sought to establish their credentials of personal taste, they were highly reliant on the new service industry provided by the dealers, who sourced and vetted work for their clients. In this activity, the dealers found a ready associate in Linnell, an artist always capable of spectacular work and a constant exhibitor at the R.A., yet who was sufficiently prolific in lesser works to satisfy an increasingly frenzied demand. A "Linnell Landscape" was to become an essential element of any serious collection of modern art of the period.
The Life of John Linnell (Bentley, 1892), by A. T. Story, is an important biographical source, although flawed in many important respects. As was typical with Victorian biography, a principal aim of the author was to present aspects of the life of the subject in such a form as to provide an example of virtue and moral correctness. Indeed Story was selected by Linnell's son William as a biographer for his religious and moral character, rather than any knowledge of art, or indeed of the subject of the work.
Hence Story was highly selective in what he included, and certain highly important elements of Linnell's career -- in particular his often stormy relationships with art dealers in the second half of the nineteenth century -- are largely omitted. So that where Story claims in Chapter 5 of the second volume that after having settled in Redhill, Surrey, Linnell became "a simple child of nature," in fact he was entering the most highly concentrated commercial phase of his career, and driving increasingly hard and ruthless bargains with the multitude of dealers and private collectors competing for his productions.
Furthermore, Story was limited in the material he was allowed to consult. Virtually all of John Linnell's correspondence, his journal, accounts, and other papers were preserved in a family archive of stupendous breadth, yet Story was only provided with a handful of letters and other information, including Linnell's autobiographical notes which form the basis of most of the early chapters (where they are embroidered with florid prose and often unconnected anecdote). This appears to have been partly because of sensitivity for the privacy of correspondents still living, but also because no-one in the Linnell family had yet worked through the archive as a whole to discover its astonishing riches.
The archive still exists, and was recently acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where it is presently (December 2001) being catalogued. It is unlikely there is any better primary source relating to day-to-day minutiae of n nineteenth-century art anywhere in the world.
Three important works on Linnell have been written in recent years, and are recommended to anyone contemplating any serious study of Linnell and his circle as essential counterpoints to Story's account:
- David Linnell's "Blake, Palmer, Linnell & Co." (Book Guild, Lewes, 1994) is the first serious biographical account since Story. David Linnell had full access to the Linnell archive during the production of the work, and provides a comprehensive and well illustrated chronicle.
- Evan Firestone's 1971 PHD thesis on Linnell: "John Linnell, English Artist: Works, Patrons and Dealers" provides an expert art-historical perspective alongside a brief chronological account of Linnell's career. It is available from http://www.umi.com
- In 1982, the Fitzwilliam museum held an exhibition to mark the centennial of Linnell's death. The catalogue for this, John Linnell A Centennial Exhibition, Katherine Crouan (CUP, 1982) forms an important illustrated record, particularly of Linnell's early work and sketches.
In concluding these brief notes, it is worth noting that one further indirect consequence of the production of Story's biography was the demolition of Linnell's reputation in the early twentieth Century. This was because of an unfortunate set of coincidences.
Samuel Palmer's son, A. H. Palmer was producing his biography of his father, Samuel Palmer, Life and Letters at the same time as the Story biography was being written, although he knew nothing of it. As part of his work, he had requested some correspondence between Linnell and the Palmers from the archive, but this could not be found on an initial search. However some time later, one of Linnell's sons discovered the letters at the back of a dusty cupboard, and unthinkingly provided them to Story for a section on Linnell's artistic relationship to Samuel Palmer.
It was only as both books were going to press that A. H. Palmer discovered a Life of Linnell was in production. He had always felt that Linnell had eclipsed his own father -- by far the greater artist -- during their lifetimes and now felt that the coincident production of the books was an attempt by the Linnell family to steal Samuel Palmer's thunder once again in death. On then finding passages from letters that he felt he had been denied access to, and a quotation from Ruskin on Linnell from which complimentary remarks on Palmer had been excised, he became overwhelmed with an anger and bitterness that was to grow and fester until his death in the 1920s. although having some grudging admiration for his grandfather -- whom, ironically, he resembled in many aspects of character -- he dedicated much of his life following his emigration to Vancouver to the production of his own, unpublished "Life of Linnell", in which he selectively used sections of correspondence to amplify the less attractive aspects of Linnell's character so as to denigrate any suggestion of an influence on Palmer. He hinted at many of his conclusions in letters to the London art establishment, particularly Martin Hardie, who being enormously keen on Palmer's work and desiring to maintain a cordial relationship with the son of his hero, was only too ready to accept the findings.
So it was that the work for which Linnell perhaps should be best known, his early sketches and watercolours, religiously inspired, and which have a uniquely visionary intensity, was rather contemptuously ignored during the planning of the 1926 V&A exhibition of Samuel Palmer and his Circle. And hence was formed Linnell's reputation as little more than a grasping producer of poor quality Victorian pot-boilers, responsible for destroying the fragile visionary genius of Samuel Palmer, and unpopular with fellow artists, which has persisted to this day.
I hope that the provision of the Story biography in this on-line version will be a first step in persuading modern researchers that there is much of interest in Linnell's life and career. For my part, I will always be most interested in helping or hearing about research projects, and may be contacted on e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified 13 December 2001