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.


Resigns his Membership of the Society of Painters in Oil and Water-Colours — A Bit of Criticism — Sets Down his Name as Candidate for the A.R.A. — Independence — Mulready's Advice — Constable and Linnell — Read¹s Misrepresentations — Collins acts a Friendly Part — Probable Cause of Constable¹s Hostility — Constable and Collins — Letters from Constable.

decorated initial 'A's we have seen, Linnell exhibited in the Academy from 1807 until 1811, and then not again until 1821. During the intervening years he had been a prolific exhibitor at the Society of Painters in Oil and Water-Colours, and an occasional exhibitor at the British Institution, and seemed satisfied with the publicity he thus obtained. In 1820, however, the former body went back to its old style and title, and Linnell resigned his membership. After seven years' experience it was found that oil and water did not commingle harmoniously together, and a separation took place, Linnell, as a worker chiefly in oil, going out with the men of that medium.

Referring, in his autobiography, to some of the men whom he had known in connection with the old Water-Colour Society and the Society of Painters in Oil and Water-Colours, and their gifts as artists, Linnell has the following weighty criticism:

'When Cristall, however, took a subject from Nature, he showed considerable power of design and expression (witness his "Fishermen on the Lookout at Hastings"). But he had no power of finish in realization of details, and the only water-colour painters who then manifested such a power were the miniature and flower painters, in whose works the quality of finish, being produced not to carry out and enhance fine design, became a very second-rate quality. Except in a few instances in water-colours, nothing like what William Hunt has since produced was to be seen then, and still less what Mulready has done in oil. Miniature portraits at that time had in general nothing in them beyond the locket-and-brooch style — jeweller's work — with no pretensions to fine art. It seemed never to have occurred then to any painter of such things that all which Reynolds had done on a large scale in oil could be done on a small one in any material.'

This bit of criticism on the art of his contemporaries, although referring more particularly to a somewhat earlier period, gives us an as to what were Linnell's aims at this time.

His contributions to the Somerset House Exhibition in 1821 were 'The Windmill,' two cabinet-sized portraits (Colonel Maxwell and Mrs. Brooks), and the portrait group of Lady Torrens and her children (5 feet in length), already referred to, one of the best groups, in the painter's opinion, he ever did. This was the first time that the artist had exhibited portraits at the Academy, and they continued to be his chief subjects for many years to come.

In his autobiographical notes Linnell writes:

'This year I finished my Torrens group, and sent it to the Royal Academy . . . and set down my name in the list as candidate for the A.R.A.' His friend Mulready had already become a full-fledged Academician (A.R.A. 1815, R.A. 1816) ; Collins, another of his fellow-students, had been made R.A. the previous year; while Constable was groaning under the demi-semi honour of Associateship only. Mulready, ranking Linnell as inferior to none of them, urged him to set down his name. He was not elected, however, although, according to what he was told by Mulready, only one or two votes intervened betwixt him and the coveted distinction. After this, according to his own statement, he never followed up very eagerly the endeavour to be elected. 'I was told,' he writes, 'what I now believe to be true, that unless certain electioneering and servile ways were resorted to there was no chance for me. Then I said, "Let it go; I shall not ask for a vote, nor do anything but paint as well as I can."'

So independent a young man could, perhaps, hardly expect to be elected to so august a body as the Royal Academy, in which everything is conducted on the courtier-like plan.

Many years afterwards the artist told one of his sons that Mulready had once given him a hint that it would be better for him and for his chances of preferment if he made himself a little more of the courtier, and paid more attention to his dress, general appearance, etc. Then, pointing to a spot of mud upon his cloak, he said, 'That is what stood in the way of your election more than anything else.' But whether the remark was made in connection with Linnell's failure to be elected in 1821, or to a later period, is not clear. Perhaps Mulready overstrained the point. One can hardly think that all the Academicians had their eyes upon that spot of mud on his cloak.

It would be more understandable if the remark referred to a later period of life; for although the Puritan democrat had already begun to show himself in Linnell as early even as 1821, he had not yet manifested that contempt for fine clothes, show, fashion, etc., which characterized him in his later days. There had been a time, and that not many years before, when he was something of a dandy, affecting fine clothes, fashionable boots, and the 'correct' thing in cravats and hats. And even when that green-salad period had passed, visiting as he frequently was at the houses of aristocratic and well-to-do people to paint portraits, and to meet others round the social board, he was obliged to dress carefully and well. But there came a time when, looking more within, and thinking less and less of merely external things, he came to give comparatively little thought to dress. Then, it may be, Mulready's criticism was to the point.

But it is evident that our artist did not think that anything of this kind had much to do with his non-election so early as 1821. He attributed his failure to be elected to a far different cause. Referring to that matter, he writes : 'When the election time came, then began the endeavours of Constable to prevent my election; for I was told it was owing to his exertions that I was not elected, as I was told by Mulready that I was nearly chosen.'

That there was some ground for Linnell's belief that his friend was largely accountable for his non-election is, unfortunately, too true. Reference has already been made to the artist Read, to whom Linnell paid a visit in Southampton, in 1819, and for whom he obtained a situation as art-master at Salisbury; also to Read's acquaintance with Constable, and the latter's efforts to get his pictures hung. Mention has likewise been made of the portrait painted for Mr. Allies, and the Gaspard Poussin and Everdingen received in exchange for the portrait and a copy of the Poussin. At the time, and, according to letters subsequently received from him, for some time afterwards, Mr. Allies appears to have been perfectly satisfied with the transaction, while Linnell, on his part, undoubtedly thought he had not made a bad bargain. Subsequently, however, Mr. Allies imagined that he had been sharply dealt with, having possibly come to regard the pictures that he had parted with as more valuable than he had thought when they were his own. Anyway, he seems to have complained to Read of sharp practice on Linnell's part, and Read had nothing better to do than to report the transaction to Constable. At the same time he complained of the price Linnell had charged him for a view of Southampton Quay which he had commissioned him to paint, and for which he was required to pay £15.

Whatever ground there might have been for the accusation against Linnell, it was undoubtedly Constable's duty either to take no notice of the charge, and say nothing about it, or else thoroughly to investigate it. Unfortunately, he did neither the one nor the other, but went about amongst members of the Academy and retailed the stories Read had communicated to him. That they were calculated to injure Linnell as a candidate there can be no doubt, and that they did he always firmly believed.

When Linnell first heard of these calumnies, which was not until 1823, he immediately took steps to have them contradicted, and to set the transaction upon which they were based in its true light. For this purpose he called upon William Collins, R.A., and placing the matter before him, asked for his friendly offices to aid him in setting himself right with his brother artists. Collins, in the kindly spirit for which he was noted, at once gave the counsel and assistance desired.

Collins went carefully over all the letters, receipts, etc., relating to the affair, and satisfied himself that the accusations were baseless, and that a great injustice had been done to his friend. Linnell's own words in his autobiography are:

'Collins stood my friend in this matter, and when I had shown him the receipts and letters relating thereto, he went with me to Constable and represented to him the falsehood of all that he had propagated against me, demanding from Constable a written acknowledgment of the same.

Constable, however, refused to meet his friends in this respect, although, after hearing what Collins had to say, and examining the letters and receipts in his and Linnell's presence, he professed himself satisfied with these proofs of the latter's innocence of the calumny which he had been the means of circulating against him. He promised, however, to contradict verbally the statements he had made.

Then, at Collins' suggestion, Linnell drew up a document, stating what Constable had admitted, and what he had promised to do, which Collins signed in Constable's presence.

The document, which is still in existence, is to the following effect: That, at a meeting between Messrs. Collins, Constable, and John Linnell, at Mr. Constable's house (at Hampstead), Mr. Constable expressed his conviction that by the documents written by Mr. Read, together with the entries made in John Linnell's journal at the time, John Linnell had confuted the charge Mr. Read made against him of illiberality in charging Mr. Read for a painting of Southampton, and also that John Linnell had confuted Mr. Read's assertions respecting the transaction between the Rev. Thomas Allies and himself, by two letters from Mr. Allies to John Linnell soon after; hereby proving the falsehood of the representation made by Mr. Read to Mr. Constable concerning John Linnell's conduct at Southampton in September, 1819; Mr. Constable, in consequence of this conviction, promised to explain to Mr. Shorts, at Mr. Reynolds', Bayswater, and to W. R. Bigg, Esq., R.A., and to contradict wherever he recollected to have reported those statements. This took place in the presence of W. Collins, Esq., R.A., March 22, 1823.

Beneath this document there appears, in Collins' handwriting:

'The above statement is perfectly correct. — William Collins.'

Collins asked Constable to sign the document, to which he had put his own name, but Constable refused to do so, at the same time repeating that he would do all in his power to undo the mischief he had occasioned by the statements he had so injuriously set afloat.

Linnell was perforce obliged to be content with Constable's undertaking, and so the matter, for the time being, dropped. Subsequently, however, he had reason to believe that Constable never took any trouble to contradict the statements that he had been the means of spreading abroad, or did so in such a lukewarm manner that his vindication was worse than useless. Constable may have done all that he thought was necessary; nevertheless, the fact remains that Linnell continued to suffer from the calumny the latter had set afloat, which could hardly have been the case if the same means had been adopted to contradict it which were taken to spread it abroad.

It is anything but a pleasing duty to have to go into matters of this kind, and I would gladly have passed the incident over, if I could have done so with justice to my subject. Such a course, however, did not appear possible in view of the fact that in all probability Constable's hostility to Linnell was the main cause of his claims upon the Academy being passed over in those early days of his career, and, at the same time, of the postponement of that recognition which ultimately came unaided, by those who ought to have been the first sponsors of his genius.

In view of this hostility, the question will obtrude itself, Was Constable jealous of his young competitor in landscape art? He could not fail to perceive the great gifts of his friend, and to recognise in him a genius for the interpretation of Nature equal, and in some respects superior, to his own, any more than Linnell could fail to acknowledge and admire in him those wonderful qualities of tone and breadth of effect that for ever place his works in the foremost rank of landscape art. But Constable had become soured by the length of time he had had to wait for recognition. He had seen lesser men preferred before him, and had seen them become rich and well thought of whilst his works were still returned to him unsold. This had galled him, and we cannot wonder if he showed little generosity to his rivals. In that the Academy was slow to acknowledge his merits it did him injustice, and injustice too often begets injustice. That such is the explanation of Constable's attitude towards our artist there is little room for doubt.

A few years later he was the cause of a scandal getting about respecting William Collins similar to the one which did so much harm to Linnell. This occurred when all three were living at Hampstead, and when they were often travelling to and from town together by the coach. The scandal had reference to a commission which Collins had received from Sir Robert Peel, and for which, when finished, he had, according to Constable's statement, overcharged him.

Meeting Linnell one day on the top of the Hampstead coach, Constable said: 'Have you heard the story about Collins and Sir Robert Peel?' and repeated the scandal.

Linnell asked him if he had told Collins what was being said about him. Constable said he had not, and that it was no business of his to do so.

A week or so later they met on the coach again, and Constable, returning to the subject of the scandal, said:

'I fear it is a true bill against Collins.'

Linnell again asked him if he had got Collins's version of the affair. Constable said he had not, and repeated that it was no affair of his. Linnell replied:

'I don't believe a word of it, and if you won't go and see Collins about it, I will.'

They happened to be passing very near Collins's house at the time, and Linnell straightway got down from the coach and went and told him what Constable had been saying respecting him. Collins was very indignant when he heard the story, and said he believed that it was a pure invention, he himself having heard nothing of the affair. It was decided, however, to put the matter into Mulready's hands to investigate, because he, on account of his high character, was beyond suspicion. Mulready accordingly called upon Sir Robert Peel, and asked him if there was any truth in the report. Sir Robert said there was none whatever; he was perfectly satisfied with the pictures which he had commissioned Mr. Collins to paint for him, and he had been charged no more for them than he had agreed to pay.

All this is the more surprising on Constable's part when it is seen on what friendly terms the three artists nominally were. Referring to his own affair, Linnell writes: 'Constable never mentioned Read's story to me, though he was in the habit of visiting me, and receiving visits and other attentions from me.'

That their relations were, and continued to be — outwardly at least of a cordial nature, there are several letters of Constable's to prove. On July 27, 1831, he writes to Linnell:

35, Charlotte Street.
My Dear Sir,

I have a mournful satisfaction in possessing the portrait of poor Gooch. He was my old and much-esteemed friend.

This portrait is one of the most perfect I ever saw. I can nearly hold converse with it, and I should immediately have expressed my great thanks to you had I not hoped for an opportunity of calling upon you for that purpose.

Fearing, however, that event might not be so soon as it ought (as I go into Suffolk to-morrow to fetch my little girls) I write as I now do in haste to thank you likewise for the friendly note which accompanied your desirable present.

I am, dear sir,
Truly your obliged

John Constable.

P.S. — You may know that Dr. Gooch presented me with most of my children!

Another letter is dated July 30, 1835. It is as follows:

Dear Linnell,

I have had the pleasure of receiving your beautiful work, and for which I lose no time in sending you the money. I was not aware of its full extent and the sum to which it must ultimately amount (though so reasonable). May I, therefore, beg to propose a copy of my own work (proofs) as part of payment, which I should name to you at £3? If this should be agreeable to you, I shall possess the remainder of the work of Michael Angelo with unalloyed delight, otherwise I am afraid it is beyond my means of attainment.

I hope you are well, the two new infants, Mrs. Linnell, and your other children. This is very trying weather, and perhaps you are hotter at Bayswater than we are, except at night.

I hope to come your way soon, when I shall have the pleasure of calling on you.

Yours very truly,

John Constable.


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