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 this biography. George P. Landow has adapted it for html, adding links to the original text.


Awakening of Religious Thought — Meeting with Celebrities — Diver-gent Views — Becomes a Baptist — John Martin — Thomas Palmer — Study of the Scriptures — A Runaway Match — Mr. Tatham — Engagement — Reading.

decorated initial 'I' HAVE referred in the foregoing chapter to the awakening of religious thought in our artist. He had been brought up nominally as a member of the Episcopal Church, and used to go with his parents to Bedford Chapel, which was, as it were, just across the way from their house. But anything he heard or saw there does not appear to have made much impression upon his mind. As already stated, he occupied his time during the service in drawing either with a pin upon the front of the pew, or else in imagination upon the air. Like most youths of his age, he was full of life, fond of fun and frolic, and not much given to serious thought, except in connection with the art he had espoused. When the hours of work were over, and he was tired of study, he liked to be in the streets. There was life there, and action and colour, and these were the things upon which he chiefly fed mentally.

While an Academy student, although not physically so strong as many of the other students, and unable to compete with them in all their rough and boisterous games, yet he was as fond of frolic and of active exertion as any of them, and what he lacked in strength of muscle he made up for in vigour of will and activity. Indeed, in some respects these qualities gave him the advantage, as in a little trial of muscle and wind with his long-legged fellow-student David Wilkie (of which we are afforded a glimpse in his autobiography, written in old age), when he led the bony Scotchman a dance down Drury Lane, and, spritelike, eluded him at the last, so fleet and agile was he.

But the time came when serious thoughts began to occupy his mind. During his years of tuition under Varley, and afterwards at the genial master's house, where he, and, indeed, almost anybody with gifts of thought or performance, was ever welcome, he met with men of all shades of political and religious opinion, and must have heard the most opposite and extreme views on nearly every subject advanced and discussed by some of the ablest and most sincere minds of the day. Not only did he meet Shelley and William Godwin in this way, but also many of the latter's complexion of thought. Amongst others he met Charles Lamb in this motley circle of celebrities.

Of Godwin he probably made the acquaintance through Mulready, who did many book illustrations for him. For a time he appears to have given drawing-lessons to Charles Clairmont, the son of Mrs. Clairmont, Godwin's second wife, and in Mr. C. Kegan Paul's biography of William Godwin (1876) there is a letter from the boy to his stepfather, then atttending the deathbed of his mother at East Dereham, in which he says: 'We are all going tomorrow to Hampstead Heath to spend a whole day, and Mr. and Mrs. Mulready, Mr. and Mrs. Dawe, and Mr. Linnell are going with us. Mr. Linnell and Mr. Mulready will sketch part of the time, which will be very amusing.' Incidentally we obtain a hint of Mulready's opinion of his friend's ability as a painter, the writer of the letter recording almost incredulously that 'Linnell is the best painter that he (Mulready) knows.' In later life our artist used to recall having frequently met Godwin at his business place in Skinner Street, Snow Hill.

The views Linnell then heard broached and freely discussed in this circle of artists and thinkers must have left their impression upon a mind so open as his, and given him food for serious thought. Society was then a very seething caldron of ideas, socialist, revolutionary atheistic, wildly impracticable, and mildly utilitarian. Nothing seemed stable; the very foundations of society itself appeared to be giving way, and to require new methods to hold them together. Every other man also was prepared with his nostrum or panacea for the ills under which the world was suffering. The class of men amongst whom our artist chiefly moved was specially liable to be influenced by this whirl of ideas; and it speaks much for the strength and balance of his mind, and the clearness of his perception, that he was led away by none of the prevailing theories. That he afterwards became a Liberal, and a philosophical Republican generally in his way of thinking, may have arisen in a sense from the views he then heard advanced. But John Linnell was always of so logical a cast of mind, so diligently sought out and, as far as he could, arrived at the root of things, and upon them based his opinions and conduct, and his Liberalism or Republicanism were so much on all fours with his religious views, that one cannot help thinking that they were the result of similar critical analysis and rigid induction.

It was now that those religious views took their rise, and it was one of the Varleys who was the means of directing him to the source whence he imbibed the spiritual truth which coloured and gave character to the whole of his subsequent life. As already stated, Cornelius Varley was the only one of the three brothers who was at all of a religious turn. With him even it appears to have been more emotional than fundamental. But whether that be so or not, he was in the habit of attending the ministrations of a celebrated preacher of that time, the Rev. John Martin, pastor of the Baptist Church, Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, a man whose discourses he so greatly admired and praised so warmly that he induced John Linnell to go and hear him. The result was that the young man was so pleased with the eloquent preacher that he went again and again to hear him, and ended by becoming a convert to the principles he taught. A conviction of that kind to a mind like Linnell's could only mean one thing: what he believed he must act up to. Hence, having adopted the tenets of the Baptist faith, he resolved to follow them out strictly in his life. He accordingly made a confession of his faith, was baptized by immersion, and formally joined the Baptist communion.

All this was not done without great thought and preparatory study; but having once settled in his mind what was the right course for him to pursue, there was no possibility of half-measures with him. Certain directions were inseparably connected with the promise of blessing, and so deep were his religious convictions that he was compelled to follow the directions in order to gain the blessing. Throughout his long life he never ceased to be thankful that he had acted upon those early convictions.

For Mr. John Martin, the man who had wrought these happy changes in him, Linnell had ever the greatest esteem and admiration. He considered him a very 'remarkable man, most upright in every sense of the word, physically as well as morally.' although 'rather dogmatical and sometimes overbearing,' yet 'he was opposed to all priestly assumption except his own.' Of his sermons, Linnell, writing many years afterwards, says they 'were simple, earnest, and logical, without affectation, and highly esteemed by all the best judges and the best people.' One cannot look at his portrait (painted by his young disciple) or read the volume of his published sermons without being convinced that such was the case.

This portrait, executed in 1812, is one of the best Linnell ever did, and any man who produced such a work at the age of nineteen might well be proud of the achievement. The original is still in the possession of the Linnell family. The artist also engraved a fine plate of it, upwards of seven hundred copies of which were sold.

Linnell joined the Baptist community in January, 1812, consequently when he was in his twentieth year. This step was fraught with importance in more ways than one. It is always of importance to a man that he should come to an understanding with himself as to the spiritual side of his nature. When he has done that, and has, as it were, marked out his course in that direction, he can turn his energies with more calm, and with a less divided front, to the business of his everyday life. This was one of the things which the settlement of his religious convictions did for John Linnell.

Another thing that it did for him was to introduce him to an entirely new circle of acquaintances, many of whom became lifelong friends. Amongst these was Mr. Thomas Palmer, one of whose daughters was afterwards to become his wife. Mr. Palmer was a coal-merchant and bookseller, and carried on business in Swallow Street, Oxford Street (afterwards demolished to make room for Regent Street). He was a meek and unassuming man, very exact and methodical in character, and of a thoughtful and studious turn. For one of his position and opportunities he was a very well-read, and even a learned, man. He had a good knowledge of Hebrew, and was able to give valuable assistance to his cousin (Mr. Thomas Chevalier, a surgeon of repute of that day) in the Biblical studies to which he devoted his leisure-time. Mr. Chevalier was also a member of the Keppel Street Church. He and Mr. Palmer were brought up together, and educated for the same profession by their uncle Sturgis; but in the end Palmer was obliged to relinquish surgery as a profession for want of the nerve and courage necessary to practise. But though this deficiency spoiled his success in life, it did not prevent him from acquiring much knowledge and winning the esteem of all who knew him for his many amiable qualities.

Linnell had the greatest respect for Mr. Palmer, considering him in every respect a true Christian. After a short time spent as under-secretary to a nobleman, he devoted himself to business, and though he did not thrive greatly, and could not, therefore, dispense the hospitality that many of his friends of the Keppel Street congregation did, yet his humble abode in Swallow Street was visited by the best and most intellectual people connected with that church.

There, too, Linnell was a constant visitor, and his intimacy with the family soon led to an engagement between him and Mr. Palmer's second daughter, Mary. The friendships and associations that ripened under Mr. Palmer's roof were very valuable to him, and redounded to his profit, not only in an intellectual and moral, but also in a more temporal direction. He painted a number of portraits of persons connected with the church, and in other ways broadened his business connections through his new acquaintances. Amongst others he won the friendship of Mr. Bagster, the publisher, who was a member of Keppel Street, and for whom he subsequently visited Hertfordshire and Derbyshire in order to make drawings to illustrate a new edition of Walton and Cotton's 'Angler.'

Linnell derived much personal benefit from Mr. Palmer's acquaintance. Under his influence his early taste for reading was strengthened and encouraged, and he turned his attention to the careful study of the Scriptures. With his friend's assistance he began to learn Hebrew, and he records that he often sat up half the night in Mr. Palmer's little room engaged in these and other literary pursuits. In short, at this period he laid the foundation of a very considerable acquaintance with books and general literature.

Amongst others who at this time belonged to the Keppel Street community was Mr. Charles Heathcote Tatham, who was the architect of the church, and the father of Frederick Tatham, the sculptor and portrait-painter in watercolours, subsequently an intimate friend of William Blake. Mr. Charles Tatham was an architect of some repute, having studied in Italy and exhibited at the Royal Academy (for the first time in 1797). His daughter Julia married Mr. George Richmond, the portrait-painter, afterwards the Royal Academician. Mr. Tatham was at that time a man of wealth and position, and had hopes for his daughter beyond the poor portrait-painter that Richmond then was. In consequence of his opposition to the match the two eloped, and were married at Gretna Green, Mr. Samuel Palmer, the artist, lending them the money for the purpose.

Tatham was deeply annoyed at the marriage, and related the occurrence to Linnell in great grief, fearing his daughter had done a foolish thing. Linnell consoled him, telling him he made a great mistake, and that he ought rather to congratulate himself upon the match, because he had every confidence that Richmond would prove to be an honour to the family.

Tatham was no less surprised than gratified, and exclaimed:

'Do you think so? I am so delighted to hear you say so!'

He had reason to be pleased, for Richmond, as is well known, subsequently became one of the most successful portrait-painters of the day.

Referring to his acquaintance with Mr. Tatham, Linnell afterwards wrote: 'Tatham was much among the great, had large works in hand for them, had been in Italy, and was a man of cultivated taste, and naturally a proud man, which appeared unhappily the case at the latter part of his career, for had he been wise enough to accept of commissions for works of inferior size he might have been fully employed; but he stood out for large jobs from the titled great and would not undertake jobs from builders and others. The consequence was he mortgaged his property, and ended by being only the overseer of twenty poor men for some charity.' In other words, he was appointed Warden of Trinity Hospital, East Greenwich, in which position he died in 1842.

Tatham published a number of works connected more or less with architecture and decoration, amongst others 'A Miscellaneous Collection of Original Drawings, by John Linnell, made and for the most part executed during an extensive practice of many years in the first line of his profession by John Linnell, upholsterer, carver, and cabinetmaker. Selected, etc., by C. H. Tatham, architect, 1800.' This John Linnell Mr. F. G. Stephens supposes to have been an ancestor of our artist.

To judge by a number of letters written by him to Linnell, Mr. Tatham must have been an amiable as well as an able man. One of them, bearing the postmark March 29,1817, is as follows:

Queen Street, Mayfair, Friday.
DEAR LINNELL,

I took your letter to Lord Morpeth this morning, who recommended me to forward it to Lord Carlisle, which I have done by post.

There happened to come into the room a beautiful girl about Julia's age, and Lord Morpeth said he wanted a drawing of her, but could not afford it. I instantly said, " If you only mean a sketch of the head, Linnell is the man who will most gladly do anything of that kind for you upon your own terms."

After a little hesitation he said, " Well, if you will bring Mr. Linnell here any morning after ten days" (he going out of town), " I should be glad to see him." So bear this in mind. It will be another connection for you.

Yours ever,
C. H. Tatham

Another characteristic letter is without date:

DEAR LINNELL,

If you will do me the favour to come here tomorrow and sketch in some bass-relievos to a drawing of an elevation I am making, you will do me a kindness; besides which I want much to consult you, before I begin the shadows of the drawings, as to the style of finishing them. Pray do come, and fix the hour by bearer — say, one o'clock — and I will have a lunch ready for you. Ten o'clock would suit me best. I must recommend you the following motto for Mr. Martin's print, which you are now upon for the sermons:

"Unmov'd, Unshaken, unseduc'd, unterrified,
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal; Nor number, nor example, with him wrought,
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind."

Paradise Lost, Book V.

Pray think of this. Mr. Chevalier approves it as being most applicable to our venerable and incomparable friend.

Ever yours truly,
C. H. Tatham

P.S. — Pray show the bearer, Mr. Rampling, your paintings; he is assisting me.

Linnell's engagement to Mary Palmer was undoubtedly a very momentous step for him to take; it was, indeed, the turning-point of his life. It caused him to look very carefully to his position as a business man, and to make a fair calculation of his prospects. As a result of his survey he resolved to redouble his exertions, in order to improve his condition and lay the foundation of prosperity.

He at the same time began to read more systematically, and with a view to the general enlargement and cultivation of his mind. although he had become religious, he in no sense became sectarian. While he held with the Baptists, he did so only in so far as they seemed to keep closest to the truth of the New Testament. He considered that in their views and practice in regard to baptism they were the only sect who had the sanction of the Gospels. He was very firm in his adhesion to this central doctrine of the Baptists, and used to affirm that the Pope, though he confidently claimed all baptized persons as his subjects, was little aware that neither he nor any of his real subjects had ever been baptized at all, and his claim to rule over Christians generally was nullified by the flaw of their baptism. Another determined view he held was that the present Anglican sacramental ceremony is a mere alternation of the Roman Catholic Mass, and not by any means the original institution.

But notwithstanding these strongly-held views, Linnell's mind was large enough, and his sympathies broad enough, to allow to all men what he claimed for himself — absolute freedom of conscience. Especially Catholic were his tastes in literature. Albeit, from the day that he joined the Keppel Street Church to the day of his death, he set the Bible above all books, yet it by no means caused him to overlook or undervalue our justly-prized classics. Perhaps in his general reading poetry took the first place, his favourite authors, after Shakespeare, being Milton and Burns. Nor did he confine his attention to Milton's poems alone, but found in his prose writings also much that was sympathetic and strengthening to his line of thought. Of Burns's songs he committed many to memory, and was fond of repeating them.

He was also a great lover of Homer, and took especial delight in Chapman's robust translation, of which he subsequently bought William Blake's fine folio copy. He was an omnivorous reader, as a short list culled from his purchases between 1814 and 1816 will show. Much has been said of late about the best hundred books. Here, then, are fifty purchased and read by a successful artist on what we may call the threshold of his career — at the time, that is, when he was forming both his style as an artist and his character as a man:

Ferguson's 'Astronomy,' Locke on Education, Booth's 'Reign of Grace,' Herbert's Hymns, Robertson's 'Key to the Hebrew Bible,' Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs' (edition of 1648, which cost 5)' Greek Lexicon, Plato, Evelyn on Forest Trees, 'Popular Description of the Human Body,' Mosheim's 'Ecclesiastical History,' Caxton's 'Institutes,' Campbell on the Gospels, Spearman's 'Inquiry into Philosophy,' Addison's 'Evidences,' Lowth's 'Isaiah,' Locke on Toleration, Booth's 'Legal Hope,' Beattie's 'Essay on Truth,' 'Life of Bishop Ridley,' 'Fuller's Letters, Grenville Sharp's' Hebrew Tracts,' 'Aesop's Fables,' Berwick's 'Quadrupeds,' Dryden's Virgil, Prior's Poems, Hervey's Works, St. Augustine, 'Hudibras,' 'Pilgrim's Progress,' 'Sir Isaac Newton's Letters, Bacon's Works, Cicero 'On the Nature of the Gods,' Oldfield on Reason, Bloomfield's 'Farmer's Boy,' Sheridan on Education, Chaucer's Works (black letter, 1612), Bailey's Dictionary, Rapin's 'Critical Essays,' Locke on the Understanding.

The list might be considerably augmented by borrowed books; but the above works indicate the bent of the artist's mind, and the direction in which his studies lay.


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Last modified 1 December 2001