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.
Cornelius Varley — His Death — Letter by Mr. Gladstone — The Chantrey Bequest — Proposal to purchase one of Linnell's Pictures — Correspondence — Last Days — Visited by Mr. Holman Hunt — Death.
ORNELIUS VARLEY, who has been previously mentioned as having had so important an influence upon the life and character of John Linnell, he having been the first to introduce him to the Baptists, outlived his elder brother John by upwards of a quarter of a century, dying in 1873 (October 2), in the ninety-second year of his age. He presents, in his life and achievements, a striking contrast to his brother, and exemplifies perhaps as well as anyone could the advantage of talents over genius. John Varley was a genius, with many of the eccentricities, and all the possibilities of running an ill-regulated course, that are among the only too well-known attributes of genius. Cornelius, on the other hand, with many talents, was as regular as a watch, to the business of making which he was first put. He subsequently devoted himself to the study of mechanics, chemistry, and optics. After learning the trade of an optician, he gave it up to follow in the footsteps of his brother, as did also the third brother, William Fleetwood Varley, becoming a water-colour painter, and making several visits to Wales, and one to Ireland, in the pursuit of his calling. But he subsequently settled down again to the making of optical instruments, and to the study of science generally. He was the author of many articles, and one or two works on subjects connected with mechanics, optics, and allied subjects.
His invention of the Graphic Telescope has already been referred to. The Colosseum, it would appear, owed its origin to this instrument, Mr. T. Homer, after satisfying himself of its capabilities, having erected an observatory on the dome of St. Paul's, where he fitted up a Graphic Telescope, and traced his magnificent panorama of London, for the reception of which the Colosseum in Regent's Park was built.
In 1850 Mr. Varley was elected chairman of the committee of exhibitors in Class 10 for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and received a prize-medal from the jurors for his telescope, forty years after its invention. A fellow-member of the Society of Arts who had known him for many years has described him as 'a most conscientious man, a true friend, an excellent philosopher, and an able mechanic and optician.'
In 1871 John Linnell had occasion to write to his old friend as an expert in the last-named capacity, when his letter brought forth the following reply with its double postscript:
337, Kentish Town Road, NW., October 2, 1871.
Though spectacles were largely made by excellent machinery in London, yet latterly they have all migrated to Sheffield, from whence nearly all the dealers obtain them. So I reckon you can be as well supplied in the nearest town to yourself as in London, you stating size and focus that will suit you. But I recommend pebbles as being more transparent and harder than glass, and not so liable to be scratched.
P.S. I don't think we have seen each other since you banished yourself from London. I am nearly through my ninetieth year. How much younger are you?
2nd P.S. — I think it was you who gave me a small coin found in the Red Hills many years ago. It represents the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Revelation — a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. The moon regulated all the Jewish feasts, particularly the Passover. It is her foundation and support; the sun her clothing of righteousness; the stars her honours, the twelve Apostles. On the reverse is the woman and manchild whom the dragon has always sought to destroy by floods out of his mouth. Witness the many thousand books which the clergy have poured and still are pouring forth. It has become a separate trade to deal in clerical books only.
This and a letter dated nearly twenty years previously are the only ones, in the mass of Linnell's correspondence, from Cornelius Varley. The letter, written from 1, Charles Street, Clarendon Square, and dated July 2, 1853, is as follows:
I cannot distinctly say I have practised photography, though we have fitted up several sets of apparatus for others. Two of my sons who were making themselves acquainted with it have now got profitable engagements very far from home, so at present we are not pursuing it. Yet for any profitable engagement I could go through the processes sufficiently to communicate the same to others.
The Photogenic Society have an exhibition of excellent sun-pictures, and works in the Royal Academy show that photography is doing much good to the arts.
I cannot fix any day in the ensuing week to give you a visit, but may be able in the week after, if you are determined to go heartily into play with the sunbeams, the most glorious associate the arts have ever had.
Yours very truly,
J. Linnell, Esq.
11, Canton House Terrace, S.W., May 21, 1873.
My Dear Mr. Richmond,
Acceptable as must be the engraved portrait you have kindly deposited here, both for its own sake and because it proceeds from Mr. Linnell, I must not hold it in fraud; and therefore I hasten to acquaint you that Mr. Cardwell is the fortunate possessor of the picture of Sir R. Peel which it represents.
I mentioned the work to Mr. Cardwell, and had our respective positions in respect to the blessing of offspring been reversed, I might perhaps have made the acquisition, about which he was most considerate.
I am happy enough to possess a picture by Mr. Linnell, which I greatly value.
Had not my name been placed in error on the print, by Mr. Linnell's kindness, I should at once have forwarded it to Mr. Cardwell, and I think I had better do this as it is, unless I hear from you to the contrary effect.
W. E. Gladstone.
I ought to add that I have sown my wild oats, and am now a reformed character in regard to purchases.
In the year 1876, when the Chantrey Fund became available for the purchase of works for a national collection, there was a feeling amongst some of the Academicians that a portion of the first money at their disposal under the bequest could not be better expended than in the purchase of one of John Linnell's famous landscapes. George Richmond made a proposal to that effect, and he was heartily supported by Mr. Webster and others. The suggestion, however, does not appear to have been taken up very earnestly amongst the Academicians generally, or it must have resulted otherwise than it did. Opinion was in favour of a picture of Linnell's second period, when he was undoubtedly at his greatest, and Mr. Richmond was commissioned to see what was in the market. In the course of his inquiries he made a journey to Redhill to look at the pictures still in the artist's possession.
The following correspondence has reference to the proposed purchase. The first letter is dated January 1, 1877, and was from Mr. Thomas Johnson, a dealer of Manchester:
My Dear Sir,
I cannot resist wishing you and yours every good wish for the New Year.
I think you will be equally gratified with myself to hear that the Royal Academy think of purchasing one of your finest works out of the "Chantrey Bequest." In short I was asked if my friend Mason, of Bradford, would sell the "Last Gleam before the Storm," which I bought last year for £2,500 guineas, and which originally belonged to Mr. Eden, of Lytham. I have named the subject to several R.A.'s, and they strongly approve of the purchase, notably Webster, who told me this morning that he sincerely hoped it would be accomplished. Raeburn's portraits in the Academy are much admired. I trust you keep fairly well.
On the receipt of this letter Linnell sent it with the following note to Mr. Richmond:
Dear Mr. Richmond,
Enclosed is a letter received this morning, and as you so kindly interested yourself in the matter, I send it to you for perusal and return, with my wish that you may remember my two R.A. pictures, 1875, 1876, are both with me, price £2,000 each, a price I was offered for one, but refused.
I am, yours truly,
J. Linnell, Sen.
The pictures referred to are 'Woods and Forests' (41 by 57 inches), which was sold at the Neck sale at Christie's in 1890 for 1,900 guineas, and 'The Hollow Tree,' subsequently purchased by Mr. McLean for £1,600.
Linnell's reply to Mr. Johnson, dated January 4, was as follows:
Dear Mr. Johnson,
Many thanks for your kind letter. The subject is not new to me, for my old friend Richmond, R.A., had last year interested himself in the matter of the proposed purchase of one of my works for the Chantrey Fund Collection. Mr. Richmond recommended my 1875 R.A. picture as one, or the 1876, but the committee seemed to wish for one of my middle style. If you are referred to, will you kindly remember that both my R.A. pictures, 1875 and 1876, are still in my possession, price £2,000 each. The amount I refused for one, but would now for such a purpose feel gratified by the sale at that price. Hoping you will come and see them the first opportunity,
Thomas Johnson, Esq.
I am, yours truly,
John Linnell, Sen.
The following letter from Mr. Richmond completes the correspondence on the subject, and nothing more seems to have been done in the matter.
20, York Street, Portman Square, W., January 2, 1877.
Dear Mr. Linnell,
I heartily join with Mr. Johnson (whose note I return) in wishing you, and all yours, a very happy New Year; and I can think of very few things of a professional kind that would delight me more than that the trustees under the Chantrey Fund should make their first purchase in a picture of John Linnell, sen.
This I stated in Council when I first entered upon the duties two years ago, and the last time we met before going out of office, I rose to urge this with all the earnestness that I felt. This was on December 12 last.
Your picture exhibited in 1875 I mentioned as one that I should like to purchase, but I see that many of the Academicians incline to a work of your middle time.
I asked Woolner about the picture that was his, and which was sold at Christie's last year, and he said he would inquire if the possessor was willing to part with it. So stand matters now. And such is the uncertainty of things in which several persons are concerned, that I should not be surprised if no agreement is come to, and no picture purchased for some time to come. But still I heartily hope that it will not turn out so, but that purchases will be made soon, and that a picture by you will be the first that is purchased for the collection which is eventually to be the nation's.
Dear Mr. Linnell,
Very faithfully yours,
It would have been a graceful act if the Academy, which ignored Linnell so long, had seen its way to do him the honour of selecting one of his noble landscapes as the first to form the nucleus of a national collection under the Chantrey Fund; but it was not to be — the spirit which had ever been against him was against him still, and though his friends in the Academy did their best for him, their efforts were in vain. Mr. Richmond in particular never ceased to regret the failure of this endeavour to do an act of well-merited honour to the octogenarian painter.
Linnell continued to paint almost to the last; but in his latest works he shows a gradual falling off. He becomes somewhat mannered and less simple, more large and general in his treatment, with less of that definition and detail which give to his earlier works some of the finer qualities of Dutch art. Then his touch became less firm, with the result that his pictures began to show a certain amount of 'wooliness.' Along with the weakening of his hand came a gradual failure of sight, so that he had to take to stronger and stronger glasses. Among the latest exhibited of his works was a small 'Woodcutter.' A man is seen standing on the felled trunk of a tree in the act of swinging his axe. It was painted from a sketch made at Hampstead while he was living there, but it was not finished till towards the close of his career. Then, on account of the talk about Mr. Gladstone's fondness for tree-felling, he used to call it his 'Gladstone.' It cannot, of course, be reckoned amongst his best productions ; but it is, nevertheless, a sufficiently remarkable picture, when it is considered that it was painted when the artist was considerably over eighty years of age. The last painted of his pictures were 'Sweet fa's the Eve,' 'The Heath,' and 'Sunset on the Common.'
Finally, during the last year or two of his life, in consequence of the gradual decline of physical power, he was obliged to give up painting altogether. It was a trial to him; but this, as well as his growing physical infirmities, he bore with exemplary patience. Happily his mental perceptions remained undimmed to the last, which was a source of great thankfulness both to himself and to those about him.
It was during this period (1881) that Mr. Holman Hunt, being on a visit with Mrs. Hunt to Mr. William Linnell, who was now living at Hill's Brow, the house built for him on the estate by his father, called upon his old friend. He thus describes what occurred on that memorable occasion:
'He was then very feeble from advanced age, not seeing people under ordinary circumstances. To me it seemed a characteristic and noble earnestness which made him abruptly appeal to me on my approach in exhortation on the importance of mastering the teaching of the New Testament as the first important duty of life. He would not allow me to evade the question, but appealed to me for a direct answer whether I had done this. The scene was a very interesting one in my eyes. He recognised that he had come to his last days, and that there would never again be an opportunity for him to deliver his sacredest message of all to me; and he would not fail, although, when he regarded my reply as failing in thoroughness he had to reproach me, which he did unsparingly.'
The venerable painter had the Bible in his hand when Mr. Hunt entered. He held it aloft tremblingly as he spoke, asking him if he had made sure of his eternal salvation. To him then nothing else appeared of any importance, and he insisted upon the momentousness of the question with the earnestness and solemnity of a man with one foot in the grave.
This is almost the last glimpse we get of Linnell from an outside source, and it shows him as he had ever been — direct fearless, and sincere, thinking more of the real, the true, and the eternal, than of that which is merely ephemeral and conventional.
He finally passed away, the physical powers of his nature quite exhausted, on January 20, 1882, being then ninety years of age all but five months. He was conscious to the last, and had but a few minutes before taken leave of the members of his family, most of whom were gathered by his bedside.
Last modified 9 December 2001