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.

Portrait-painting — Portraits of Callcott, Mulready, Collins, William Bray, Malthus, Sir Robert Peel, Archbishop Whately, Sarah Austin — Lord Jeffrey — Misunderstanding with Mulready — 'A Real Man' — Carlyle — Anecdote of — Letters by — Death of the Artist's Father — Spirit of Linnell's Art.

decorated initial 'D'URING his residence at Bayswater, although, as we have seen, Linnell executed many notable landscapes, yet to the world generally he was best known as a portrait-painter. The portraits that he did at that time are almost uncountable. Even those in oil are very numerous; but in addition to these he executed a large number in chalk and water-colours. Many of the latter being small in size, he was able to do them very quickly.

Thus, when he went into the country, as he frequently did, for the purpose of painting the portraits of a whole family, he would begin and finish half a dozen in the course of a few days.

In January, 1825 (from the 2nd to the 17th), Linnell was at Cheltenham, where he painted the portraits of General and Mrs. Darling, also of Master Darling, and a group of General Darling's two children for Colonel Dumaresque. In April and October the same year he again visited Cheltenham, on the second occasion to paint a portrait of Mrs. Kingscote. Linnell's portraits, even in the slighter material of chalk (adopted at a later period) and water-colours, were always greatly admired for their forcible expression and lifelike qualities. At first he used to get five guineas for portraits of this description drawn on buff paper (about half imperial in size) ; but later he had as many as he could do at ten guineas or more.

To this period belong many of his most famous portraits, notable alike for their truthfulness of expression and fine painting, many of them possessing Holbein-like qualities — freedom of handling, strong expression, and fine colouring. Not a few of these portraits are of considerable historical interest.

Amongst the number may be mentioned the likenesses of Sir A. W. Callcott (now in the possession of Mr. J. C. Horsley, R.A.), Mulready and William Collins; also that of Mr. William Bray, of Shere, who was the treasurer of the Society of Antiquaries, editor of Evelyn's 'Memoirs,' and author of a 'History of Surrey.' It is a small half-length figure seated in an armchair, and was executed in 1832, shortly before the subject's death at the age of ninety-seven. Of this portrait — which is one of the best the artist painted — Linnell, as already stated, afterwards executed a fine engraving in mezzotint.

To this period belong also the portraits of the Rev. T. R. Malthus, the author of the famous 'Essay on the Principles of Population' (1833); Mr. Thomas Empson (1843); Thomas Phillips, R.A., Professor of Painting (1835); Dr. Warren (1837); Sir Robert Peel (1838 and again in 1839); Archbishop Whately (1838); Mr. Spring-Rice (afterwards Lord Monteagle); William Otter, D.D., Bishop of Chichester (1843); John Claudius Loudon, the botanist (1840-41); Mrs. Sarah Austin (two), Lord Lansdowne, and Sir Thomas and Lady Baring.

The portraits of Mrs. Austin are of special interest, as being of a lady of great personal beauty, as well as of sterling literary accomplishments. She was the mother of Lady Duff Gordon, and came of a distinguished and talented family (the Taylors of Norwich), to which her many works, foremost among which stand her translation of Ranke's 'History of the Popes' and her 'Characteristics of Goethe,' gave additional lustre. Between Linnell and Mrs. Austin a strong friendship existed, and one of his portraits of her in especial shows a loving and masterly hand.

One of these portraits was purchased by Lord Jeffrey. The following letter, among others, has reference to the transaction.

24, Moray Place, Edinburgh, July 7,1834.

I have had the honour of receiving your obliging letter of last week, and am very happy to find that you have finished that promising picture of Mrs. Austin to your satisfaction. The price is a little more than I had reckoned on. But that is of no consequence, and if you cannot (or will not) make another, of the smaller size, which she thinks better, 1 shall be most happy to have this, on the terms you mention.

She, I find, is not perfectly satisfied with the character and expression of what is rendered; and I should certainly prefer having a resemblance which she admitted to be just. I should not think, however, of putting you to the trouble of another attempt, had I not understood that you originally wished to retain this picture for yourself, and may, therefore, have no objection to making a second and letting me have my choice.

If this, however, should seem unreasonable, or be inconvenient to you, I beg you will have the goodness to say so, when I shall readily settle, in the way you prefer. I feel too much obliged by the readiness with which you agreed to let me have the picture. when I asked it, to be now capable of pressing anything to which you have the smallest repugnance.

I shall be a good deal from home for two or three months to come, and have no wish, therefore, to have the picture sent immediately ; so that, at all events, you may, if so inclined, have time enough to prepare a rival for it, and give each of us a chance (from unhappy diversity of tastes) of having our favourite.

In the meantime I have the honour to be,
Dear sir,
Your obedient and faithful servant,


If it be any convenience to you to receive the price now, I shall lose no time in remitting it.

A subsequent letter indicates that someone who had seen the portrait reported to Lord Jeffrey that it was something 'short of perfection.' He in consequence suggested further work upon it. This the artist declined to do, and said that he had no great desire to part with the picture, whereupon Lord Jeffrey, enclosing a draft, asked Linnell to keep it for him until he returned from his ramble.

One of the portraits of Sir Robert Peel was commissioned by Mr. Norris, a former partner in the Peel cotton-spinning firm, and presented to Sir Robert's father. The statement has often been made that Linnell's early predilection was for Dutch art, and that his first style was based thereon. It has been pointed out in the foregoing pages that such was not the case, and an observation the artist made in regard to Sir Robert Peel's artistic taste emphasizes the fact. When he was painting Peel's portraits he had many opportunities of seeing his gallery, and he noted the fact that it was 'based on Dutch art.' Being something of a phrenologist, he noticed that Sir Robert had a broad lower part of the brow, and no reflective faculties, and remarked that he possessed 'no second storey to his head.' This he considered the reason of Sir Robert's admiration for Dutch, to the exclusion of almost all other art, because it is for the most part a simple transcription of the more physical aspects of nature, without any appeal to the higher imaginative and spiritual faculties of the mind.

An incident in connection with the portraits of Sir Thomas and Lady Baring led to a temporary interruption of the life-long friendship between the artist and Mulready. The two portraits, both small full-length figures, on canvas 44 by 36 inches in size, considered by the artist two of the best he ever did, and greatly admired by all, were sent to the Academy. Mulready was on the Hanging Committee that year, and from him Linnell received a message advising him to withdraw the portraits on the ground that he feared he could not find a good place for them. This request was the more difficult to understand because Mulready had previously praised the portraits very highly. Linnell replied that he would rather have them placed anywhere than rejected. He heard no more from Mulready, but the pictures were well hung.

For some time after this incident there was a coldness between the two friends. Mulready, who had been a constant visitor at Porchester Terrace, now did not go, and when he and Linnell met he was distant and reserved. The estrangement was healed, however, before very long by Linnell generously taking his friend's part when unjust allegations were made against him relative to his treatment of his son William. Linnell, hearing the story, declared that it was impossible that it could be true; from his long acquaintance with Mulready, he knew him to be incapable of the meanness with which he was charged. When the latter heard of his friend's kindly vindication, he called and thanked him warmly for his generous advocacy, at the same time showing him documents which proved that the charges made against him were unfounded. The breach between them was then healed.

Linnell's estimate of Mulready's character was a very high one. The worthy Academician had a phrase by which he was wont to designate thoroughly earnest and sincere men — they were 'real men.' So, using his own words, Mulready was to Linnell a real man. In his younger days he had been a wit — something of a practical joker — and capable of carrying everything before him in that line; but gradually, as the realities of life closed about him, and especially after the separation from his wife, he sobered down, and became a very serious and thoughtful man, precise in all his dealings, punctilious in conduct, and somewhat austere in his general manners. He was almost the very antipodes of John Varley, albeit always a stanch friend. When he played at billiards (as he sometimes did with Linnell), he played so careful and scientific a game that it was very hard to score against him, and there was consequently not much fun in the game for his opponent. As in his play, so in life: he adopted the most tried and approved rules, and did his best to follow them.

The Carlyle portrait, painted in 1844, was among the latest that the artist painted, although he did not finally relinquish portraiture until 1847. It is worthy of record that Linnell first came to know Carlyle through their common friend Mr. William Coningham, afterwards member of Parliament for Brighton. He lived two or three doors from the artist, in Porchester Terrace, and it was at his house that Linnell met the famous writer. Linnell had previously painted the portrait of Mr. Coningham, and it was the acknowledged excellence of this work that probably induced Carlyle to consent to sit for his likeness. This portrait, together with several others still in the possession of the Linnell family, appeared in the Winter Exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1883.

The artist used to tell an amusing anecdote in connection with the sittings Carlyle gave him for his portrait. The Sage had a great deal to say in favour of the Catholics. Among other things he said that they did not worship the images which appear so prominently in their ritual, but merely regarded them as representing an idea. Linnell recalled to his mind the description contained in Isaiah (chap. xliv.) of the man who got a block of wood, made a fire, and cooked his dinner with it, and then took the lump that remained, carved an image out of it, and worshipped it. Carlyle was greatly amused when the passage was recalled to his memory. He threw himself back in his chair, and with a loud roar of laughter cried, repeating a portion of the text:

'" Deliver me, for thou art my god !" A great jackass!'

The following letters from Carlyle to the artist in regard to the sittings for his portrait are characteristic, and will doubtless be of interest to the reader:

Chelsea Saturday.

Truly it would give me great pleasure to have my likeness taken by you; but I am at present in such a press of business, sickliness, and confusion, I fear it is totally impossible till the Exhibition time, and more, is like to be past.

With many respects and kind regards,
Yours most truly,


The second is dated Chelsea, June 30, 1843, and is as follows


Above a week ago you were kind enough to ask me to come and have that stationary portrait set in movement towards completion. I was too busy at the moment to think of anything whatever but what lay among my hands — up to my very chin; your very note has never yet been answered.

I go to Wales on Monday, having, indeed, terrible need of the country every way, and have, as you may imagine, every hour of the interim occupied, not in the pleasantest way.

Believe me,
Yours always truly,


A third letter is dated Chelsea, March 15, 1844, and is as follows:


observe that I did not surmise — that Mr. Coningham, indeed, did not hint to me of more than two sittings, and that to you at starting I stated expressly that I could undertake for no more. Such, according to my memory of them, are the facts. Nevertheless, if three hours more of my time, divided into " two more sittings," are really of importance to you, it seems churlish to refuse them. I am engaged for Friday or Saturday — I know not yet which. Let Mr. Coningham come down for me any other day at two o'clock, and you shall have me for an hour and a half; and then again any second day in the like fashion; and after that I wish to have it distinctly understood that I have done with the business, and really cannot attend to it, late or early, any farther.

Believe me always,
Faithfully yours,


In 1836 Linnell lost his father, who died at the end of October, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery on November 8. It seems like a bit of quaint satire to learn that the artist was obliged to read the Funeral Service over his parent's grave himself, because there was no one else to perform the rite. The ground in which the grave was dug being unconsecrated, the clergyman of the place would not officiate, and the Dissenting minister was absent from home, and therefore could not.

This was one of the very few occasions on which Linnell attended a funeral. He had a great objection to doing so, and acted all his life very much on the precept, 'Let the dead bury their dead.' Serious and religious as he was, he disliked anything lugubrious, and had no sympathy with the studied dolefulness of conventional mourning. His convictions led him to regard death rather as a joyful event than otherwise; but, in any case, it was to his mind too solemn a matter for the ceremoniousness and the mockery, as he considered it, with which it is too often surrounded. His religion was one of joyousness and hope, and he encouraged cheerfulness and innocent delight on all occasions. 'Tell me not of death,' he says in one of his poetic pieces

'Tell me not of death, of churchyards, and God's acre,
I'm in love with life, sweet maid, and I will take her
As she is given me from her Father's portal,
To be mine for ever, making me immortal.
Let the dead bury the dead, and o'er corruption linger.
I will heed them not, unless to point my finger
In mockery of their processions and paradings,
Their ostentation and their masqueradings.
Ah when will man perceive the glorious truth,
That death's the road to everlasting youth —
Youth of the soul. The body which decays
Is nothing — food for worms. But future days
Will sure reveal the form that God will give
To each saved soul his truth has caused to live.
The whole creation groaneth for that blest hour, —
When bodies sown in weakness shall be raised in power.'

This disposition of mind explains his attitude towards art. Into all that he did he infused this spirit of joyousness. He never touches a morbid or a vulgar subject — rarely a melancholy one. His brush is at its strongest when he is depicting the joyousness of nature, the joyousness of labour, the joyousness of children at play. He had a great antipathy to much of the work of the modern French school on this account, considering it degrading to art to delight in the portrayal of horrors. He had a similar objection to the imitation of antiquated art, which he considered unreal, and in its way as unwholesome as the depicting of horrible scenes.

In his own choice of subjects he was guided by the desire to give delight and induce thankfulness. He aimed at being true; and though he threw as much poetry into his subjects as he could, he never overstepped the bounds of fidelity. In all this he was guided not only by the higher motives of sincerity and truth, but also by a shrewd business tact which told him that people would be most likely to buy that which gave them pleasure.

The artist has expressed these views in one of his short poems. It would not be easy to find anywhere fifteen lines in which there is combined so much humour, piety, love of nature, and 'business,' as in the following:

'I said, Though polar bears their thousands bring,
And art medieval's thought the very thing;
Yet I will paint the dainty spring,
The summer and the autumn sky,
With the fields and hills
Whose glory fills
My heart with ecstasy;
I'll paint the reapers in the harvest field,
At work or rest, for both will yield
Pictures of happiness and bounteous love,
Bestowed on just and unjust from above;
All these I'll paint, at least, I'll try.
But if I do — oh, tell me true
Do you think anyone will buy?
And echo softly answers, " By-and-by!" '

John Linnell

Last modified 1 December 2001