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.

Refusal to become an Academician — Why was Linnell not elected R.A.? — What he himself thought — Urged by Creswick and Herbert to put down his Name — His Reasons for Objecting — Again urged by Stanfield — Royal Commission on the Academy — Correspondence between Mr. Horsley, R.A., and Linnell — Letter to the Athenaeum — Mr. Cope's Reply.

decorated initial 'R'EFERENCE has previously been made to the fact that for many years Linnell applied in vain for admission to the Royal Academy, and something has been said of his opinions as to the reason of his being passed over. But the question why he was not elected in the days that he sought the honour, though often asked, has never hitherto been satisfactorily answered. For something like twenty years (1821-1841) he regularly went through the prescribed form of setting down his name as a candidate for the Associateship; and for twenty years he was as regularly passed over in favour, for the most part, of inferior men. It could not be because his work was not known, since, as we have seen, during all those years he was a constant and honoured exhibitor on the walls of the Academy.

The Academicians have more than once shown a strange infatuation of blindness, as in the case of William James Müller, one of the greatest of modern painters, who, like Linnell, was not only not elected their ranks, but never even got the shadow of fair treatment at their hands. But as regards Linnell, there was no such excuse as blindness to his merits, for the undoubted powers displayed in his works from the first were almost universally acknowledged, while the Academy never grudged him space upon its walls.

Why, then, was he not elected?

Was it, as he always averred, because he held unpopular religious and political opinions — opinions that were not relished by the powers that were? In other words, was it because he was a Nonconformist and a democrat? We have seen what were his religious opinions. His politics were of a similar decided and uncompromising stamp. He never mixed up much in public affairs; albeit he voted steadily and consistently on the popular side. But he was in political opinion somewhat of a republican of the old Puritan type; and he never cared to disguise his views. Can it be because those views, both in regard to religion and politics, were not liked, that he was not elected? Or was it because, as Collins put it, a man who is a 'Sabbath-breaker' is capable of any wickedness, and therefore not a fit person to associate with Academicians? Or are we to believe that it was because he did not pay enough attention to his dress, and was not enough of a courtier, as Mulready said?

Possibly all these various reasons may have had their weight in the formation of the prejudice which kept him outside the 'charmed circle' of the Forty. For that prejudice was the cause of the injustice is unquestionable. Can anyone doubt that it was prejudice, and not lack of talent, seeing the walls of the Academy year after year covered with the bald, conventional, and insipid canvases of such men as Witherington, Lee, and others of the like stamp, who were preferred before a man whose brilliant pictures riveted alike the attention of learned and unlearned in art by their wonderful qualities?

The list of those who were elected Associates during the time that Linnell continued to be a candilate contains many notable names, such as those of Etty, Leslie, Eastlake, Creswick, Grant (afterwards President of the Academy), Clint, etc.; but these form barely a fifth of the whole number. Of the remaining four-fifths, the majority, as regards painting, have passed out of the record as unimportant entities in the history of British art.

What, then, was the reason of his non-election? Can it possibly be that he relied too much upon his art as the necessary passport, and that if he had not done so, but had seconded it with some of those electioneering devices which were so repugnant to him, the result might have been different? It was broadly hinted to him more than once in his earlier days that he should play the courtier more, make himself acquainted with the Academicians, and solicit their votes, etc.

Anything of that sort, however, as we have seen, Linnell resolutely refused to submit to, thinking that an academy of art a man should be elected for art alone.

When he had ceased to put down his name as a candidate, it became, after a time — when, having relinquished portraits, he was exhibiting landscapes more and more — a common thing for Academicians to advise him to do so, telling him there was every chance of his being elected at the next vacancy, and so on. This, he afterwards believed, was the custom and policy of the Academicians, in order to keep men hanging on to the skirts of the institution, judging, and doubtless rightly, that so long as they had any hopes of being elected they would not set themselves in opposition to the Academy.

At all events, this was the way in which Linnell accounted for the perseverance with which, after he had decided no longer to seek honour at the hands of the Academicians, he was solicited to re-enter the competition. In 1843, especially, William Collins was urgent in his appeals to him not to omit to put his name down, representing that he was almost sure to be elected. The persistency of these demands had the effect of putting Linnell's back up, remembering how often the same thing had been said, and how often he had been deceived, and to one Academician who thus importuned him, he is reported to have replied impatiently, 'The Academy can make me an R.A., but it can't make a fool of me!'

But whether the remark was made or not, it is certain that about 1843 he resolved to seek election no longer.

It was not resentment that caused him to come to this decision. He had at this time resumed his critical Biblical studies, and, in order to prosecute them to the best advantage, he wanted all the calmness of mind and freedom from external worry that it was possible to secure. And, though so frequently solicited to re-enter the competition, he never wavered in his resolve.

Among others who thus entreated him were Thomas Creswick, R.A., and John Rogers Herbert, R.A., the one in 1847 and the other a year later. When Herbert thus solicited him his picture of 'The Eve of the Deluge' was in the Royal Academy exhibition.

Recording the incident later, Linnell wrote:

'Herbert tried even to pull me downstairs to set my name down in the list, and asked me to let him do it for me. But I refused, for I then saw clearly that it was degrading to be chosen only to be an Associate.'

He goes on to say that, when he had been convinced that it would be hurtful to him as a man, as a Christian, and as a painter also, to be a full member of the R.A., it was not likely that he could 'submit to the insult of being admitted to the ante-room only.' He adds: 'There were men among the full members who have been pretty generally set down in the public estimate as inferior in attainment as artists to me.

Another by whom he was urged again to submit his name for election was Stanfield. This was in April, 1852. The R.A. sent a message to him by Wethered the dealer, requesting him to call and see him. He accordingly paid Stanfield a visit at Hampstead, where he was then living.

Linnell had that year sent in three landscapes, which were accepted and hung. They were 'The Timber Waggon,' 'Barley Harvest,' and 'Sere Leaf.' The first-named, the size of which is 34 by 56 inches, represents a dell surrounded by rich woodland; in it a number of men are leading a waggon with timber, while a distant landscape is seen through the trees to the right. This picture is remarkable as being the last painted of the artist's middle period. It was begun before he went to Redhill, from which time dates his later style. It is warm in tone, rather Titianesque in colouring, with a focus of rich blue sky and deep green trees. It was, as has been already observed, painted from studies made at Under-River, near Sevenoaks.

'The Timber Waggon' was painted for Mr. Oxenham, the dealer, of Oxford Street, by whom it was sent to the Paris Exhibition of 1855, and for which he received the gold medal, the chief prize for landscape. The medal, however, never reached Linnell's hands. The picture subsequently went into Flatow's possession, who sold it to Mr. David Price for 1,000. It was lent by the latter to the Old Masters Exhibition of 1883.

'Barley Harvest' (36 by 43 inches), which was also at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition (lent by Thomas Jessop, Esq.) along with the last-named, shows one of Linnell's troubled sunset skies over a woody background. In the foreground are men loading a waggon, while an empty wain is coming along the field to the right. 'Barley Harvest' was sold to Gambart for 300 guineas, and was at the Paris Exhibition of 1855 At the sale of the Gillott Collection in 1872 it was sold for 1,630 guineas.

'The Sere Leaf' shows us the middle of a wood, with pools of water in the foreground, and near them two men, one tying up a faggot, the other carrying one on his head; on the left are some children at play under a tree, on the right a horse and cart and other figures; the distant landscape is darkened by mist. The picture is somewhat brown and dark, with a Poussin-like quality of mystery about it. 'The Sere Leaf' was purchased by Mr. Oxenham, and was in the posthumous exhibition, lent by Mr. Wakefield Christy.

These pictures, when exhibited on the walls of the Academy in 1852, were greatly admired by all the Academicians, and Stanfield took occasion to point to the fact that the painter of them was still an outsider. Sir Charles Eastlake, Leslie, and others, declared that it was disgraceful to the Academy that such was the case, and a general opinion was expressed that someone ought to see Linnell and inform him that it was the general wish of the Academicians that he should put his name down for election.

It was to communicate this desire that Stanfield sent for him. He told him what a great impression his pictures had made, that he himself had got up and made a speech in his favour, and that there was a general feeling of regret that he had not put his name down.

Linnell expressed his gratitude to the members of the Academy for their high appreciation of his landscapes, and said 'that if he did not put down his name it would be for reasons allied to the fear of the mischievous effects of titles.'

'When I told him' (he writes) 'that I thought all titles were bad and unwholesome, quoting the Gospel of St. John: "How can ye believe that receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?" Stanfield put his hands upon my shoulders, and, looking in my face, said: " Oh, do you think so? Well, it is a much grander thought, and if I could be sure that it was so, I would lay down the title at once." '

One is inclined to smile as one reads this, because, good Catholic as Stanfield was, one can hardly imagine him retiring from the Academy on such a conscientious scruple.

Later the same day Linnell went to see Mr. Webster, R.A., who expressed the same views about his pictures, and said he would be elected if he put his name down. Mulready, whom he also saw, expressed the same opinion as Webster, and said all the landscape men would vote for him.

Referring to this invitation to accept the Associateship at a later period, Linnell wrote: 'I had arrived at that conviction, and through it resisted the enticement then offered to set down my name, with apparently a first-rate prospect of being chosen. I did not then know that probably all was insincere, and it was only to keep me as a follower, which, it is evident now, it has always been the policy of the R.A.'s to do with such as I was then.'

Thus the position remained until 1867, when, as a result of the Royal Commission on the Academy (1863), an alteration had been made in the method of electing Associates, it then being no longer necessary for an artist to inscribe his name as a candidate. Mr. J. C. Horsley, R.A., was deputed, or took it upon himself, to ask Linnell whether, if he were elected, he would accept the honour which he in earlier years had so greatly desired. Of course, after the position Linnell had taken up, there could be but one answer.

Mr. Horsley's letter was as follows

January 13, 1867.

You are perhaps aware that the mode of obtaining a list of candidates for the degree of Associate at the Royal Academy is now altered, and that it is no longer required that artists should themselves put down their names, but that it is the members of the Academy who are called upon to put down the names of those who they think should be elected.

In the list just sent to me of names obtained in the mode I have described above, there is one of a man who, it can be safely asserted, is considered by all who have any knowledge or love for art as one of the most distinguished artists this country has ever produced, and whose exclusion from the Academy years ago is, I believe, the one great blot upon their election annals.

The miserable reasons which led to this exclusion, no one cares to know now or inquire about; but it is believed that there would be the most hearty desire upon the part of a large majority (it may be said a unanimous desire) of the institution to rectify this wrong, and to give this honoured name the full honours of the Academy at the earliest possible day. There is an election for Associates on the 31st of this month, and there will be one for an Academician in June next at latest (a vacancy existing now). Need I say that the name I refer to is that of " John Linnell, Senior" ! It is very probable that your name has been put down without your knowledge or consent, but being down, I trust that you will sanction its appearing.

Nothing (artistically speaking) would give me more satisfaction than to see the ranks of the Academy honoured by the addition of your name.

I repeat (and I do so after due reflection) that I believe this is the only omission to be charged against the Academy, but it is such an omission that all its true friends will rejoice to see it atoned for. I am of course aware that you declined a few years since to let your name appear in the list, but I trust you will alter that resolve now; and you have given lately such an unmistakable proof of feeling your years to rest lightly upon you (let me sincerely congratulate you upon the event to which I allude!) that I hope you will exhibit similar juvenile feelings in matters academic.

My old friend (and yours) and neighbour Webster begs me to say how heartily he endorses all I have said.

All I have to ask is whether you sanction your name going to election on the 31st inst. With kind regards to you and all your circle,

Always faithfully yours,

To this Linnell replied as follows:

Redhill, Surrey, January 17, 1867.

I thank you sincerely for your letter containing so many kind expressions of professional approbation and asking me to allow my name to stand, with my sanction, in the list of candidates for the degree of Associate of the Royal Academy. I am gratified also by your saying that Mr. Webster endorses your request, and that a good majority might be expected in my favour. I am thankful for all this kindness, as it affords me an opportunity and a justification for stating my reasons for not following your advice, as well as my reasons for not having myself put down my name for the last twenty years, though I had done so previously for as many, or more, without success. I agree with you that "the miserable reasons which led to this exclusion no one cares to know or inquire about." But though I do not wish at present to examine the reasons for not electing me, I do wish to state (as you kindly afford me this ground for so doing) what my reasons were for discontinuing to put down my name. First, then, the jealousies and falsehoods that my endeavour to become an Associate gave rise to. I saw that heartburnings, calumnies, and injurious conduct beset everyone struggling in that direction, and affecting some to the extent of shortening their lives. I felt all this to be so destructive to the peace necessary to successful study and work, so destructive to all peace, and especially that peace which surpasseth all understanding, that I determined to abandon the contention for distinction and privilege, and to take the result of only endeavouring to deserve them. I did so, and I am contented with the result, and thankful exceedingly that I did not succeed in my effort to become an Associate, as I am convinced that if I had succeeded I should not have been found in the happy circumstances I now enjoy.

One great cause of the heart-burnings and jealousies seems to me to arise from the uncertainty of ever arriving at the full membership of the R.A.; but being detained and fixed for life in a degraded position of servility, alike degrading both to R.A.'s and Associates. I never heard that any of the foreign Academies of Art required an artist to solicit for full or half membership, but I have heard of full honours being conferred upon some without their knowing it until it was done. Honour thus conferred without seeking for it honours both the giver and receiver. But to elect a man to a position of servility and inferiority of privilege, and make his elevation to full honours dependent on the will of those who have already degraded him, is in my opinion a disgrace to all concerned in the act. I cannot therefore, it is plain, sanction my name being placed on the lists as candidate for what I consider a degradation.

I am, yours faithfully,

P.S. — When I think of that assembly which of all others is the chief, if not the only one really desirable to belong to — the real true Christian Church, to which 3,000 were in one day admitted to full membership — when faithful men established a school in which there were only official distinctions, and when I think of the sad usurpations afterwards established whereby the people were robbed of their privileges God had bestowed upon them — when I think of the pretext urged for the lording it over God's heritage, I see in all a sad but somewhat amusing type of the doings in such societies as the Royal Academy.


That Linnell did not make too much of the 'servility and inferiority of privilege' to which the Associates are elected may be seen by the evidence of David Roberts, R.A., before the Royal Commissioners. He said:

'The drawbacks to the present system are really so great that I think it renders not only the Associates themselves very wretched, but makes the Academicians feel very uncomfortable. I do not see anything to compensate for the pain it causes the Associates in the event of their not becoming full members. There are some of the Associates who have been upon the list upwards of twenty years whose chances of becoming Royal Academicians are hopeless, and who would have been much better off if they had never been elected Associates.'

He goes on to say:

'Whilst it (the Associateship) lasts (and it does so for life with some), I cannot conceive anything more painful to a sensitive mind ; and that all men of genius are sensitive will be readily admitted. Murmur at his hard fate he dare not; but he must appear happy and contented, with sometimes a heavy heart.'

Linnell subsequently wrote the following letter, which explains itself, to Mr. Horsley:

Redhill, February 18, 1867.


I was much pleased to hear from Mr. A., who, I suppose, is good authority, that I had not forfeited the friendship of the R.A.'s by my conscientious answer to your very kind letter inviting me to sanction the insertion of my name in the list of candidates for A.R.A. I hope this is true, and that I am not to be looked upon as an enemy because I have said what I believed to be the truth. I had no other wish, I assure you, than to say what I felt ought to be said by somebody, and the occasion seemed to me to justify the utterance of that unmitigated expression of my opinion. But as along with that expression I fear there was something said by me that might have appeared ambiguous, and imply more than I meant, I crave your indulgence to explain that in asserting my belief as to the custom of foreign Academies conferring full honours at once upon those they deemed worthy, and that without solicitation, and in my adding that I thought the bestowing honour so gratuitously honoured both giver and recipient, I only meant to state a fact in opposition to what I condemned. I did not, however, for a moment intend it to be guessed that I only wanted such honour to be conferred upon me. And I should not have written again upon the subject but for the fear that I might possibly have been so misunderstood; for allow me to assure you that I have no wish for anything of the kind from any society whatever. I am fully content with my position; and if my works obtain their fair share of attention in the hanging, I shall be thankful, and esteem it a favour, though I think I may claim somewhat in that direction, inasmuch as the Royal Academy does occupy the place of a national institution.

I am, yours truly,

P.S. — Years ago I was told that it was considered infra dig. for an R.A. to visit an outsider like myself who did not court the honours of the Royal Academy, and it is a fact that I have had scarcely any visits from R.A.'s, though often promised. One R.A. did come as far as my doormat, but could not be induced to penetrate beyond that apparently enchanted circle, or rather square. Now, what say you, Will you dare to come within the circle where I am casting my pictorial bullets? If not, what prevents you? Ask my old acquaintance, Mr. Richmond, who should not be forgot — ask him if he will come with you; he has not been since he was R.A. Or will both of you see me hanged first?


Mr. Horsley replied as follows:

February 28, 1867.

Please always direct to me as above, otherwise letters perform postal gyrations (as yours did the other day) before they reach me. I have also been away, otherwise I should have replied to your letter long since. There was, I assure you, but one feeling amongst the members of the Academy, and that sincere regret at your decision. Several blamed me for communicating with you at all, expressing their belief that if nothing had been said, and you were elected — as, doubtless, you would have been in the most unanimous way possible — that you would not have declined the election. It would be a lamentable position for me were this the case; but I feel confident from the tone of your first letter that nothing would induce you to alter your decision. Webster and I agreed that it was only right towards you and the Academy simply to state that you did not wish your name to go to election, and I trust that we verily and in deed acted according to your fixed determination by so doing. You must be joking in what you say about R.A.'s not calling upon you! Do you really believe that there is an artist worthy of the name who would not think it an honour to be welcomed under the roof of John Linnell? If you do, you have very little notion of the estimate put upon you. The cares and troubles of this mortal life prevent all of us from doing a tithe of what we would do; but I can truly say that I scarcely ever pass Redhill without looking at your roof peeping above the trees, and wishing I could have the pleasure of a chat with you, and the delight of seeing some sterling good art. Well, I trust this year will not pass without my beating up your quarters, and trying to convert you from what I venture to consider the erroneous views you entertain about the Academy. Think of two things — that the Academy for one hundred years has educated the whole body of artists of this country entirely gratuitously (besides spending thousands charitably upon others, and treating themselves, the members, in the stingiest fashion), and that the only real artist not included in their ranks during that time — the only one, is John Linnell; and admit that the institution has done well, and justly to some extent.

With kind regards to you and yours,
Ever faithfully yours,


I will give your message to Richmond.

The two letters signed 'John Linnell' (but without the postcripts) appeared in the Athenaeum on June 8, 1867, with the following explanation:

Since those letters were written, I sent four landscapes (39 by 28 inches) to the Royal Academy Exhibition, expecting they would be hung as usual, or a request to withdraw any one or more would have been made to me during the hanging, as on a former occasion, when my picture was afterwards hung well, as I declined to withdraw it. This time however, I found my picture (No.1 in my list) among the rejected pictures in the hall of the Royal Academy, with a label bearing my name stuck in the frame, on Wednesday, May 1, the varnishing day; and when I complained of this treatment to one of the hangers, he said he thought a letter had been sent to me. But that was not done. A letter came three days after, requesting me to send for the picture. This letter is dated May 3, and I had taken the picture away on May 1.

These are the facts, upon which I refrain from making any remarks. Others will form their opinion as to whether there was any connection between my letters and the determination not to hang my picture, judged by myself and friends to be my best work of the season, and marked in my list accordingly as No.1. The picture had been painted for a collector, who had hung it in his room with unqualified approbation; but he became so disgusted and annoyed by the rejection of the picture from the walls of the Royal Academy, that I was induced to take it back, and return the money he had paid me for it.


To this Mr. W. C. Cope, R.A., replied as under:

Mr. Linnell and the Royal Academy.
19, Hyde Park Gate South, Kensington Gore.

Mr. Linnell has written to the Athenaeum, June 8, complaining of the treatment he has received at the hands of the Royal Academy. I do not propose to follow him through his two letters on another subject which I have no concern; but as he insinuates a grave charge at the conclusion of his communication, I think it my duty as one of the "hangers" to notice it. He says, " Others will form their opinion whether there was any connection between my letters and the determination not to hang my picture." In other words, he implies that the Royal Academy is capable as a body not only of wishing to injure Mr. Linnell professionally on account of those letters, but that they had desired the Hanging Committee to manifest their displeasure by rejecting one of his pictures, and that the Hanging Committee was capable of consenting to carry out so base a suggestion.

The simple facts are these: Mr. Linnell sent four pictures for exhibition, all of which were accepted. The hangers had placed three of them in excellent positions, and the fourth was reserved to ornament the North Room. After repeated efforts to hang it upon the line, it was found impossible to do so without displacing other works of merit, many of them by younger artists who had not been so fortunate as to get even one picture placed.

Under these circumstances, the hangers concluded that it would be more respectful to Mr. Linnell to return the picture (with the usual letter expressive of regret), so that it might be available for exhibition on a future occasion, rather than place it in a position inferior to what its great merits demanded.

Mr. Linnell also complains of not having received the letter until May 3. This might have occurred from press of business in preparing the catalogue; but I presume that it was issued at the same time as other similar letters. I would have written to Mr. Linnell had I known that it had been done on a previous similar occasion, and for this neglect I hope he will accept my apology.

In conclusion, I have only to express my regret that it was found impossible to place a picture we all so much admired, and to remark that it was detained until the last moment in the hope of being able to find it a place in the North Room, which was the last to be arranged.

Begging you to allow the insertion of this (personal) explanation, and apologizing for its length,

I remain, etc.,
C. W. COPE, R.A.

Subsequently (1869) Linnell published this correspondence in a pamphlet, entitled 'The Royal Academy a National Institution,' in which he set forth at length his criticisms upon the Academy. But the more personal aspect of the matter as regards this episode in his career is well set forth in some remarks on honours and titles in general at the close of his Autobiography, the following excerpts from which may fittingly be given here:

'When you have found that nugget of wisdom' (he writes), '"To know my end and the measure of my days and to know how frail I am," then from that point of view all may be seen in its true light. God's estimate of worldly things becomes your estimate. This is the vantage-ground of truth that Bacon speaks of in his "Essay." From this point of view how vain and contemptible the struggles for distinction seem! " What is the chaff to wheat? saith Jehovah," and you see it bears no comparison, though you see thousands preferring the chaff. And truly it is a very sad sight, from this vantage-ground of truth, to see how elated even the highly-educated are with the baubles and toys of worldly ceremony and ostentation. We are not surprised to. see young children taken with toys, but we expect them to grow out of that taste. We are mistaken, however, for it is only changing one toy for another more vain and frivolous, and generally baneful and pernicious . . .

'But the true Christian man flies to his vantage-ground of truth, and forms his estimate of worldly things from that position . . . With such perceptions these toys are not to his taste. He has no doubt about the wisdom of rejecting them; and when any officious friend reproves him for disregarding his interest and the steps to his worldly prosperity, he feels there is a snare in his path; the counsel is from one who regards not the things of God but of men . . . No, let this mind be yours as also was Christ's, who emptied himself of the glory he had, and became a slave, suffering crucifixion as the path to exaltation. If we are exhorted to follow this example, how can we pursue those toys? If reputation for well-doing follows us, let us be thankful and accept the result in all honesty, as far as fair remuneration for our work is given, but not in the shape of those intoxicating, empty, worthless forms of titles, badges, or marks of any kind, which are often only marks of the beast.'

Last modified 1 December 2001