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.

Making Oil-Copal Varnish — Death of William Collins, R.A. — Wilkie Collins — His Estimate of Linnell — John Everett Millais — His First Love.

decorated initial 'R'EFERENCE has previously been made to the circumstance of John Glover, the landscape-painter, having made Linnell acquainted with the superior qualities of oil-copal as a medium for oil-painting. In the early part of his career our artist, as well as Mulready, had been in the habit of using only boiled linseed-oil, diluted with turpentine, and many beautiful works by both artists exist in excellent condition which were painted with this medium, though they have not the brilliancy and transparency of their later works in copal. For some time Linnell used the ordinary oil-copal sold by the artists' colourmen, but finding it not entirely to his satisfaction, he finally took the matter in hand and resolved to make his own varnish. This was about the time (1847) when he began to devote himself entirely to landscape-painting, and he was determined to have everything of the very best quality to work with.

He accordingly studied the making of varnishes very thoroughly, consulting the best books on the subject from Cennino Cennini downwards, and then arranged with a varnish-maker to produce some under his supervision.

The necessary apparatus (consisting of two iron furnaces) was erected at the end of the garden, and early one summer morning, before people generally were astir, the varnish-maker set to work, and, under the direction of the artist, made a large quantity of copal varnish, the best materials procurable — picked gum copal, old linseed-oil, and zinc dryer — only being used. The oil employed, however, proving doubtful as to quality, Linnell took the means to obtain some that was above suspicion, and about a month later another lot of varnish was made. On this occasion both copal and amber varnish were produced.

Mulready was greatly interested in the success of these operations, and was present on the latter occasion. On two subsequent occasions, namely, in the September of the same year, and again in 1848, there were further experiments in varnish-making. On the first occasion it was made with raw oil, on the second with two oils. These concluded his varnish-making operations, having now secured a sufficient quantity of the best quality to more than last his lifetime. Creswick afterwards followed Linnell's example, and employed the same firm to make him some varnish, but he did not succeed so well.

In the same way, feeling that one of the secrets of success in painting is to work with the very best pigments, Linnell ground some of his own most important colours, and spared neither trouble nor expense in procuring the best materials. It is, perhaps, natural to find that these and other labours which Linnell conducted in order to obtain articles he needed of the highest possible quality led at one time or another to the circulation of humorous skits at his expense, and in some cases to actual misrepresentation, as when it was said that he carried on the manufacture of canvas under his roof.

At a later period it was also spread about that he even made his own shoes. Some of these reports were possibly meant to injure; but they never hurt the subject of them, and few could enjoy the humorous side of such tales better than he.

In 1847 Linnell's old friend, William Collins, died, and he was some little time afterwards asked to assist Wilkie Collins in the compilation of a life of his father. Incidentally the matter is referred to in the following letter, addressed to Mrs. Linnell, which, unfortunately, has no date:


My brother and I are very anxious to take advantage of your kind invitation to us to pay you a visit at Porchester Terrace some evening. I now write to know whether to-morrow or Friday evening will be convenient to you. We are disengaged on either day.

I shall hope to find Mr. Linnell at home, as I bear he has some hints to give me respecting the early parts of my father's life, which will, I am sure, be of very great use to me in the biography I am now writing.

Do not trouble yourself to write. A verbal answer by the bearer, either for to-morrow or Friday evening, will be quite sufficient.

Truly yours,

Tuesday evening.

The brother referred to, of course, was Charles Collins, who, following in his father's footsteps, became an artist. Linnell gave Wilkie Collins all the aid he could in respect to the biography, and the author was recognisant to the extent of referring to him in its pages as being so capable an artist as to be able to arrange a row of blacking-bottles in such a way that they would look picturesque.

Several other letters from Wilkie Collins are included in Linnell's correspondence. One of them, evidently of a somewhat earlier date than the foregoing, is interesting as having reference to his studies in art, to which he at first thought of turning his attention. It is as follows:


You were kind enough to say that you would give us some advice about the treatment of our oil-sketches, when we had them ready for your inspection. If you can conveniently call on us, either Monday or Tuesday next, at any time before three o'clock, we shall be happy to show them to you.

Faithfully yours,


Amongst other correspondence belonging to this period is a letter from Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Everett Millais. He writes from 83, Gower Street, Bedford Square, saying that he wants to find Ća small deep river with willows overhanging the banks,' and asking if there is such a thing at Under-River, Ća place I fancy you are familiar with,' he adds. Linnell does not appear to have kept a copy of his reply ; but on the fly-leaf of the letter he has jotted down the following stanza in pencil:

'No river deep, though small,
With willows overhung,
Whose tender branches fall
In graceful forms along,'

At Under-River, he no doubt meant, but whether he was able to direct Mr. Millais to some other place for what he wanted we have no means of knowing.

It is worthy of note that Linnell had the greatest admiration for Millais' art, but more especially for that of his earlier period. Later he thought he had fallen off somewhat, and on one occasion, when they met, he exclaimed, 'Ah, Mr. Millais, you have left your first love — you have left your first love!'

Last modified 7 December 2001