John Linnell

(June 16, 1792 - January 20, 1882)

Born in London, and commenced the study of art under Benjamin West, in 1805, and John Varley, in 1806. In early life he practised portrait painting, and has preserved to us the features of many eminent contemporary artists. Latterly, he has become well-known as a landscape painter, who combines great skill in art with close observation and study of nature. Mr. Linnell first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807, and the following year at the British Institution. In 1808, he gained the Royal Academy premium of £50 against John Chalon, who was afterwards R.A. At first painting to live, and working at almost any kind of art (portraits in miniature, and engraving, among the rest). Mr. Linnell is now one of those veteran artists who have lived to see our English Landscape School grow up from small beginnings to the important rank it holds at the present day, being himself one of its most distinguished practitioners. No raw Naturalist, no servile copyist of Nature maturing his art, under an able teacher, whilst young Naturalists of a more recent school were in their cradle, he has combined a study of nature with an appreciation of those great masters in the treatment of it who have preceded him in the same pursuit.

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How much of the excellence he has attained depends on native genius, and how much on education, it is not for us here to speculate upon. This much is certain, that a master of rare excellence, is John Linnell; a master of versatile powers, with a fine feeling for art, and a good eye for colour. His predilection for warm, glowing atmospheres, may perhaps, savour somewhat of mannerism; -- but that it comes of genuine prompting, cannot be doubted. His pictures are far too numerous to enumerate here; the 'Eve of the Deluge,' 1848, and the 'Disobedient Prophet,' 1854, may be mentioned, however, as among his higher subjects; while the 'Timber Waggon,' 'Barley Harvest,' 'Under the Hawthorn,' etc, among more recent pictures, appeal to the wide class who possess simpler and more ordinary tastes. Mr. Linnell's *second son, James Thomas, also practises as a landscape painter, much in the style of his father, and with every prospect of attaining equal eminence; indeed, his pictures are eagerly sought for, and command full prices.

A Biographical and Critical Dictionary of Recent and Lving Painters and Engravers 1876: forming a supplement to Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and engravers as edited by George Stanley, by Henry Ottley, 1876.


John Lininell, perhaps the most thoroughly English of our landscape painters, was born in Bloomsbury, 16th June, 1792. Unlike Constable, who revelled in the flat pastures of his native Suffolk, Linnell seems, as a rule, to represent a glorified Surrey. The scenery of that county and of Kent in passing through his mind reappears upon his canvases, shorn of all littleness -- treated with great impressiveness under the happiest effects, and surmounted by the most splendid skies. It is curious that this master of landscape art began his career by painting portraits, but they were, in one sense, merely "pot-boilers," as our painter only looked upon them as subservient to landscape, his real love; and while he painted portraits for money, he worked away at landscapes till he had secured a fame and reputation in his cherished art.

He seems, from the account of those who knew him best, to have begun to draw from his earliest years, and he painted his first work in oil when only twelve years old. While quite a boy Linnell was articled to Varley, where one of his fellow pupils, his senior by seven years, was Mulready. The two became great friends, and Linnell probably learnt most of the technical part of his art from him. The lad also obtained an introduction to West, who treated him kindly, criticized his drawings, and even worked upon some of them, and advised him, as did Mulready also, to enter the Academy schools. He was admitted as a student in his thirteenth year, and not only carried off a silver medal for a drawing from the life in 1809, but in 1810, successfully competed with sculptor students and took a medal for the best modelling in bas-relief from the life model. Already in 1809, he had been awarded a prize of 50l. by the directors of the British Institution for his landscape "Removing Timber in Autumn," exhibited in their gallery. This delicious little painting, which remained in the artist's possession, is a curiously finished work for a boy of sixteen to produce, and it shows a thorough insight into the beauty of cast shadows upon grass. The figures are happily grouped, and the old, bare-headed man in the foreground is, we believe, a portrait of Mulready's father. As portraits were not admitted to the British Institution, Linnell sent his portraits and miniatures to the Academy exhibitions. His activity did not stop here, for not only did he paint many well-known people of the time, but he also engraved their likenesses in mezzotint. John Varley's "Burial of Saul" too was engraved by him, and various works of the old masters. He also, like Mulready and other artists of that day, gave lessons in drawing. One of his miniatures of three of his children playing with a kitten, with their abundant golden locks and rosy cheeks, dwells on the memory as a richly-jewelled bit of colour. His portraits though faithful and characteristic likenesses are less good as works of art. It is by his landscapes that Linnell's fame will live, and even in these there is sometimes a great difference in quality, for while we yield to none in admiration of his best work, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that there are pictures by his hand which fall below his reputation, where his usually fine colour becomes hot and unpleasant, his touch uneven, and his clouds woolly in texture.

Linnell lived for many years at Hampstead; he then built himself a house in Porchester Terrace, from which he retired in 1852, to the crest of the hill in Redstone Wood, near Redhill, in Surrey, where, environed by the scenery he loved, he continued to live for thirty years in a patriarchal manner, surrounded by his family, and with his sons settled in houses near him built on different parts of his property. Linnell was a devoted friend to William Blake, whose genius he recognized, when others could not see it. He was not only his friend but his patron, as he bought several of his works; and one of the pleasures of a visit to Linnell at Redhill, was the permission to have some of these interesting Blakes brought out for your delectation. Moreover Linnell preserved the features of his friend in an excellent portrait which was afterwards engraved as a frontispiece to Gilchrist's Life of Blake.

Linnell's method of work was to lay in his subject on a white ground in brown; this brown he allowed occasionally to appear through all the richness of his future colouring. He painted many of his pictures with a medium probably prepared from amber varnish, which has well stood the test of time. He seems to have made innumerable studies and sketches, but never to have painted his finished pictures directly from nature. Sometimes he found it unnecessary to draw the object he wanted to place in his picture. He looked at it well instead, or he watched an effect with the deepest attention, and his eye and mind were both so well trained, that he was able to reproduce exactly what he required. His studies from the antique and what Stephens in his biography in the Art Journal happily calls "the stringent influence on his mind of the Elgin marbles," together with the maxims of his master, Varley, led him to eschew a merely realistic copy of nature; he always desired to see her in a poetic mood. He replied to a lady who inquired of him in his studio from whence a landscape on his easel was taken, "Madam, I am not a topographer!" His pictures are thus entirely raised above the commonplace, and bear a distinctive character of their own, in which the mind of the great painter may be perceived inspiring the efforts of his hand. Linnell seldom worked for more than two hours consecutively at one subject, he then either changed his picture or engaged in some other occupation. In painting he sat at a good distance from his easel with his brush well held out at arm's length, and he laid on his touches with a firm and vigorous hand. A collection of his works was shown in the Winter Exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1883, and here were gathered some of his finest pictures:
"St. John Preaching in the Wilderness,"
"The Disobedient Prophet,"
"The Last Gleam before the Storm,"
"The Eve of the Deluge,"
"The Timber Waggon,"
"Barley Harvest,"
and many others, with portraits and miniatures, and above all a most interesting collection of sketches, some of which show his minute power of finishing to the smallest details when occasion required it. "The Last Gleam before the Storm" is perhaps one of our painter's noblest works. On the right a thinly-wooded slope, below which is a pool and near it a gipsy tent. There is a hill in the mid-distance, on which is a windmill. A boy drives cattle in the foreground, while a stormy sky above the whole scene is relieved by a gleam of sunshine on the left. The whole is instinct with the solemn shiver and hush of nature before the rain pours down.

Linnell never, we believe, visited the Continent, but gained his knowledge of the old masters from those of their works which he could see at home, and from engravings and copies. He was very friendly with the best painters of his day, and it is much to be regretted that he was never elected with others among his companions to the honours of the Royal Academy. His name was down for many years, but from some unaccountable reason he was passed over, and he then withdrew it, and would not allow it to be replaced, though much solicited to do so by a member when an alteration took place in the rules of electing associates. He thought he was entitled, as indeed he was, by his fame, to full membership, but the rules of the Academy did not allow of his being offered this at once, and though the probation of the associateship would have been the shortest possible one, he was still bound to pass through it. Linnell was a Baptist by persuasion in early life, but afterwards found more sympathy with the Plymouth Brethren. He held his religious views very strongly, and fortified them by searching study of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures. He published some pamphlets on polemical and theological subjects; and could give in a discussion on religious topics a full reason for the belief that was in him. He held Popery and the Church of England in almost equal detestation. He was married the second time when already in advanced years. He died at Redstone, January 20th, 1882, and was buried in Reigate Cemetery.

A Century of Painters of the English School, by Richard Redgrave, C.B, R.A. (sometime surveyor of her majesty's pictures and art director of the South Kensington Museum); and A Century of Painters of the English School, by Samuel Redgrave, Second Edition, Abridged and Continued to the present time.


Portrait and landscape painter, the son of a wood-carver and picture dealer, was born in 1792, in a house at the corner of Plumtree Street, Bloomsbury. Shortly after his birth his father removed to 2 Streatham Street, Bloomsbury. Thomas Dodd was his earliest patron. At ten years old he drew portraits in pencil and chalk, and later he copied successfully several of Morland's pictures. From his boyhood he frequented Christie's auction rooms, and made sketches from the works on the walls. He was soon introduced to Benjamin West, and entered the schools of the Royal Academy in 1805. For about a year he studied under John Varley, and made the acquaintance of William Henry Hunt, a fellow-pupil at Varley's, with whom he went out sketching, and of William Mulready, who assisted Varley in teaching, and with whom Linnell afterwards shared rooms in Francis Street, Tottenham Court Road. In 1807, he was awarded a medal for drawing from the life, and exhibited a ‘Study from Nature, View near Reading,’ at the Academy. Between 1805 and 1809, he made sketches in oil-colours on the banks of the Thames, and about this time was one of the young artists who enjoyed the kind patronage of Dr. Thomas Monro [q. v.]

In 1808, he exhibited at both the British Institution and the Royal Academy. His contribution to the latter, called ‘Fisherman,’ was purchased by Ridley (afterwards Lord) Colborne for fifteen guineas. In 1809, he was at Hastings with Hunt, and won a fifty guinea prize at the British Institution with his landscape, ‘Removing Timber.’ In the following year, to prove his opinion that it was easier for a painter to model than for a sculptor to draw, he competed for the modelling medal at the Royal Academy and won it. In 1810, he exhibited at the Royal Academy ‘Fishermen waiting for the Return of the Ferryboat, Hastings,’ and in 1811, ‘The Ducking: a Scene from Nature;’ but his next contribution to the Academy's exhibitions was in 1821.

To the years between 1811 and 1815, (both inclusive) belong a series of water-colour sketches in the London parks, Bayswater, Kilburn, St. John's Wood, and Windsor Forest, with a few in Wales and the Isle of Wight. He also about this time was employed as a draughtsman by the elder Augustus Pugin. But though he drew occasionally in water-colours then and in later life, his usual medium was oil, in which he early attained great proficiency. A picture of ‘Quoit Players,’ painted in 1810, (exhibited in 1811, at the British Institution, and sold to Sir Thomas Baring for seventy-five guineas), has since realised 1,000l.

In 1812, when the Society of Painters in Water-colours was transformed (for a few years) into the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours, Linnell became a member, and contributed fifty-two works to their exhibitions from 1813 to 1820. He was their treasurer in 1817. In 1820, they again excluded oil-paintings, and Linnell withdrew from the society and recommenced exhibiting with the Royal Academy. During this time his principal sources of income were portrait-painting and teaching. He not only drew and painted portraits, but he engraved them himself. In 1818, through Mr. George Cumberland of Bristol, he obtained an introduction to William Blake, and then began that human and artistic fellowship between the two men which lasted till Blake's death. Blake helped him in engraving, and he introduced Blake to J. Varley, Mulready, and others, who formed a congenial society animated by similar aims. He appears to have known William Godwin also, and to have given lessons to his daughter, afterwards Mrs. Shelley. He painted the Duke of Argyll in 1817, and in 1819, a miniature of his wife on ivory, which so pleased the Marchioness of Stafford that she engaged him to paint her daughter, Lady Belgrave, in the same style. Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, Lord Belgrave, Lord Shelborne, Viscount and Viscountess Ebrington, Lady Frederica Stanhope, the Princess Sophia Matilda, and many others also sat for miniatures. His charge for portraits about 1817, was from three to twelve guineas a bead. The most important of his landscapes during this period was the ‘St. John Preaching’ of 1818, in which he displayed great poetical feeling in the union of the landscape with the sentiment of the subject. His first contribution to the Royal Academy (1813), called ‘Bird Catching,’ afterwards known as ‘Kensington in 1814,’ was also notable. In 1814–15, his landscapes were from Wales and Derbyshire, the latter being the result of a tour in North Wales with Mr. G. R. Lewis in 1812 or 1813, and another tour in Derbyshire in 1814, taken in view of illustrations to Walton's ‘Angler.’ Athletic and robust, he boxed, rowed, and swam well, and performed a great part of his journeys on foot.

He married his first wife in 1817, and removed from his father's house to 35 Rathbone Place, and thence at the end of 1818, to 6 Cirencester Place. In 1824 he removed his family to Hampstead, keeping his studio in Cirencester Place.

His plan of life appears to have been to go on making money by portrait-painting until he had laid by sufficient to enable him to devote the rest of his life to landscape. This plan he accomplished, but, judging from the catalogues of the Royal Academy, not till 1847, when he was fifty-five years old. Between 1821, and that year he exhibited over one hundred portraits, including drawings and miniatures, and some ten or twelve landscapes. Among the former were:
Lady Torrens and Family, (1821)
Earl of Denbigh, (1823)
Lady Lyndhurst, (1830)
A. W. Callcott, R.A., (1832)
W. Mulready, R.A.
Rev. T. R. Malthus, (1833)
T. Phillips, R.A.
Marquis of Bristol, (1835)
Sir Robert Peel
Archbishop of Dublin, (1838)
Marquis of Lansdowne, (1840)
Bishop of Chichester, (1841)
Right Hon. Francis Baring, (1842)
Thomas Carlyle, (1844).

Among the other pictures of this period were ‘Christ's Appearance to the two Disciples journeying to Emmaus’, (1835), ‘Philip baptising the Eunuch’, (1840), and ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, (1843).

In 1847, the character of his contributions changed suddenly. Henceforth no more portraits. In that year he sent three landscapes, ‘The Mill,’ ‘Midday,’ and ‘The Morning Walk;’ in the next one a large composition (59 by 88 inches), ‘The Eve of the Deluge’ (which was purchased by Mr. Gillott for 1,000l.), and in the next ‘Sandpits’ and ‘The Return of Ulysses.’ To the close of his life he seldom, if ever, failed to send some fine work to the Academy, but not often more than two. The rich scenery of Surrey generally supplied him with his subjects. Its harvest fields and woodlands, its hills and copses, its glowing sunsets and stormy cloudracks engaged his pencil over and over again. With these splendid records of natural beauty he was generally content, but now and then he conceived with equal force some imaginary scene as the fitting stage of a great event, generally in Bible history. In 1850, appeared ‘Christ and the Woman of Samaria at Jacob's Well,’ and in 1854, ‘The Disobedient Prophet.’ In these works the fine composition and colour and appropriate sentiment of the landscape were united to admirable grouping and expressive action of the figures.

Notwithstanding, however, the high merit of his work, he remained to the end of his days without academical honours. In 1821, he had put down his name as a candidate for associateship, and in 1842, he withdrew it in disgust. Late in life the Academy offered him membership, but he declined it. His reasons for doing so, and his view of the Academy in the light of a national institution, may be read in Athenæum (1867, p. 759), and in his pamphlet, ‘The Royal Academy a National Institution.’

In 1829, he removed from Hampstead to a house which he had built in Porchester Terrace (No. 38), Bayswater, and in 1852, to Redstone Wood, Redhill, Surrey, where he had built another house on his own property. Here he lived till his death, enjoying the practice of his art, surrounded by his friends and family. Several of the latter were distinguished as artists. In 1858, he is styled for the first time J. Linnell, senior, in the catalogue, where the names of three sons, James Thomas Linnell, William Linnell, and John Linnell, junior, appear together for the first time. His daughter married Samuel Palmer [q. v.], the water-colour painter, whose artistic aims were in sympathy with his own.

His last contribution was a picture of ‘Woodcutters,’ sent the year before his death, which took place at Redhill on 20 Jan. 1882. He left behind him a considerable fortune, and among other possessions a number of Blake's works, including the plates and replicas of the drawings of the Job series, the drawings of the Dante series and the plates from them (seven only were engraved). All these had been executed on commissions from Linnell at a time when he sorely needed such kindly help. ‘The Last Gleam’ has fetched 2,500l., ‘The Woodlands’ 2,625 guineas, ‘Hampstead Heath’ 1,940 guineas, ‘The Barley Harvest’ 1,636 guineas, and ‘Removing Timber’ brought 3,200 guineas at the Price sale in April 1892. A large collection of Linnell's works of all kinds formed a principal feature of the Winter Exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1882-3.

Besides mezzotint plates after his own portraits of Callcott, Malthus, and others, Linnell engraved John Varley's ‘Burial of Saul’ (into which he introduced the figures), Collins's ‘Feeding the Rabbits,’ and ‘A Scene on the Brent.’ He also etched some plates after Ruysdael and others. Between 1832 and 1839, he copied several pictures in the National Gallery for the Society of Associated Engravers, to be engraved in their publication called The British Gallery.

There are two landscapes, ‘Woodcutters in Windsor Forest’ and ‘The Windmill,’ by Linnell in the National Gallery, and a portrait (a drawing) of Mrs. Sarah Austin in the National Portrait Gallery. Linnell, whose opinions on religious (and other) matters were strong and often eccentric, was the author of Diatheekee, Covenant (not Testament) throughout the book commonly called the New Testament, etc., The Lord's Day, an Examination of Rev. i. 30, and Burnt Offerings not in the Hebrew Bible.

Linnell's second wife, whose maiden name was Mary Anne Budden, died in 1886.

[Redgrave's Century of Painters, last edition; Art Journal, 1881-3; Roget's History of the ‘Old’ Water-colour Society; Royal Academy Catalogues, 1807-81, and Winter Exhibition, 1883; Article by Mr. F. G. Stephens in Art Journal, 1882, pp. 262 sq., giving some account of Linnell's family; Mr. Alfred Thomas Story's Life of John Linnell, 1892.]


John Linnell, a portrait and landscape painter, was born in 1792, in London, where his father was a picture-dealer and wood-carver. He soon showed remarkable aptitude for art, and by the advice of Benjamin West he attended the schools of the Royal Academy at Somerset House, into which he was admitted in 1805. He became too a pupil in John Varley's studio, where he learned more from his fellow pupil, Mulready, than from his master. His progress was so rapid that in 1807, he contributed to the Academy exhibition 'A Study from Nature,' and 'A View near Reading.' About this date he and William Hunt worked for George Dawe on a large transparency which was required for an illumination intended to celebrate a victory over the French. Like the ablest of his contemporaries, he could paint a panorama or a miniature, or engrave a portrait. Besides old masters' works, Linnell engraved in mezzotint John Varley's 'Burial of Saul,' and Collins's 'Feeding the Rabbits' and a 'Scene on the Brent.'

In 1807, he gained a medal for a drawing, and in 1810, one for a model in the Life School of the Academy; and in 1809, he gained in the British Institution a prize of fifty guineas for a landscape called 'Removing Timber.' He soon devoted himself to portrait painting and to pictures of scenery near London. At this time he established himself with Mulready in Francis Street, Tottenham Court Road. In 1810, appeared Fishermen waiting the return of the Ferry Boat, Hastings,' and in 1811, 'The Ducking, a scene from Nature.' After this Linnell ceased to contribute to Somerset House till 1821, but from 1818 to 1820, he exhibited in Spring Gardens with the Society of Painters in Oil and Water-Colours.

He executed many miniatures on ivory, and produced several portraits, some of which he reproduced in mezzotint. One of the first of his subject landscapes was painted in 1835, 'Christ's Appearance to His Disciples on the way to Emmaus,' which attracted a great deal of attention owing to its originality, and the pathos imparted to the landscape, which was the distinguishing characteristic of all his work. 'Windsor Forest' was painted in 1837. In 1852, Linnell retired from London to Redhill, where he died in 1882. He published 'Michael Angelo's Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel,' 1834; 'The Royal Gallery of Pictures,' being a selection of the paintings in Buckingham Palace, 1840; and a tract entitled 'The Royal Academy, a National Institution,' 1869. A drawing of Sarah Austin by him is in the National Portrait Gallery. The following is a list of his principal pictures:

Sir Augustus Wall Callcott, R.A. (1832) William Mulready, R.A. (1833) Thomas Phillips, R.A.
Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus William Collins, R.A. Achbishop Whateley
John Sterling Thomas Carlyle Sir Robert Peel, Bart.
Lord Lansdowne Lord Monteagle *Charles Chetwynd
Samuel Rogers (1835) Sir Henry Torrens Lady Lyndhurst
Marshal Espartero General Sir Ralph Darling **Sir Francis Thornhill Baring
Christ and the Woman of Samaria The Disobedient Prophet (1854) The Last Gleam before the Storm
Crossing the Brook. (1868) The Lost Sheep (1869) The Timber Waggon
Barley Harvest Hampstead Heath Under the Hawthorn
The Woodcutter The Eve of the Deluge The Return of Ulysses
Wood-Cutters The Windmill (1847) (Both: National Gallery)

*Charles Chetwynd, second Earl Talbot (1840)

**Sir Francis Thornhill Baring, Bart., afterwards Lord Northbrook (1842)

[Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Vol. II, 1899.]

External Link: - © John Linnell Archive: A Virtual Exhibition, Fitzwilliam Museum

*Note: In 1858, John Linnell is styled for the first time J. Linnell, Senior, in the catalogue, where the names of three sons, James Thomas Linnell (1820-1905), William Linnell (1826-1906), and John Linnell, Junior, appear together for the first time.

The Sonnet: Engraved by John Linnell, Junior, from the Cartoon by W. Mulready, R.A. Authors: John Linnell, William Mulready. Publisher: John Linnell, Junior, 1839. (fl.1858)

John Linnell, Junr., Flowers 1858, (Redstone Wood, Redhill), Exhibited Royal Academy of Arts.


There were at this time three houses upon the estate, that which John Linnell, Senior, built for himself, and those which he had built for his sons James and William.

Family numbered four sons and five daughters, the two youngest ones, Thomas and Phoebe, being twins.

Three of the artist's sons were now successful painters, and in a way friendly competitors with their father for public favour. James began to exhibit in the Royal Academy in 1850, his brother William in 1852, and Thomas, the youngest, a few years later.

The Life of John Linnell, Alfred t. Story, 1892 (Exerpts from Vol. 2)

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