Story's Life of Linnell

John Linnell (1792-1882 seen above in self-portraits as a young man and aged 76) was a little younger than Wilkie’s father William Collins (1788-1847) but was also influenced by the work of George Morland (1763-1804). Collins and Linnell were neighbours in Hampstead and later lived a couple of doors apart in Porchester terrace, Bayswater. The Life of John Linnell (1892) by Alfred T Story (1842-1934) contains some anecdotes and letters of William Collins which give us an insight into the religious belief’s of Wilkie’s father that would have been so much a part of his early life as well as the closeness of the two families. There is a description by Linnell of William Collins’s studio at 11 New Cavendish Street where Wilkie was born. There is also a short anecdote about Wilkie Collins as a boy as well as a brief mention of Linnell’s help with Wilkie’s biography of his father. There is no evidence that Story met Wilkie Collins.

A few years later he was the cause of a scandal getting about respecting William Collins similar to the one which did so much harm to Linnell. This occurred when all three were living at Hampstead, and when they were often travelling to and from town together by the coach. The scandal had reference to a commission which Collins had received from Sir Robert Peel, and for which, when finished, he had, according to Constable’s statement, overcharged him.

Meeting Linnell one day on the top of the Hampstead coach, Constable said: ‘Have you heard the story about Collins and Sir Robert Peel?’ and repeated the scandal.

Linnell asked him if he had told Collins what was being said about him. Constable said he had not, and that it was no business of his to do so.

A week or so later they met on the coach again, and Constable, returning to the subject of the scandal, said

‘I fear it is a true bill against Collins.’

Linnell again asked him if he had got Collins’s version of the affair. Constable said he had not, and repeated that it was no affair of his. Linnell replied

‘I don’t believe a word of it, and if you won’t go and see Collins about it, I will.’

They happened to be passing very near Collins’s house at the time, and Linnell straightway got down from the coach and went and told him what Constable had been saying respecting him. Collins was very indignant when he heard the story, and said he believed that it was a pure invention, he himself having heard nothing of the affair. It was decided, however, to put the matter into Mulready’s hands to investigate, because he, on account of his high character, was beyond suspicion. Mulready accordingly called upon Sir Robert Peel, and asked him if there was any truth in the report. Sir Robert said there was none whatever; he was perfectly satisfied with the pictures which he had commissioned Mr. Collins to paint for him, and he had been charged no more for them than he had agreed to pay.

All this is the more surprising on Constable’s part when it is seen on what friendly terms the three artists nominally were. [I pp138-139]

Mr. Sheepshanks appears to have been a great oddity, with very little independent judgment in regard to art, but very much imposed upon by titles. Thus, on one occasion when Linnell called upon him for an amount that was due to him for a picture, he was shown into an anteroom, where he heard the sound of voices from an adjoining room, and the clatter of knives and forks. Mr. Sheepshanks came in to him, and begged him to wait a minute or two while he fetched the money, saying, I can’t take you in there’ (pointing to the room whence the sounds came), ‘because I have got some R.A.’s at dinner.’

Amongst others, Linnell heard the voice of William Collins. He was, perhaps, more sensitive than he need have been ; but he never forgot being considered unworthy to be taken into the room in which some Academicians were dining. [I p260]

William Collins left Hampstead very soon after Linnell, and took a house close to him in Porchester Terrace. His attachment to our artist appears to have been very sincere, albeit he seems at times to have had some scruples about associating with a man who was not only a Dissenter, but a ‘Sabbath-breaker,’ he himself favouring the Puseyite form of faith-a form which Linnell satirized in many a stinging line, as in the following

The monster lie exists at Rome,
Diluted it is seen at home
Priesthood set up, the Antichrist foretold,
Taking the place of Him who from of old
Was true High Priest, who coming did fulfil
All priestly types, and of his own free will
The sacrifice became for all, even the least,
And therefore no longer sacrifice, no longer priest.’

Collins called Linnell a Sabbath-breaker because he did not believe in our English Sunday. The fact is, Linnell’s study of the Bible had led him the conclusion that the observance of Sunday as the Sabbath was founded upon an erroneous understanding of the Scriptures, and, in accordance with his usual method, he did not allow himself to be bound by a religious ordinance that was without Divine authority. Of his arguments in support of his contention more will have to be said anon. Suffice it here to state that while he avoided giving unnecessary offence to those who differed from him on this point, he did not refrain from doing work on that day if he thought fit. Hence his neighbour’s qualms.

One Sunday, in the warm spring weather, Collins happened to see Linnell piously nailing his peach and nectarine trees against his northern wall, and was greatly shocked. Not long after, when Dr. Liefchild, a famous Congregational preacher of those days, was one day sitting for his portrait, Linnell sent for Collins, thinking he would like to know the gentleman. Collins was pleased to have the introduction; but during the conversation which ensued he took occasion to denounce his brother-artist as a Sabbath-breaker. To his surprise, Liefchild, though he held to a strict observance of the Sabbath, recognised Linnell’s conscientious objections, and refrained from pronouncing the condemnation Collins had doubtless looked for.

On another occasion Collins gave currency to a report that Linnell had refused to pay one of his workmen, and wanted to cheat him out of his wages. The calumny had reference to a man named Hobbs, whom the artist employed most of his time in the garden, or doing other work about the place. In consequence of his wife having on several occasions asked for and obtained his wages, and then spent a large portion of the money in drink, Linnell refused to give the money to her any more. She therefore went and maliciously told the Collinses that he would not pay her husband’s wages, and Collins told the story to others. When our artist heard what was being said, he took Hobbs to Collins, and asked him to say in the latter’s presence if he had ever refused to pay him his wages.

‘No; you always paid me straight, like a gentleman,’ Hobbs replied.

‘Now, Mr. Collins,’ said Linnell, ‘I hope you will acknowledge your error in circulating such an accusation without first ascertaining the truth of it.’

‘Of what consequence is it,’ Collins replied, ‘whether you cheated a man out of his wages or not, when you are constantly doing things ten times worse?’

‘I suppose that is a hit at me for nailing up my nectarines on a Sunday afternoon,’ said Linnell. Collins acknowledged that it was, and said that ‘a man who would break the Sabbath would do any other bad thing.’

The worthy Academician, though an amiable, was in many respects rather a weak-minded, man. He appeared always to be oppressed by the twin bugbears propriety and respectability, and found it difficult to forgive anyone who failed in his respect to them.

Everyone has read the story of his meeting Blake in the Strand with a pot of porter in his hand, and passing him without recognition. When he became an R.A., he felt that he greatly overtopped all who had not attained to that dignity, and could not, therefore, legitimately write themselves down ‘Esquire,’ as the King (to use his own words) had given him the title to do.

In this Collins reminds one of Uwins, who, when Linnell called on him about the rejection of his picture ‘Noon,’ pointed to his Academy diploma, gorgeously framed and glazed, over his chimneypiece, as though it were a patent of infallibility.

These appear puerile matters; but they are, nevertheless, the sort of stuff of which our life is largely composed. Nor are such weaknesses without their kindly side. If men were equally strong all round, they might, perhaps, be less amiable; and that Collins was of a good-natured and neighbourly disposition, notwithstanding some narrowness, is proved by the fact that the friendship betwixt him and Linnell never suffered any serious interruption, and that he was frank, and even generous, in his acknowledgment of Linnell’s many kindnesses to him.

The following letters show the kindly relations subsisting between the two families. The first is dated from Hampstead, and the second, although undated, evidently belongs to the period of the writer’s and Linnell’s residence at Hampstead, because Blake, to whom it has reference, died whilst they were there.

‘Thursday morning.
I lose no time in writing to assure you that nothing but the distance and a very severe illness which I had soon after my return from Holland have prevented my calling upon you at Bayswater. No longer ago than last night I heard (as I have frequently done before) from Mulready that you were going on well.

‘With respect to your relative, I recollect giving him a letter to the National Gallery in his real name, but I had nothing to do with his admission to the Academy; but I will inquire about him when I go there again, and will let you know the result when I have the pleasure of seeing you, which I sincerely hope I shall be able to accomplish as soon as a cold which I am now nursing will allow me.

‘Mrs. Collins wishes very much to call upon Mrs. Linnell, and it is not impossible that we may visit you together. She and the children are, thank God, very well, but my mother is still in a melancholy way.

‘With our kindest regards to Mrs. Linnell, yourself, and family,
‘Believe me,
‘Most faithfully yours,

‘Monday morning,
‘11 New Cavendish Street.’*
If Mr. Blake will send a receipt to Mr. Smirke, junior, Stratford Place, he will be paid. It is not necessary that Mr. B. should make a formal application.
‘Yours faithfully,
‘Let me know the result.’

* Mr. Collins’s studio was in New Cavendish Street.

The next letter probably belongs to the same or a little later period

Thursday night.
‘Will it suit your convenience to go with me on Saturday next at half-past one to see the collection of German pictures in Euston Square?
‘Yours truly,
I have written to Mulready to request he will call here at the hour above mentioned.’

Fortunately the two following interesting letters, written from North Wales, are dated

Llanberis, N. W.,
‘August 11,1834.
I have just received yours containing the halves of a £10 and £5 note. At your earliest convenience send me the remainder by the same mode of conveyance, with any other letters which may have been received since. When you happen to go into the City—pray do not go on purpose—be kind enough to call upon Mr. Searle at Messrs. George Wildes and Searle (19, I think), Coleman Street, and show him the annexed letter, as well as this part of mine, as your authority to receive the amount there mentioned, which keep for me until my return. Do not leave Mr. Lee’s letter with him unless he insists upon it, as I wish to keep it. As yet I do not feel much benefited by my journey—my spirits still flag much; but all is for the best, as I feel greatly humbled.
‘With regards to Mrs. Linnell and all friends, ‘Yours truly,
How are the Richmonds?
‘I thank you for your offer of touching upon the picture by Finden, and accept it. Let me know what is the subject of it.
‘Mrs. Collins desires the remainder of this scrap, so farewell. When you see Wilkie, tell him I wish much to know how he is, and give him my regards. I hope to find time to write to him soon.’

‘I thank you, my dear friend, for your kind note, and the information it contains. I wish you could see our present place of residence-surrounded by such mountains and rocks; but I have not lost my cat-like propensity of loving home. There are troubles and difficulties everywhere. Lucy has been very ill since we have been here, and no servant is kept by our landlady, who has a young child and a shop to mind. I leave you to judge of the attendance under these circumstances.

It is quite a foreign country; no one understands us, nor can we comprehend their jargon. Milk is scarce-eggs the same; bread very doubtful to get, unless you send seven miles to Carnarvon. Meat only to be had there. Lean ducks and chickens brought alive for us to get killed and picked; no fruit; good potatoes—no other vegetable. The scenery is truly grand, but of the wild, savage kind. Mr. Collins went to the top of Snowdon Friday with the Bells, who came here on their way home. We have the only lodging in the place; but there are two good inns.

‘I think I am nearly the same as usual in health. Willy quite well; Charlie thinner, and has been poorly, but is again picking up. I have never heard from my sister. I think the letter she talked of writing must be lost. Perhaps Anny would write for me a few lines to her to say that I fear she has written, and the letter miscarried, and that if she sends to you it will be forwarded.

‘How shall we ever make you amends for all you have done and are doing for us?

‘We shall proceed on our travels on Saturday; but Mr. Bransby will still be our agent. We are going through Beddgelert, Dolgelly, etc., to Barmouth, where I hope we shall be stationary.

‘Farewell. Love to Anny, Lizzie, etc., and believe me,
‘Most affectionately yours,

‘Beddgelert, North Wales,
August 18, 1834.
I have this morning seen a gentleman from Birmingham, who seems to think the present season most favourable for their exhibition, as the great music meeting and other local attractions will draw much company to the town. This circumstance, and his request that I should send them a picture, has brought to my recollection what you advised in one of your recent letters, and I have decided upon sending the " Haunts of the Seafowl." You were good enough to offer your services should I feel disposed to send them anything, and I beg to accept them. I hope, too, you will embrace the favourable opportunity, and let them have a picture or two of your own.

‘The picture has been carefully hung up, and if you can spare time, perhaps you will be present when it is taken down, and, as it is very heavy, give a caution to those who undertake to pack it for Birmingham. I have this evening written to the secretary, Mr. Wyatt, but it will be proper that you should send a letter describing the picture as above, and stating that it is for sale at the price of three hundred guineas, including the frame.

‘We are all pretty well, and delighting in the scenery of this neighbourhood, and purpose going on to Barmouth in a few days. Carnarvon, as before, will be the best address, as Mr. Bransby will forward all communications. I had hoped to receive the other halves of the notes this morning; I trust, however, soon to get them.

‘Harriet unites with me in kindest remembrances to Mrs. Linnell and the family, as well as to all friends.

‘Very faithfully yours,

* * * * * * * * * * * *
‘Did you receive a letter containing an order on Mr. Searle, of the house of George Wildes and Searle, 19, Coleman Street, for £9 odd?’

Soon after the date of the last letter—that is, in 1835—Mr. Alaric A. Watts wrote to John Linnell, asking if he could help him ‘with a few anecdotes of our excellent friend W. Collins, to relieve the baldness of mere dates’ in an article he was writing about the Royal Academy to accompany a print of his picture of ‘The Gate,’ and suggesting that a little criticism and description of some of his pictures would be acceptable. In reply Linnell wrote as follows

I am sorry that I find it difficult to remember anything respecting our friend Collins which would be useful to you, especially when I confine myself within the, limits consistent with my intimacy with him. I think it best, therefore, to mention only those facts which his modesty and goodness would prevent your obtaining from himself, such, for instance, as his supporting his mother entirely to the day of her death, and partly his brother. His father, who dealt in pictures, kept a small shop in Great Portland Street, and died, without leaving any property, when Collins was not more, I believe, than about twenty years of age. But he improved so rapidly as soon to be enabled to take a house in New Cavendish Street, where some of his best pictures were painted—"The Sale of Fish by Dropping a Stone" was one, I remember. From there he removed to Hampstead, where he painted his "Frost Piece," and companion, for Sir Robert Peel. His early success, however, was in a great measure owing to his patronage by Lord Liverpool.

‘Collins’s painting-room at Cavendish Street was an interesting atelier, and was made by simply inserting a skylight into the roof of the attic floor and removing some partitions. The sloping ceiling, with the screens covered with beautiful sketches on millboard without frames, and arranged only for the purposes of study, the lay figure draped, etc., with a fireplace like that of an alchemist, small and convenient for experiments, some of which were generally going on for perfecting varnishes and oils, altogether made a most picturesque retreat, which was visited by many great personages, who were sometimes candid enough to confess there was a charm about a place arranged for the purposes of art which surpassed all the splendours of their impracticable saloons. There was a kind of monastic seclusion and security about this nest of art which at once delighted and humbled the mind of the visitor, producing a love of art without ostentation.

Of Collins’s style and painting in general, it may be said that, though there may be some artists who are more intensely admired by a few, there is no one who has more admirers, and few so many.’

A characteristic anecdote relating to the intimacy existing between the two families is told by the sons of the painter. Young Wilkie Collins, who was their playmate at Bayswater, was one day in the garden with them, when they happened to draw upon themselves the wrath of their father. Said young Wilkie when the passing storm was over

‘I should not like your father to be mine. Your father is a bull; mine is a cow.’ Not a bad bit of characterization for one who was afterwards to become a famous novelist.

Constable was even less tolerant of Linnell’s dissent than Collins. He used to say that all Dissenters had heads no better than shoemakers, to which Linnell retorted that Constable’s own head was like a shoemaker’s, being long and flat. [I pp276-287]

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 hear 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. [II pp24-25]

From The Life of John Linnell by Alfred T. Story (1842-1834) 2 vols, Richard Bentley and Son, London 1892.



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