William Dixon ?1784 or 5 - c.1834
Oil on paper laid on card 116 x 141 (4 9/16 x 5 9/16)
Inscribed 'W Dixon' b.l. and 'Hops' b.r.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: As for T03855 until 1917 and possibly until 1954; ...; unidentified sale, Sotheby's, early 1980s, bt Andrew Wyld who sold it to Spink and Son, from whom bt by Timothy Hobart and from him by Tate Gallery
William Dixon has been rediscovered as an artist, albeit a minor one, only in the past few years, his work having previously been confused with that of his friend John Linnell. The confusion appears to have arisen because Linnell acquired the bulk of Dixon's work after his death and unsigned works by Dixon having a Linnell family provenance were subsequently presumed to be by Linnell himself. T03856 is the only signed oil by Dixon so far discovered.
What little is known about Dixon derives mainly from Linnell's unpublished journals and 'Autobiographical Notes' and from letters to Linnell from Dixon and his nephew. These belong to the Linnell Trust and are quoted here by kind permission of the Trustee (and with thanks to Joan Linnell Ivimy for transcribing relevant passages). There is also a certain amount of information about Dixon's career in the north-east of England, largely derived from the catalogues of the Newcastle exhibiting bodies. Such information is summarised by Marshall Hall in The Artists of Northumbria, 2nd ed., Newcastle 1982, p.56.
From Linnell's 'Autobiographical Notes' we learn that Dixon was a protégé of William Mulready and worked with him on Sir Robert Ker Porter's panorama of 'The Storming of Seringapatam', 'where he was famous for miscalculating his position on the scaffold & upsetting pots of color'. This panorama was displayed in 1800, though it has been questioned whether Mulready did in fact work for Porter at such an early date (Kathryn Moore Heleniak, William Mulready, New Haven and London 1980, pp.237-8 n.161). Linnell also refers to Dixon drawing at the Royal Academy, presumably as a student. It seems very likely that he was the 'Dixon, Willm' who was admitted to the RA Schools on 2 July 1801, aged sixteen (Sidney C. Hutchinson, 'The Royal Academy Schools, 1868-1830', Walpole Society, vol.38, 1962, p.160), in which case he would have been born in 1784 or 1785, a year or two before Mulready. Another William Dixon was admitted on 11 December 1789 (the same day as J.M.W. Turner) at the age of fifteen but he seems less likely to have been still working as a junior assistant to Porter in 1800. An age difference of seven or eight years between Linnell and Dixon also seems more probable than one of eighteen or nineteen.
By 1816 Dixon had moved to Newcastle, where, Marshall Hall records, he worked with T.M. Richardson on a series of aquatints of the city, later collaborating on Richardson's Views of the Architectural Antiquities of Northumberland and Durham, published in 1820. Linnell visited him at Newcastle in October 1817 on the return from his honeymoon and found him set up as a portrait painter (A.T. Story, The Life of John Linnell, 1892, I, p.112). Dixon exhibited five portraits and landscapes at the Northumberland Institution in Newcastle between 1822 and 1826 and also exhibited at the Northern Academy in the same city in 1828.
While living in the north-east Dixon still aspired to make his mark in the capital and he appears to have kept on a London address in addition to his lodgings in Newcastle and elsewhere. He wrote from Durham on 27 March 1824 to seek Linnell's advice on submitting a portrait of the Hon. William Kepple Barrington to the RA, regretting that it would have to appear as 'Portrait of a Gentleman' in accordance with the sitter's wishes. The advice was favourable and Dixon's portrait duly appeared at the Academy that year as no.147. In his compilation The Royal Academy Exhibitors ... Algernon Graves lists the portrait as the final submission of a William Dixon who began exhibiting in 1796 but the work of at least two artists seems to have been conflated here. Dixon said in his letter that he had been 'so irregularly connected with the arts & never having exhibited that I have no confidence at all in myself. Bearing in mind his earlier Newcastle exhibits, he can only have meant that he had never exhibited at the RA before. This letter and another sent from Durham on 21 June 1824 indicate that Dixon's acquaintance with the Linnell circle extended not only to John Varley (who had vetted the Barrington portrait for him) and Francis Oliver Finch but also to William Blake, to whom on both occasions he sent his 'best respects' (G.E. Bentley Jr, Blake Records, Oxford 1969, pp.280, 288, cites both letters but gives the name of Dixon's sitter as 'K. Bonnington').
The last reference in Linnell's journal to Dixon before his death is on 7 December 1832, when Mulready and Dixon 'dined with me & stayed till 1/2 past one'. Dixon died between then and 25 November 1834 when Linnell went 'To Mr Finch's to meet Mr Dixon, nephew of the late Wm Dixon' and 'bought his scetches from nature and studies for Pictures'. The nephew sent Linnell further material, 'Sketches Prints etc. being all the things which I have received from the North', in February 1835, mentioning also a view of Hastings which had already been sold.
Linnell's 'Autobiographical Notes' provide a vivid account of Dixon's unhappy character, the 'morbid sense of his defects' that prevented him from achieving much. Of his death Linnell wrote:
A single man in lodgings in Tichfield Street he was found dead in his bed one morning in a wretched condition. He would not allow his room to be cleaned like other people but like a miser waited upon himself - his portfolios were rich in beautiful studies from nature made for the pictures which came to nothing through double mindedness & infirmity of purpose - but the disorder in which these studies were kept defies description. Some of them were to be found in the table drawer & were only discovered when the author of them went to look for spoons for tea...
An oil sketch and two drawings by Dixon of the coast at Cullercoats, Northumberland are catalogued in John Linnell, exh. cat., Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1982 (45-7, repr., as Linnell).
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.65-6