Between 1809 and 1811 Linnell shared lodgings with his close friend and mentor the painter William Mulready (1786–1863) in the village of Kensington Gravel Pits, at the junction of present-day Bayswater Road and Kensington Church Street, now known as Notting Hill Gate in west London. The name referred to the gravel quarries which lay to the south, between the village itself and the town of Kensington, bordering the gardens of Kensington Palace. Kensington at this time was still rural, a resort for Londoners seeking fresh air and a pleasant environment. The village of Kensington Gravel Pits was said by Thomas Faulkner in his History of Kensington (1820) to enjoy ‘excellent air, and beautiful prospects to the North’ (quoted in Pasmore, p.1335). Gravel had been dug in the area from at least the early sixteenth century, supplying the building trade in London’s West End.
Linnell and Mulready joined a number of artists, including Augustus Wall Callcott (1779–1844) and Thomas Webster (1800–86), who lived and painted in the area around Kensington Gravel Pits in the early nineteenth century. Mulready and Linnell, following the advice of their teacher John Varley (1778–1842) to ‘go to Nature for everything’, sketched frequently together. In 1812, Linnell made a series of detailed outdoor watercolour studies of the gravel quarries, brick-kilns and pit workers in Kensington which relate to N05776. Mulready painted A Gravel Pit in 1807–8 (private collection) and later The Mall, Kensington Gravel Pits, 1811–12 and Near the Mall, Kensington Gravel Pits, 1812–13 (both Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
Linnell probably completed Kensington Gravel Pits in 1812, after he had moved into his own lodgings in nearby Edgware Road. The work is unusual and innovative for its date, demonstrating a departure from the picturesque landscape tradition in taking as its sole subject a detailed, accurate and uncontrived depiction of men labouring in a naturalistic working landscape. Linnell’s attention to local colour and its freshness and clarity contribute to the work’s startling directness. A slightly earlier treatment of the subject, The Gravel Diggers (N01067) by George Morland (1763–1804) in which workmen are resting in a pastoral setting and there is no detail of the workings of the pits, is an interesting comparison. The figures of the workmen in Linnell’s work are vigorously and convincingly painted, a result of his interest in the painting of high Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Raphael and his assiduous attendance at the Royal Academy Schools’ life drawing classes. Linnell wrote: ‘I went every evening nearly all the season to the ... Academy to draw with Mulready’ (quoted in Crouan, p.8).
The work was exhibited as The Gravel Pits at the British Institution in 1813. Linnell recounted the mixed critical response to the work in an autobiographical note: ‘I was told that Flaxman [John Flaxman (1755–1826), at the time professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy] spoke of this picture very favourably at some party. It was well placed but not purchased.’(Quoted in P.&D. Colnaghi, A Loan Exhibition of Drawings, Watercolours and Paintings by John Linnell and his Circle, London 1973, cat.18.) Linnell sent the unsold painting, along with five others, to the exhibition at the Liverpool Academy later that year when it was bought for 45 guineas by Henry Hole, who, as a pupil of the wood engraver Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), may have appreciated the closely-observed detail in Linnell’s work.
Linnell painted a later version of N05776 with the same title in 1857 (private collection). Linnell wrote of this that he had ‘endeavoured to beat my former self’ (quoted in Linnell, p.266). The figures in the 1857 painting are similar, but with more lyrical, narrative detail, and the landscape has a more rural, open aspect, with views of distant countryside.
Kathleen Crouan, John Linnell: A Centennial Exhibition,exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1982, pp.8–9, reproduced pp.84–5.
David Linnell, Blake, Palmer, Linnell and Co.: The Life of John Linnell, Lewes 1994, pp.25 and 266, reproduced pp.116–7.
Stephen Pasmore, ‘When Gravel was Dug in Kensington’, Country Life, 13 November 1975, p.1335, reproduced.