From about 1804 to1806 Linnell was the pupil and apprentice of the landscape painter John Varley (1778–184), an influential teacher and central figure in the development of landscape painting in England in the early nineteenth century. Linnell had met Varley’s brother William while drawing at Christie’s saleroom, and on meeting John Varley had impressed him with his talent. Linnell, then thirteen years old, persuaded his father, for whom he had been earning money by copying paintings by George Morland (1763–1804) to let him join Varley’s ‘Academy’, living with John and his brother Cornelius, also a painter, in Broad Street, Golden Square, Soho, central London.
Varley encouraged his students to sketch directly from nature in the open air; his much-quoted motto was ‘Go to Nature for everything’, and as Linnell’s biographer records, ‘henceforth Linnell adopted it as his own. In order the better to enable his pupils to carry out his advice, Varley in the summer took a house at Twickenham near to the river, and sent them out into the highways and byways to make such transcripts as they could’ (Story, p.25). Linnell’s Study of a Tree is one of a number of oil sketches he made along the banks of the Thames at Twickenham, a few miles south-west of London, in the summer of 1806. He was joined in his sketching excursions by Varley’s other pupils William Henry Hunt (1790–1864) and William Mulready (1786–1863), who assisted Varley with his teaching. Two other 1806 oil sketches by Linnell are in Tate’s collection (T00935, T01490), as is Hunt’s 1806 Study from Nature at Twickenham (T01154). The three artists became close friends: as Story notes,
During the summer at Twickenham, Linnell spent a great deal of his time with Hunt – on the river and in the neighbouring lanes and fields – sketching and painting, using oils, and working on millboard. There are several sketches ... which he and Hunt painted at this time, one of them showing Hunt’s work on one side of the millboard, and Linnell’s on the other.
Linnell’s Study of a Tree is a small working sketch, intended as an exercise in observation of naturalistic colour and detail. A contemporary observed Linnell, Hunt and Mulready ‘sitting down before any common object, the paling of a cottage garden, a mossy wall, or an old post [where they would] try to imitate it minutely’ (J.L. Roget, A History of the Old Water-Colour Society, London 1891, vol.I, p.390, quoted in Parris, p.103). Linnell’s early plein-air oil sketches are characterized by a spontaneous, casual interpretation of the motif and close attention to textural qualities, which provided an important grounding for Linnell’s later landscape work. They generally depict small-scale, humble subject-matter, evident particularly in this study, in which close-up detail of the bark of the tree provides the subject of the exercise. Linnell remarked on working alongside Mulready on landscape motifs: ‘through the practice of very carefully copying all the beautiful varieties of tint and texture ... we learnt to see beauty in everything’ (Autobiographical Notes, p.38, quoted in Crouan, p.x).
Kathleen Crouan, John Linnell: A Centennial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1982.
Leslie Parris, Landscape in Britain c.1750–1850, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973.
Alfred T. Story, The Life of John Linnell, London 1892.