John Linnell

Study of Buildings (‘Study from Nature’)


Not on display

John Linnell 1792–1882
Oil paint on board
Support: 165 × 254 mm
frame: 310 × 390 × 40 mm
Purchased 1967


From about 1804 to1806 Linnell was the pupil and apprentice of the landscape painter John Varley (1778–1842), 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 the river Thames, and sent them out into the highways and byways to make such transcripts as they could.’ (Story, p.25.) Linnell’s Study of Buildings is probably one of a number of oil sketches he made 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 (T00934, 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.

(Story, vol.1, p.26.)

Linnell’s Study of Buildings echoed Mulready’s interest in the motif of tumble-down cottages; their components of textural surface detail and rustic dilapidation were essential to the Picturesque tradition in which Varley’s work was rooted. Mulready’s Cottage and Figures (T01746) was painted in the same year as Linnell’s study. Linnell wrote that ‘I always received more instructions from Mull [Mulready] than from anyone, indeed I feel bound to say that I owe more to him than to anyone I ever knew’ (quoted in Crouan, p.1). 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, v.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; they generally depict small-scale subject-matter, as in this example.

An oil painting by Linnell The Cow-Yard, 1831 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), incorporates the Tate study in its entirety, indicating, as Crouan notes (p.2), the significance of these early sketches from nature, painted at the age of fourteen, to the development of Linnell’s later work.

Further reading:

Kathleen Crouan, John Linnell: A Centennial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1982, cat.3 p.2, reproduced p.46.
Leslie Parris, Landscape in Britain c.1750–1850, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973.

Alfred T. Story, The Life of John Linnell, 2 volumes, London 1892.

Cathy Johns
May 2002

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Display caption

This study of a ruined barn was presumably made in Twickenham, where Linnell made
a number of sketches which focus closely
on specific details.


Nature's more ramshackle and untidy features, and especially tumbledown buildings and cottages, were popular elements of the current 'Picturesque' aesthetic. They also appear in paintings
by Linnell's friend, William Mulready.


Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

John Linnell 1792–1882

T00935 Study of Buildings (‘Study from Nature’) 1806

Inscribed on label on reverse, ‘No 9. Study from Nature (1806) in Oil. John Linnell.’ Oil on millboard, 6 7/16 x 10 (16.5 x 25.5).
Purchased from Mrs Patricia Linnell (Grant-in-Aid) 1967.
Coll: By descent to Mrs Patricia Linnell.
Exh: ? R.A. 1807 (153, ‘A Study from Nature’); Old Masters, R.A., winter 1883 (110, ‘Sketch from Nature, Upper part of old farm buildings, 6x10 in.’).

The 1883 Old Masters exhibition also included another ‘Sketch from Nature, Farm-buildings, 7 x 10 in.’ (111) and ‘Study from Nature, Old houses; at the door of one of them is seated a boy, 16 x 12¼ in.’ (120); both were also described as painted in 1806 and were lent by the Linnell Family. This work was probably painted at Twickenham at the same time as no. T00934.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1967–1968, London 1968.

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