The Beach at Lytham
Research by Marie Riley
According to art critic Christopher Wood, when John Linnell died in January 1882 he was ‘widely regarded as the greatest English landscape painter since Turner’. Wood maintains that Linnell ’may one day be numbered among our greatest landscape painters’. (1)
Linnell’s reputation had declined after his death but his entry in Grove Art Online states that his work began to be reassessed in the 1970s, ‘with the emphasis being placed on the more inspired, sometimes visionary, early landscapes’. (2)
Born in Bloomsbury on 16 June 1792, the son of a carver and guilder, (3) Linnell was introduced to artists an early age. He received tuition from Benjamin West (1738-1820) and John Varley (1778-1842). William Henry Hunt (1790-1864), later renowned for his paintings of birds’ nests, was a pupil of Varley’s at the same time.(4)
In 1805, at the age of fourteen, Linnell became a student at the Royal Academy. (5)During a long and prolific career he exhibited 176 works at the Academy, 91 at the British Institute and 52 watercolours at the Old Watercolour Society. (6) After having initially been passed over for membership of the British Academy, he later refused to join as an academician.
Linnell collected an impressive circle of friends including poet, artist and engraver, William Blake (1757-1827). Although he was his junior by thirty five years, Linnell’s commercial success enabled him to act as a patron to Blake, who was not so well regarded in his own lifetime. Linnell commissioned engravings for the Book of Job (1826) from Blake and the watercolours for Dante’s Divine Comedy (1827), giving Blake a regular income in his final years. (7) A blue plaque marking where Linnell once lived in Hampstead commemorates the fact that Blake stayed there as his guest. (8)
Linnell painted mainly portraits up to the late 1840s. He then began to concentrate on landscapes which were his real passion. A deeply religious man, initially a Baptist and later a member of the Plymouth Brethren, (9) he painted a number of biblical subjects in English landscapes. When these failed to sell, he instead opted for pastoral scenes which he tried to infuse with a sense of spiritual feeling.
Linnell settled in Surrey in 1851, moving into a property at Redhill that he had designed himself. He lived there until his death on 20 January 1882. (10)
Linnell’s eldest daughter, Hannah, married the artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). Palmer is described as ‘one of Britain’s greatest artists’ on the British Museum website. (11) Four of Linnell’s sons, James Thomas (1820-1905), John (1821-1906), William (1826-1906), Thomas George (1835-1911) and one of his daughters, Mary (1828-1893), were also artists. (12)
There are currently 153 oil paintings by John Linnell in public ownership. (13)
Since Linnell was an artist closely associated with the south of England, where he lived most of his life, it is interesting to speculate how this painting, The Beach at Lytham, came about. A link to Lytham is revealed in a letter written in 1877 by Manchester art dealer, Thomas Johnson.
The year before this letter was written a bequest had been made available from wealthy sculptor, Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841), to enable the Royal Academy to purchase outstanding works of art for the nation. Linnell was one of the first artists to have his work considered as a subject of one of these purchases. The painting in question was Last Gleam before the Storm. He received a note from Johnson informing him of this.
Jan 1st 1877
MY DEAR SIR,
I cannot resist wishing you and yours every good wish for the New Year. I think you will be equally gratified with myself to hear that the Royal Academy think of purchasing one of your finest works out of the "Chantrey Bequest." In short I was asked if my friend Mason, of Bradford, would sell the "Last Gleam before the Storm," which I bought last year for 2,500 guineas, and which originally belonged to Mr. Eden, of Lytham. I have named the subject to several R.A.'s, and they strongly approve of the purchase, notably Webster, who told me this morning that he sincerely hoped it would be accomplished. (14)
So it seems that Last Gleam before the Storm, generally cited as Linnell’s best and most famous work, was probably hanging for a period at Fairlawn in Lytham, home of art collector, James Eden. (15) Unfortunately, this work does not seem to be in the public domain and there appears to be no existing image of it online. It is not even clear if it is an oil painting or a watercolour. Linnell’s biography simply states ‘canvas, 35 by 50 inches’. (16) The Royal Academy did not ultimately buy the painting and it is difficult to trace ownership of it beyond this point.
Nonetheless, the association of James Eden with Linnell’s painting provides an intriguing connection to Lytham and a possible clue as to the origins of The Beach at Lytham.
It is tempting to speculate that The Beach at Lytham was painted by Linnell during a visit to the town under the auspices of Eden, who entertained many artists at Fairlawn. Brian Turner in his book, Victorian Lytham, describes how Eden and his friend, Thomas Miller of West Beach, visited the Royal Academy every summer between the 1840s to the 1860s to buy pictures. They preferred to build relationships with artists and purchase from them directly rather than use dealers. (17)
These two men were more than likely to have known Linnell. They had acquaintances in common, including Thomas Webster (referred to in Johnson’s letter); Webster was Eden’s favourite artist. He visited Fairlawn often and liked it so much that in 1854 he leased the plot next to it and had a house built there. Webster had lived and painted in the area around Kensington Gravel Pits in London in the early nineteenth century, about the same time as Linnell. (18) They moved in the same circles and were close friends. (19)
But The Beach at Lytham was painted in 1844. In fact it is inscribed and dated very precisely ‘Lytham 17th July 1844.’ Last Gleam before the Storm was not painted until three years later and, despite what it says in Thomas Johnson’s letter of 1877, Eden does not seem to have been its original purchaser. (20) Moreover, Eden only purchased the land for Fairlawn in 1847 so he cannot have hosted Linnell whilst the painting was completed.
Another possibility might be that the painting was bought or commissioned directly by the Clifton family, the local gentry at Lytham Hall. Since the painting was donated by Harry de Vere Clifton in 1960 it had no doubt been passed on directly through the family. The most likely purchasers, Thomas Clifton, the Squire from 1832 until 1851, and his wife, Hetty, were patrons of the arts and commissioned paintings from Richard Ansdell in the late 1840s.
This may appear plausible but it is unlikely that Linnell was a guest of the family when this picture was painted. Thomas and Hetty spent long periods away from Lytham Hall. They returned to Lytham in October 1845, after a three year absence, much to the delight of local people who lined the route to the hall with banners of welcome. The Clifton family had already been absent for two years when Linnell painted The Beach at Lytham. (21)
This brings us back to Eden’s friend, Thomas Miller, who frequently entertained artists at 3 West Beach in Lytham, using it for many years as his summer retreat. The Miller family owned the deeds to this property as early as 1812 (22) so it seems more likely that it may have been Thomas Miller who invited Linnell to visit.
Of course it could be simply be that Linnell was touring the area under his own steam and the subject matter later caught the eye of the Cliftons. Unfortunately, his biography makes no mention of either a visit to Lytham or this painting so we may never know how it came to be painted. According to Richard and Samuel Redgrave’s book, A Century of British Painters, he did not paint directly from nature but instead made innumerable studies and sketches from which he produced his finished work. (23) This introduces another possibility, that Linnell came to Lytham at some time before the date on the finished painting.
Divided horizontally, around three quarters of this painting consists of a clouded sky in various hues of grey and pink with the bottom quarter consisting of the sandy beach interspersed by pools of water with small grounded fishing boats. The people on the left of the painting are indistinctly drawn and secondary to the grandeur of the scene. Christopher Wood says of Linnell:
‘In all his pictures the figures blend deliberately into the landscape. They have no individuality, no personality, they are simply dwarfed by the forces of nature.’ (24)
This description accurately sums up the way the figures are depicted in this painting. Wood also notes how Linnell’s pictures are ‘distinctive for their browny-yellow colours, impressionistic technique, and fleecy masses of clouds', which again resonates strongly with this particular work.
Henry (Harry) Talbot de Vere Clifton (1907-1979) donated this painting in 1960. Squire, gambler, occasional actor and film producer, (25) Harry is largely remembered for having squandered the vast Clifton family fortune and estate. A Roman Catholic, Oxford educated, extravagant, aristocratic friend of Evelyn Waugh, Harry has been cited as an inspiration for Sebastian Flyte in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. (26) This may be only supposition and is difficult to verify but Waugh certainly visited Lytham Hall as a guest of the Clifton family in 1935. (27)
Twenty-five years before this donation Harry had gifted another local scene to the Collection, Ansdell’s Rabbiting on Lytham Sandhills. Again, this painting formed part of the Clifton estate rather than having been bought by Harry himself.
(1) Wood, Christopher, Victorian Painting in Oils and Watercolours,
Antique Collectors Club (1996), pp76-78
(3) Story, Alfred T, The Life of John Linnell, Vol 1,
Richard Bentley and Son, London (1892), p7 https://archive.org/stream/lifeofjohnlinnel01storuoft#page/6/mode/2up
(4) Ibid, pp19-24
(5) Ibid, pp36-37
(9) Redgrave, Richard and Samuel, A Century of British Painters,
Phaidon Press Ltd (1981), p385
(10) Story, Alfred T, The Life of John Linnell, Vol 2,
Richard Bentley and Son, London (1892), p33 https://archive.org/stream/lifeofjohnlinnel02storuoft#page/32/mode/2up
(12) Christopher Wood in The Dictionary of Victorian Artists writes that three of Linnell’s sons were artists. He also includes an entry for Mary, (fl.1868-1869), ‘presumably a daughter of John Linnell’ and Thomas G (fl.1864-1884), ‘presumably related to the Linnell family’. Research on Ancestry.com has established that these were indeed John Linnell’s children. Dates for the artist’s children were also verified by records on Ancestry.com.
(14) Story, Alfred T, The Life of John Linnell, Vol 2, pp226-227 https://archive.org/stream/lifeofjohnlinnel02storuoft#page/226/mode/2up/search/bequest
(15) Pergam, Elizabeth A, The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, Ashgate (2011), p31 https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1_MXo5RKln0C&pg=PA31&lpg=PA31&dq=last+gleam+before+the+storm+linnell&source=bl&ots=dgLUZRHoT1&sig=U1Wdf8JUQoa2T1rB16ZYBRGSOlA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=kNmNVIO4FerR7AajyIHgCQ&ved=0CEEQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=last%20gleam%20before%20the%20storm%20linnell&f=false
(16) Story, Alfred T, The Life of John Linnell, Vol 2, p20 https://archive.org/stream/lifeofjohnlinnel02storuoft#page/20/mode/2up
(17) Turner, Brian, Victorian Lytham (2011), p144
(19) Story, Alfred T, The Life of John Linnell, Vol 2, p16
(20) Ibid, p20
(21) Turner, Brian, Victorian Lytham (2011), p4
(22) Ibid, p144
(23) Redgrave, Richard and Samuel, A Century of British Painters, p385
(24) Wood, Christopher, Victorian Painting in Oils and Watercolours, p78
(27) Kennedy, John, The Clifton Chronicle, Carnegie Publishing Ltd (1990)