Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Oil on paper laid down on panel
  • 6 ½ × 8 ¾ inches · 165 × 222 mm
  • Signed: ‘J. Linnell’
    Inscribed on a label on the verso: ‘Shepherds by John Linnell fecit /Lent by James Orrock  / 8 links up right of fireplace’ 
    Painted c.1820s

Collections

  • James Orrock (1829-1913) 48 Bedford Square, London; 
  • R. C. Vose, Boston; 
  • Private collection to 2002;
  • Private collection, USA, to 2020;
  • Lowell Libson and Jonny Yarker Ltd, 2020.

Exhibitions

  • London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of works by the Old Masters and by deceased masters of the British School including a special selection from the works of John Linnell and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Winter 1883, no. no.99 ‘Shepherds.’ 

This luminous, small-scale landscape was painted by John Linnell at a significant moment of his development as an artist. In 1818 Linnell had met William Blake. Their shared approach to both art and religion resulted in a strong connection and Linnell was to play an important part in Blake’s last years, commissioning the engravings for the Book of Job in 1823 and the astounding series of watercolours for Dante’s Divine Comedy in 1824. It was Linnell who was to introduce Samuel Palmer to William Blake in 1824, Palmer noted that: ‘it pleased God to send Mr Linnell as a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art.’ Linnell, in turn, visited Palmer at Shoreham in the late 1820s, their surviving correspondence reveals a stimulating relationship, not without its tensions. Palmer increasingly rejected naturalism, seeing it as a diversion from his mission to paint his inner visions in keeping with Blake. Linnell, by contrast, was passionately interested in observing the natural world. As a student at the Royal Academy, he had spent time sketching out of doors with other young artists, particularly William Mulready, William Henry Hunt and the more established painter, John Varley. This wonderfully preserved oil demonstrates Linnell’s investment in naturalism, whilst the fiery evening sky suggests his awareness of Palmer’s visionary works. Painted in the late 1820s, this beautifully preserved oil, is a miniature masterpiece by Linnell.

Linnell’s early career was devoted to landscape. When the Society of Painters in Water Colours changed its name to the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours in 1813, Linnell was a founding member, and contributed fifty-two works (probably all oils) to its exhibitions between 1813 and 1820. Many of these were based on sketching trips made in 1813, 1814, and 1815. In 1813, with George Robert Lewis, he visited north Wales, where he was impressed by the wild scenery, writing many years later, 'I could almost fancy myself living in the times of Jacob and Esau and might expect to meet their flocks.’ Like Palmer, Linnell increasingly viewed his landscape paintings as being more complex than merely representations of the natural world. It was friendship with Cornelius Varley, brother of John, that seems to have stimulated both a religious conversion and a heightened interest in landscape. He joined the Baptist church in January 1812, becoming a member of the chapel at Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, and bought drawing instruments which would enable him to transcribe what he saw with scientific accuracy. He read the writings of William Paley, whose natural theology encouraged Linnell to regard the study of landscape as a valuable response to the work of God. 

The present painting depicts a clearing beside a river, three figures are resting by a fallen tree whilst sheep graze and cattle water in the river, the whole scene is illuminated by the rich, golden glow of sunset. Painted on paper laid down on panel, this limpid landscape can be compared to some of Linnell’s finest cabinet works of the period, including the ravishing 1819 landscape Evening, Storm Clearing Off now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. However, the subject-matter and handling of the present work points to Linnell’s growing relationship with Palmer. Palmer placed sheep and shepherds at the heart of many of his Shoreham landscapes, and those seen in the foreground of the present work recall Palmer’s sheep in particular; the way they are clustered on the ground and articulated with lines of paint. The fiery sunset, agricultural workers and peaceable livestock all recall Palmer’s greatest Kent landscapes, whilst the rather staccato use of paint, particularly in the construction of the trees on the left bring to mind Palmer’s technique in his Shoreham oils. This technical similarity is confirmed by Linnell’s use of support, paper laid down on panel, much as both Blake and Palmer employed in their oils. This small, intensely felt work, draws together Linnell’s scrupulous observation of nature, his belief in the numinous quality of the British landscape and his relationship with Palmer at his most visionary moment.