John Linnell (1792-1882) was both a major artist in his own time and an important contact for artists now seen to be among the most significant figures of their era, including William Blake, Samuel Palmer and the Pre-Raphaelites. Born in Bloomsbury, London to a craftsman father, Linnell showed talents for sketching and oil painting at a young age. Taken under the tutelage of painter John Varley (with fellow students William Hunt and William Mulready) he was admitted in 1805 (at the very young age of thirteen) to the Royal Academy, where he exhibited precursors of the landscapes for which he would later be known. A founding member of the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours, he also worked at various times on book illustrations, ivory miniatures and oil copies of the old masters. In 1818 he met William Blake and was a source of valuable support to the visionary artist during his final decade, commissioning the engravings for the Book of Job and the illustrations to the Divine Comedy. Following Blake's death in 1827, Linnell continued to support artist Samuel Palmer, who would later marry his daughter, Hannah (the eldest of nine children, born following his marriage to Mary Welshman in 1817). For several decades Linnell focused on portraits (of which he would also sell engravings) for sitters including Princess Sophia Matilda, Thomas Carlyle and Sir Robert Peel. Following his controversial failure to be appointed to an assistantship at the Royal Academy, he wrote a pamphlet criticizing that institution in 1869. For the final decades of his life he exhibited mainly landscapes.
The collection is Linnell's own archive as preserved by his descendents with additional later family correspondence and documents especially in relation to Albert Herbert Palmer. The archive comprises Linnell's original journals (thirteen volumes), cash books, his ms autobiography, extensive correspondence, various accounts and documents etc. Correspondents include leading artists such John Constable and Samuel Palmer, those who commissioned portraits from Linnell, political figures such as William Wilberforce and extensive business and family correspondence.
The collection descended to Joan Linnell Ivimy Burton and the John Linnell Trust and was purchased by the Fitzwilliam Museum in May 2005 from the Perceval Fund with contributions from the Friends of National Libraries, the Pilgrim Trust, the Charlotte Bonham-Carter Charitable Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund.