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Linnell, John (1729–1796)

Linnell, John

London; cabinet maker, upholder and carver (b.1729–d. 1796)

John Linnell was the eldest son of William Linnell and his wife, Mary Butler. He was probably trained as a furniture maker in his father's workshop although he was not formally apprenticed to his father nor has any record of his apprenticeship come to light. However, he became free of the Joiners’ Company by patrimony in 1758 and entered the Livery in 1781 where the records describe him as a carver.

As a child John Linnell's talent as an artist must have been evident to his father who sent him to study at St Martin's Lane Academy, founded by William Hogarth in 1735. There he found himself among an international group of students and teachers and in studying Rococo design, particularly by French exponents of the style, he was able to equip himself to become the firm's designer both of interiors and furniture and to enjoy painting in water-colour for his own pleasure. By 1749 he was already helping his father in running the firm. The business was rapidly growing and after a short period at 8 Long Acre (to which the family moved in the year after John joined his father) an important step was taken in 1754 in transferring the business to the West End and establishing a new and larger workshop, with a dwelling house, at 28 Berkeley Square. Father and son worked here together for nine years, building up a distinguished clientèle and covering a wide range of activities as carvers, furniture makers and upholsterers.

At William's death in 1763 John found himself in sole charge of a firm employing some forty or fifty people of which the stock-in-trade had been valued at £1,052 19s 8d. He bound three apprentices through the London Joiners' Company at a consideration of £50 the first two: Michael Errington (1764); Charles Hare (1765); and no fee recorded for William Robert Gillis (1792).

Many of the firm's clients continued to patronise John Linnell, including William Drake of Shardeloes, Buckinghamshire, Lord Scarsdale and Francis Child, all of whom also employed Robert Adam. The preservation in the Victoria and Albert Museum of a large number of original designs drawn by John Linnell and his draughtsmen for the firm's clients are of the utmost importance in tracing the development of his style, in understanding the range of his work and in identifying some of his customers. For example:

Many are in pen and ink and colour wash, providing the customer with an attractively presented design, sometimes offering alternative proposals from which he could make his choice. Those executed between about 1750 and 1760 reveal John Linnell's mastery of Rococo, using idioms adapted from contemporary French engraved designs. Some introduce Chinoiserie and Gothick features. It was during this period of his life that he found time to issue a set of engraved designs for silver. A small publication consisting of a title-page and four sheets with ten designs for coffee-pots, vases, jugs and sugar castors appeared in 1760. He probably also intended to issue a set of engraved designs for carved girandoles in 1761 as a drawing for a draft title page survives. But this plan, if it existed, does not appear to have materialized. It was a time of varied opportunities. With his uncle, Samuel Butler (a well-known coach builder) he prepared a design for a new State coach for the coronation of George III. Although this was not accepted, an engraving of his design was published in 1761, dedicated to his patron, Lord Scarsdale. This proved to be an appropriate dedication for in that same year Lord Scarsdale was considering the furnishing of his state drawing-room at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. He commissioned two pairs of sofas of exceptional size and magnificence which were intended to be the only items of seat furniture in the room and were to take up the entire wall space with the exception of the window wall. These were duly designed by John Linnell and made by the firm, the main decorative features consisting of carved and gilt merfolk and dolphins based upon ideas which he had already expressed in his design for the coronation coach. The sofas survive at Kedleston.

Gradually, between 1760–65, Linnell's creative ideas were adapting themselves to the growing interest in antiquity. William Kent seems to have been a source of inspiration and he may have come across ‘Athenian’ Stuart's abortive designs for Kedleston. By 1765 he had certainly mastered Neo-classical form and ornament, partly on account of his familiarity with French designs, such as those by Delafosse, and partly as a result of his contact with Robert Adam. His links with another Neo-classical architect, Sir William Chambers, may also have been instrumental in promoting his understanding and adoption of forms and decorative features inspired by the work of French Neoclassical cabinet maker.

Some drawings of about 1765 and also items of furniture, such as a pair of marquetry card-tables delivered in that year to Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire for Lord Scarsdale, owe much to French example. An even closer connection with contemporary French taste arose with the arrival in London and the probable employment at 28 Berkeley Square in 1767–68 of two Swedish cabinet makers, Georg Haupt and Christopher Fuhrlohg who had both been working in France.

A drawing for a commode in the French taste, perhaps by Fuhrlohg himself is among those by John Linnell in the V&A while the piece, executed after the design for the 5th Earl of Carlisle and still at Castle Howard, Yorkshire, is signed by Christopher Fuhrlohg on the carcase in pencil. It would seem very likely that the two Swedes were still working with John Linnell when the library furniture for Robert Child at Osterley Park was provided. The pedestal desk, two library tables and set of eight chairs which survive in the library at Osterley all came from the Berkeley Square workshop and include decorative features previously used by John Linnell as well as Franco-Swedish characteristics.

While business seems to have been going well in the 1760s, John Linnell's friendship with a group of artists involved him in business affairs which almost drove him to bankruptcy in the early 1770s. In addition to these problems he was taken to Court by Lord Conyngham on a charge of fraudulency in which Linnell's mistress was involved and the affair was not settled until the end of 1771. While commissions continued to come to the firm from as far afield as Inveraray Castle in Scotland and Castle Howard, Yorkshire, lack of money on account of his unfortunate business adventures was a constant cause of worry. Nevertheless, he continued to search for new outlets and in 1773 took steps to sell furniture to the Empress of Russia and her Court through his friend Pierre Etienne Falconet. A late commission brought him into contact with the architect, John Vardy the Younger, when he was designing interior features for the 1st Earl of Uxbridge at Uxbridge House, Burlington Gardens, London. Subsequently, between 1791–94 he was preparing designs for the decoration of the boxes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, under the direction of Henry Holland.

He appears to have stopped working in the furniture trade shortly after 1793. In that year he leased a house in St George’s Row. His health was not good and to alleviate his gout he rented a house in Bath in 1794. In 1795 he leased a new house in Kensington Gravel Pits, Notting Hill Gate, and he died in 1796.

Linnell’s private life is difficult to unravel. There is no record that he ever married but in his will he bequeathed two hundred pounds to Ann Gale, daughter of Ann Gale [TNA, PROB 11/1275/28]. This is thought to be an illegitimate daughter, and if so Ann Gale may have been Linnell’s long-term mistress. The will mentions several other close friends or kin, including John Bacon, his brother in law, who married Linnell’s sister Mary in 1773. His relation to another beneficiary, John Linnell Bond, has been the source of some confusion. The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers entry for William Linnell (John’s father) states that Mary married one of William’s apprentices, William Bond, by whom she had a son, John Linnell Bond. This must be incorrect since Mary (b.1737) was still unmarried when she married John Bacon in 1773. John Linnell Bond (b.c.1768-d.1837) was John Linnell’s godson but there is no evidence of a blood relationship. John Linnell Bond and Thomas Tatham were co-executors of John Linnell’s will [Penelope Shorne, personal communication 2020].

After Linnell’s death the firm came to an end. Thomas Tatham (a younger brother of the architect) Charles Heathcote Tatham, who was the son of one of John Linnell's cousins and had been trained by John Linnell at Berkeley Square, took on the burden of sorting out his kinsman's estate, and a few years later founded his own firm, Tatham & Bailey at 13–14 Mount St, London

SHARDELOES, Buckinghamshire (William Drake). 1749–75: William Linnell had been employed by Drake to work at his London house. Between 1765–68 John Linnell appears to have been in sole charge of furnishing Shardeloes and his bills, totalling over £1,000 reveal the details and comprehensive nature of the commission.

KEDLESTON HALL, Derbyshire (1st Baron Scarsdale), 1758–96: William Linnell was patronized by Nathaniel Curzon before his client was ennobled. John Linnell continued to be employed at Kedleston and worked side by side with the architect, Robert Adam. Ledgers recording expenditure on the building and on the furnishings of the house show that regular payments were made to the Linnell firm between 1759 (before William's death) and 1796 (when John Linnell died) totalling nearly £3,000. No details are given of the furniture supplied. However, John Linnell's designs for the two pairs of sofas for the state drawing-room survive in the V&A Museum. While the executed pieces remain at Kedleston. Marquetry card-tables for this room were delivered in 1765 and are also still in the house. Twelve carved gilt and painted stools were provided by John Linnell for the Great Hall shortly after 1775 and there are two further sets of seat furniture preserved at Kedleston which can be attributed to the firm on stylistic grounds.

OSTERLEY PARK, Middlesex (Robert Child), c. 1760–84: Robert Child's brother, Francis Child, who had inherited Osterley Park, died in the same year as William Linnell, who he had employed. Robert, on taking over the house in 1763, continued to use the Linnell firm where John was to work side by side with Robert Adam. Adam's design for the sideboard and accompanying pair of pedestals and urns for the dining room were executed by the Berkeley Sq. workshop in 1767. A design for the chimney piece and overmantel for Mrs Child's dressing room by John Linnell is among the drawings in the V&A Museum. The chimney piece after this design survives in the house, as, indeed, does much of the original furniture, including the seat furniture for the drawing-room provided after Linnell's design. Other sets of seat furniture can be attributed to Linnell on stylistic grounds including eight armchairs en suite with a pedestal desk and two library tables made for the library in 1768 or 1769. Later commissions of 1779–82 probably included the execution of a bed, designed by Adam, with accompanying furniture, for the ‘yellow taffaty bed chamber’ at Osterley. Robert Child died in 1782 but his widow continued to employ John Linnell. The only bill which has been traced describing work carried out over all the years in which the firm was employed dates from 1783 (receipted 1784) and covered cleaning and repair work at Mrs Child's London house in Berkeley Square.

SYON PARK, Middlesex and ALNWICK CASTLE, Northumbria (18th Earl of Northumberland, created 1st Duke in 1766). 1762–72: Among the names of outstanding debtors to William Linnell at his death was that of the Earl of Northumberland and it may be that carving work at Syon Park, where Robert Adam was working on the reconstruction of the house, had already been commissioned from the Linnell firm. John Linnell was employed after his father's death and payments to the firm amounted to over £1,000 between 1763–72. No details are given but the regular nature of some of the early payments suggest that they were for carving work in the house. At Alnwick, Adam was providing designs for ‘Gothick’ interiors after the Northumberlands began to convert the castle into a residence in about 1755. The Duchess commissioned a set of fourteen carved and gilt armchairs from John Linnell for her saloon of the same design as those provided for the drawing room at Osterley. Thirteen survive at Alnwick although they no longer have their original Gobelins upholstery. Two card-tables and two Pembroke tables still preserved at Alnwick can also be attributed to Linnell on stylistic grounds. The ledger entries quoting payments in 1771 and 1772 referred to above, amounting to a total of £250 probably relate to these furnishings for Alnwick. The Duchess died in 1776.

BOWOOD HOUSE, Wiltshire and LANDSDOWNE HOUSE, Berkeley Square, London (2nd Earl of Shelburne, created 1st Marquis of Lansdowne 1784), 1763–96: The 2nd Earl of Shelburne succeeded to the title and to Bowood House, as yet unfinished, in 1761. He employed Robert Adam to alter the interior and finish the house. William Linnell seems to have carried out work for Lady Shelburne before he died and may have been recommended by Adam. John Linnell was commissioned in 1763 to carry out major carving work at Bowood and payments made to him between 1763–66 totalled £1,013 9s 5d. The house was being furnished between 1763–68 and Linnell provided a set of hall stools after Adam's design, probably at the end of 1768. A bill survives at Bowood containing an item dated 28 July 1768 ‘To making and carving 5 hall stools like them at Bowood and painting the same £21.5.0.’. In the following November ‘3 hall stools to match the above’ were provided. All these pieces were ordered for the new London property Shelburne House, Berkeley Sq. later to become Lansdowne House, but the wording of the bill makes it clear that Linnell had previously supplied identical stools to Bowood. The stools from the London House were sold in 1806 but those at Bowood remain there. The furnishing of Shelburne House was proceeding in 1768–69 and on 4 February 1769 John Linnell charged £19 for ‘making and carving a large sideboard table after Mr. Adam's design and painting the same with large brass handles complete’. The dining room is now in the MMA, NY. The sideboard has not been traced.

  • INVERARAY CASTLE, Argyll (5th Duke of Argyll). 1773–81: The 5th Duke of Argyll was buying furniture in London for his castle in Scotland in 1773 and subsequent years. Payments were made to John Linnell totalling nearly £900 between 1774–81. No details are given. Six carved and gilt armchairs and two confidantes can be attributed to the firm as they closely follow a Linnell drawing in the V & A. Other items surviving at Inveraray Castle which also probably came from the Linnell workshop include a further set of carved and gilt oval-backed chairs and three marquetry tables.
  • SANDON HALL, Staffordshire (Nathaniel Ryder, created 1st Lord Harrowby in 1776), 1762–77: Nathaniel Ryder had employed William Linnell in 1762–63. After his father's death, John Linnell was employed as a cabinet maker for which payments were made to him annually from 1764–67, 1770–71, 1773– 75. These payments do not give details, but they were probably for furniture needed for a London house since Sandon Hall was not acquired by Lord Harrowby until 1777. Two sums of £400 each were paid to Linnell on account in August 1777 and these payments could well be part settlements for furniture ordered for Sandon.
  • STOURHEAD, Wiltshire An undocumented sideboard table has been attributed to John Linnell on stylistic grounds (illus. Dodd, Furniture History (2015), figs 1-3)
  • HILLS PLACE, near Horsham, Sussex (9th Viscount Irwin). 1772–73: A bill totalling £55 9s 7d for eight cabriole elbow chairs, carved and painted white and green and two French elbow chairs en suite and also a sideboard is dated 26 August 1772. Another of May—July 1773 amounting to £43 7s 2d lists further sets of seat furniture and tables.
  • HEATON HALL, Manchester (Sir Thomas Egerton, Bt, created 1st Earl of Wilton in 1801), 1775–77: John Linnell was employed by Sir Thomas Egerton in the furnishing of Heaton Hall. A total payment of £57 for furniture is recorded in Sir Thomas's bank account book for 6 November 1775. In addition, an invoice for £37 0s 4d, for items delivered between 24 August 1776 and 18 June 1777 refers to ‘A neat Dressing table made of Sattin Wood with a Glass and bottles … a neat wash hand stand made of Sattin Wood the top hing'd to lift up, 2 Glass cups, 2 cut Glassbottles, 2 Water bottles and Tumblers and a Spring lock to Do. The front with Foulding doors Compleat’ and ‘a neat Cloaths press made of Sattin Wood and Cross banded with rose wood and the bottom with foulding doors and sliding shelves lined with marble paper and green baize falls and 2 Drawers at top handles locks and key Compleat…’. 1774: A workshop drawing in the V & A Museum is inscribed with the name of ‘Mr. Mostyn Owen’ and dated March 1774. The mirror survives in the house.
  • UXBRIDGE HOUSE, Burlington Gardens, London (1st Earl of Uxbridge), 1789–93: Designs for an organ and for chimney-pieces document Linnell's employment by the Earl of Uxbridge while his patron's bank account records payments to John Linnell of nearly £6,000 up to June 1793.
  • AMMERDOWN HOUSE, near Frome, Somerset (Thomas Samuel Joliffe), 1795: Three unpublished bills of 1795 refer to 2 large frames with ornaments in therm'd legs and gollosses in the rails gilt in burnished gold … for your slabs £18.18.0’, ‘8 satinwood tablet back'd elbow chairs with mouldings gilt in burnished gold round the painted tablets, the elbow carved, the legs turned … £44.0.0.’, ‘2 large sofas to match’ and ‘A pair of satin wood fire screens, the ovals covered with green silk’. These pieces survive at Ammerdown House.
  • UNSPECIFIED WORK. The names of many clients of John Linnell are known although no details of the commissions are recorded.

Sources: DEFM; G. Eland, (ed.), Shardeloes Papers of the 17th and 18th Centuries, 1947; J. Hardy and H. Hayward, ‘Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire’, C. Life, 26 January, 2 and 9 February 1978; H. Hayward, ‘Some English Rococo Designs for Silversmiths’, Proceedings of the Society of Silver Collectors, 1969–70, pp. 60–62; H. Hayward, ‘The Drawings of John Linnell in the Victoria & Albert Museum’, Furn. Hist., 1969; H. Hayward, ‘Ordered from Berkeley Square, Inveraray and the furniture of John Linnell’, C. Life, 5 June 1975, pp. 1485–88; H. Hayward, ‘A Pair of Mirrors and Consoles by John Linnell’, Conn., January 1976, pp. 12–13; H. Hayward, ‘A Fine Pair of Commodes by John Linnell’, Catalogue, Summer Exhibition, 1985, Partridge Fine Arts Ltd, London; J. F. Hayward, ‘A Newly discovered commode signed by Christopher Furlohg’, Burlington, CXIV, 1972, 704–12; H. Hayward, and P. Kirkham, William and John Linnell Eighteenth Century London Furniture Makers, London, 1980. (Reproduces all bills, correspondence and the Inventory of the Berkeley Sq. workshop, 1763); C. Hussey, ‘Ammerdown House, Somerset — I’, C. Life, 16 February 1929, pp. 226–36; P. Kirkham, ‘The careers of William and John Linnell’, Furn. Hist., 1967, pp. 29–40; G.W.W., ‘A set of Cornishes by J. Linnell’, The Antique Collector, October 1959, pp. 42–43; Tomlin, ‘The 1782 Inventory of Osterley Park’, Furniture History (1986); Kirkham, ‘London Furniture Trade’, Furniture History (1988); Hayward, ‘The Shoppee Album I Notes on Drawings by John Linnell, C.H. Tatham and Henry Holland’, Furniture History (1990); Reider, ‘John Linnell's Furniture for the Dining Room of Lansdowne House’, Furniture History (1993); Dodd, ‘A Cherishable Wreck: An Early Neo-Classical Table at Stourhead attributed to John Linnell’, Furniture History (2015).

The original entry from Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 can be found at British History Online.