John Linnell of London; cabinet maker, upholder and carver (1729–d. 1796)





Linnell, John London; cabinet maker, upholder and carver(1729–d. 1796) Story taken from British and Irish Furniture Makers Online.

Design drawings and furniture photos at the Victoria & Albert Museum

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 app. to his father nor has any record of his apprenticeship come to light. However, he became free of the Joiners’ Co. by patrimony in 1758 and entered the Livery in 1781 where the records describe him as a carver.

As a young boy, 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-color 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 Sq. Father and son worked here together for nine years, building up a distinguished clientele 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. Many of the firm's clients continued to patronize John Linnell, including William Drake of Shardeloes, Bucks., Lord Scarsdale and Francis Child, all of whom also employed Robert Adam. The preservation in the V & A of a large number of original designs drawn by John Linnell and his draughtsman 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. [Print Room, E.59–414 1929] Many are in pen and ink and color 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 Chinoiseries and Gothic 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. [V & A, E. 217 1929] 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 coachbuilder, 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, Derbs. 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 cm. 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, Derbs. 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 Sq. in 1767–68 of two Swedish cm, 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 [E 292 1929] while the piece, executed after the design for the 5th Earl of Carlisle and still at Castle Howard, Yorks., 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 Sq. 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, Yorks., 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 Gdns, 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. His health was not good and to alleviate his gout he rented a house in Bath in 1794. He died in 1796 without issue although he appears to have married in the last years of his life. The firm then came to an end. Thomas Tatham, 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 Sq., took on the burden of sorting out his kinsman's estate, and a few years later is known to have founded his own firm, Tatham & Bailey at 13–14 Mount St, London. 




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