Updated May 2014
There are a great number of Victorian men with beards who still dominate the thinking of the English speaking world. One such was John Ruskin, said by some to be the greatest Victorian other than Victoria, who lived for a good part of his later life in Brantwood, a house on Coniston Water, in the Lake District of north-west England. Ruskin was prominent in his time, and remains so, progenitor of that socialist 'Arts and Crafts' movement that still has resonances today, an early environmentalist and conserver, founder of the Labour Movement etc etc. He bought this substantial house from one William James Linton, described as a Wood Engraver and Revolutionary. This appears a strange juxtaposition of 'professions', and a little odd that such a house belonged to a humble artisan, radical or not. So who, exactly, was this guy?
Linton was born in London, England in 1812 and spent his early childhood in Whitechapel and Stratford, going to school in Stratford and Chigwell. In the early 1820s Linton, as a boy, was much taken with collecting both pictorial promotional leaflets for the state lottery and 'admirably designed' tokens then in use by large companies as replacement for the short supply of currency coins. Already showing interest in magazines and pamphlets, and deemed to have an artistic talent, in 1828, aged 16, he became an apprentice to GW Bonner, an established engraver, who taught him wood engraving. He went on to work with other engravers, particularly John Thompson, who had started his own career with Thomas Bewick, whose name we attach now to (very valuable) illustrations of birds, but who, in his time, was better known for reviving the art of Wood Engraving. The technique allows greater subtlety than metal plates giving the artist more empathy with the material, allowing greater creativity. Some of the thinking at the time, perhaps influenced by William Blake, was that the illuminated book was a means to political and spiritual reform, a means of broadcasting art to a greater audience than ever before and a means (because of the manual block printing required) of keeping the artistic production in the hands of the artist. Linton, as illustrator, as the advocate of the revived medieval technique of wood engraving, was very much part of that movement.
Although contemporary craft fairs will often include modern examples, from a current perspective wood engraving may seem an esoteric trade. In Victorian times, though, it was far more important, the principal means of conveying illustration quickly, easily and economically. Political cartoons, pictures to accompany satirical verse and prose and the reproduction of classic and modern art masterpieces relied on the technique, as did the very many magazines that flourished in that era. In particular The Illustrated London News, with which Linton was closely associated in its early days, brought pictorial news to the general public in a mission to inform and educate. Bewick had taken up a technique known as 'white-lining'. Linton perfected this, and, at the peak of his career used it to contribute 14 plates to a particular landmark in publishing, a volume of Tennyson's poems published by Moxon in 1857 with illustrations by the most celebrated artists of the day. It had an initial print of 10,000 copies, intending, not altogether successfully insofar as it did not sell well, to bring art and poetry to the mass market.
Linton always worked with considerable skill, zeal and enthusiasm, and used it to good effect in carving out - please forgive the pun - a career and reputation for himself. Despite his very many failures and failings in other fields itemised below, Linton was emphatically one of the greatest engravers of his time, producing a vast quantity of precise, sensitive and applauded reproductions of the greatest works of his artistic contemporaries.
Apart from the wood engraving for which he is best known, he also invented an electrotyping process called 'kerography', a rudimentary method of mechanical printing of metal plates. Among his several teams of apprentices and trainees over the years were many who later achieved success in their own right, in particular Walter Crane, though few appear to have shared his passion for engraving on wood.
In 1850, age 38, he was able to purchase a rundown and neglected Brantwood for a mortgaged one thousand pounds. The move to the Lake District a couple of years earlier seems to have been motivated partly by the need to distance himself from creditors in London, partly by the need to find a more benign climate for his consumptive wife, and also by a liking for the area developed on walking holidays in the years before. Brantwood seems to have been a place of great freedom for the family, a bucolic interlude. His wife was often incapacitated; the older children did not go to school and their tutoring at home was more than a little erratic, reliant on a Polish émigré revolutionary who lodged with the family (along with several other similarly-exotic expatriates). Linton would take all seven children on long rambles to teach them of art, nature and science. Neither boys nor girls had their hair cut, and all wore long blue smocks, regardless of gender. He could not afford much furniture, repair or maintenance for the house, but did manage to install his own press to produce his own books, pamphlets and magazines and continued his engraving work with frequent visits to London. Nevertheless, finances were a constant struggle and he was often forced to rely on benefactors, such as the aforementioned Moxon. At one point Moxon visited with the firm intention of collecting some much delayed work, but left after contributing a goodly sum to the artist but without being allowed entry to the chaotic household and without the promised plates.
Poetry and Prose
Linton was not only a wood engraver. He wrote books himself, painted watercolours and wrote poetry. Described as a 'working class poet' or 'chartist poet' much of his output was political, but the poems that he is best remembered for belong in the Romantic School of the time and concern the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood. They were well reviewed even in comparison to Wordsworth and Tennyson, then writing in similar mode. He was also known for his epigrams, both in translation from ancient Greek and Latin (the often 'rude' Catullus being a particular favourite) and on his own account. Such slight verses require no small skill. A volume produced in middle age, Claribel And Other Poems, was very well received by critics at the time. He might be counted among the lesser poets of 19th-Century Britain, but that in itself is no mean achievement for a wood engraver who left school at 15.
His prose included volumes on Politics and Natural History, as well as the craft and history of wood block engraving, plus some translations from French, Italian and German of political treatises. He wrote some children's books which achieved a little success. Later, with his third wife, Eliza, writing the words, he used prints of his own watercolours to illustrate The Lake Country, which eventually proved to be his most successful project while he was in England.
Pteridology (The Study of Ferns) and Botany
His stay in the Lake District encouraged him to study and draw the area and, in particular, ferns, much in vogue at the time. The National Trust, current owners of Brantwood, are in the process of reviving and replanting the 'Linton Fern Garden' there. He wrote and illustrated Natural History of Ferns and The Ferns of the English Lake Country, both of which remained important texts for many years. While at Brantwood he took a great interest in Botany, going on long walks and rambles and producing many creditable wildflower sketches.
As an apprentice Linton fell in with groups of trade unionists, free-thinking Unitarian church people and a group (The Craven Hill Set) of middle-class free-thinking journalists, poets, doctors and businessmen who espoused feminism, literate and liberal conversation and a scorn of authority. He does not appear to have been at the centre of the 'sex, drugs and free-thinking' set that were developing idealistic ideas for socialist utopias, although acquainted with the Rosettis. He was interested primarily in developing his own republican and internationalist ideas, but knew and worked with many of the influential circles that were active in London at the time.
Later, he was a somewhat shadowy figure in the leadership circles of the Chartist, Labour and Republican movements. (He is thought to have sheltered a prominent prosecution witness who thus did not have to testify against the leaders of the Newport Rising in 1839/40, an action that may have led to the commutation of the death sentences given to the ringleaders.) Throughout all his radical associations and contacts he remained, however, his own man. He had some interest in the Utopian ideas based on the nobility of the worker that Morris and Ruskin later espoused, but chose, for the most part, to plough his own particular furrow. His books The English Republic and God and the People expounded his political ideas. He initiated, or partnered others in starting, a whole series of magazines and pamphlets, none of which were successful and which, together, kept him in penury and debt for most of his working life. The National, English Republic, Pen and Pencil, Farthing Times and Advertiser, Illustrated Magazine, The Leader, and The Cause Of The People were a few of the financial and political failures. In domestic politics he fought against Stamp Tax and for many parliamentary reforms, and he edited the Chartist magazine The Cause of The People. He was also greatly entangled in Italian and Polish independence movements, a sympathy that brought him into contact with the wealthy MP Joseph Cowen, who admired and supported Linton financially with loans and mortgages for many years.
A particular friend was Mazzini, though the admiration does not seem to have been entirely mutual, an Italian radical much involved in the independence and unification movements in Italy. 1848 was a year of great turmoil throughout Europe, when many countries throughout the continent were immersed in political upheaval, sparked by a poor harvest. Mazzini led the first of these 'revolutions' with an invasion of Sicily in January. Although immediately unsuccessful - his ideas were later adopted by Garibaldi - it sparked similar uprisings throughout the continent and beyond, from Belgium to Ukraine, Denmark to Spain and most countries in between, even reaching South America. As hard as the chartist movement tried to stimulate debate, Britain was an exception but gave shelter to political refugees from across Europe. These were tumultuous times for political thinkers and activists.
Wives and Family
Linton was married two, or, possibly, three times. In 1838, after a two year courtship, and in the face of considerable reluctance from both sets of parents, he married the 'serenely beautiful' Laura Wade, sister to Thomas Wade, a radical romantic poet and playwright whom Linton had known for some years. She died of consumption (tuberculosis) a few months after the wedding and Linton never referred to, or spoke of her again, though love poems written late in life demonstrate that he had never forgotten her. His second 'wife' was Emily Wade, Laura's sister. Such a marriage (to a sister) was illegal at the time and followed the birth of a son, Willie. No record of the ceremony exists, either in Woodford where they then lived with Mrs Wade, Emily's mother, or in Boulogne whence they were thought to have 'eloped'. Together they had seven children, including Willie. Emily died, consumptive like her sister, in 1856. The distraught and impecunious family were rescued from Brantwood and taken off to Hastings by the 'shameless scribbler' Eliza(beth) Lynn whose vicar father's parish was in Keswick, on the northern edge of the Lake District. She had known the Lintons for some time, intrigued by their unconventional freedoms and entranced by the delicate Emily.
Eliza Lynn Linton was a strong and interesting character. She was the first salaried woman journalist in London, an achievement that must have taken more than a little determination, and had written some historical novels. She and her sister sold their house at Gads Hill, Rochester, to Charles Dickens, following their father's death and prior to her marriage to Linton in 1858. She, therefore, had money; he didn't. She was homosexual; he wasn't. She was politically conservative; he remained a radical. She was anti-feminist; he a suffragist. She returned to the literary circles of London and he embroiled himself deeper in his republican politics. It is thought unlikely that the seven year marriage was ever consummated. Some analyses of her career suggest that the 'saving' of Linton and his family and subsequent marriage was borne from a sense of guilt stemming from her unconventionality, but, whatever the motivation, she maintained in contact with the children and, even after separation and divorce, corresponded affectionately with Linton. A fortuitous adjuvant of the marriage was Linton's introduction to Eliza's friend, the by-then elderly and eccentric Walter Savage Landor, who went on to support Linton in a variety of projects.
After the marriage, her books turned to the more racy 'sensation fiction' and Eliza took a strong anti-feminist, anti-lesbian, anti-women's education stance, though seemingly her unconventionality allowed her entry to the free-thinking set and she was notably fierce in her advocacy of changes to property and inheritance laws in favour of women. She was a friend of George Eliot and the Rosettis but was apparently despised by Charlotte Brontë. Indeed, she seemed to provoke many strong reactions, perhaps because she was an emancipated strong-minded woman who relished attacking feminism and the suffragettes.
The period following the marriage to Eliza, and the return to London, was a difficult time for Linton. Everything he tried seemed to fail. No-one bought his watercolours of the Lake District, a play written for the Lyceum Theatre was rejected. Poems, stories and even illustrations for advertisements were ignored. A series of magazines failed, some after just one issue. He and Eliza divorced. Hard financial truths confronted him and in 1866 Linton decided to emigrate to New York with fares paid by his ex-wife Eliza, leaving Willie to care for his business in London, and for his remaining brothers and sisters. By then two of his children had died, another was 'slow and backward', and a daughter, Gypsy, was resident in an asylum in Scotland, partially paralysed.
In America he was enlisted by the Italian republican movement and the 'Friends Of Poland' to represent their interest to American politicians - which led to a brief meeting with President Grant - but his enthusiasm for their causes seemed to have waned. He had a commission from the Manchester Examiner to correspond from New York, but his enthusiastic embrace of criticism of corrupt Irish governance in the city and the 'Negro question' (the migration of freed slaves to New York) was of little interest to Manchester. Linton was by now virtually penniless, and was obliged to take up a poorly paid, part-time, teaching post at the Ladies School Of Design, an employment he felt far beneath him and at which he did not excel. Nevertheless, this proved something of a turning point. The appointment brought him to the notice of the Society of Wood Engravers of New York who, knowing of his reputation and achievements in England, held a dinner in his honour. Work started to flow his way and by the summer of the next year he had enough money to return to London and try to persuade his children, and Eliza, to return with him to New York. Only Edmund, the 'backward' son, did so, although his two remaining daughters Margaret and Ellen followed later with Linton's brother Henry and his family. Eliza never went, and Willie remained with her in London.
Linton quickly prospered in New York, but he remained his profligate self and debts began to catch up with him as news of his prosperity reached England. He owed, for just one example, the butcher in Coniston some £70 - a small fortune at the time. His mortgagers were becoming impatient; he therefore decided to sell Brantwood. Ruskin heard of the sale and purchased the ramshackle 'shed of rotten timbers and rotten stones' for £1,500, a sum that redeemed Linton's debts and enabled him to buy a printing press for installation at Appledore, the house he now lived in at Hamden, New Haven, Connecticut, where he set about recreating his life at Brantwood.
The school, and the college to which it was attached, was a centre for progressive artistic society, particularly concerned with women's rights. This brought him into the company of Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the first woman to stand for the presidency. With his usual enthusiasm, Linton relished the company and the politics. He also enjoyed his novel prosperity and threw himself, and his money, into a variety of progressive causes. Aged 70 he was still working ten hours a day, seven days a week, operating his printing press single-handed. He published a steady stream of neatly-printed books and pamphlets, mostly written by himself. It might be noted that some of his illustrations were in a style that we would recognise as Art Nouveau, some ten years before the Mackmurdo illustration, normally accepted as the earliest landmark of that style was in print. His skills as an artist working in the 'trade' of wood engraving were never in doubt. Linton died, aged 85, in 1897, just two months after finally admitting that he could no longer work his press.
Linton may be, from our perspective, an unnoticed bit-player in the Victorian 'Golden Age' of English arts, crafts and literature. Nonetheless his talents require attention. A master wood engraver on both sides of the Atlantic, Linton was also at least a junior master of several other trades, with considerable success as a Poet, Writer, Editor and Pteridologist as well as his immersion in Politics. These many accomplishments were alongside an 'interesting' private life and a personality that appears, from a reading of his own vainglorious memoir (which makes not a single mention of his family/ies), to have been less than likeable. An eccentric polymath if ever there was one.