John Linnell was brought up in an artistic environment. His father, James, was a carver and gilder. Young Linnell's artistic talents became apparent at an early age and his father was able to capitalise on them setting his son to work producing copies of George Morland (whose works were much in demand), which he was able to sell.
The young Linnell become acquainted with John Varley (the distinguished landscape painter and influential teacher). Varley was able to persuade James Linnell to let his son become one of his pupils. At that time William Hunt was also a pupil. A powerful early influence on Linnell was William Mulready, another pupil of Varley’s, who was studying at the Royal Academy when Linnell first met him. After around a year with Varley, John Linnell entered the Royal Academy School in 1805 at the age of only thirteen.
Linnell was a very versatile artist, able to work in a number of mediums. He worked in both oils and watercolours. He painted miniatures on ivory and was a skilled engraver. Whilst at the Royal Academy he received a medal for drawing from life (1807) and one for life modelling (1810).
He became an extremely thriving portrait painter but his real passion was always landscape painting. From the late 1840’s he abandoned portraiture in favour of landscapes. Deeply religious, his work includes Biblical landscapes as well as those of Surrey where he lived from 1851 onwards. Throughout his life, his work was much in demand and he became very prosperous.
He was quick to recognize and encourage original talent. He vigorously championed William Blake’s work and became his last patron, commissioning works for which there was little public demand. He took the seventeen years old Samuel Palmer (his future son-in-law) under his wing providing instruction, advice and encouragement. He supported the Pre-Raphaelites (Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais) at the inception of their movement when there was much opposition to them.
In 1817 he married Mary Ann Palmer (no relation to Samuel Palmer). They had nine children, their eldest daughter, Hannah marrying Samuel Palmer.