Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

William James Linton (ed.):

27) The National, A Library for the People.

London 1839

Linton’s short-lived magazine belongs to the most brilliant achievements of 19th century press culture, as well in literary as in pictorial respects; it represents an inspired shaping of expanded Utilitarianism or Foxite aesthetics and the model for all his forthcoming auteur journals. Together with his illustrated Land reform epic Bob-Thin that followed six years later, The National can be regarded as his major work. It was launched in the founding year of Chartism, the most popular and most influential British working class movement initiated by the London Workingmen’s Association. The subtitle reflects the enthusiasm for education of the largely self-taught circles of Chartist activists, which predominantly consisted of artisans and workers. But whereas other Chartist papers with their rather sensationalist journalism paved the way for the mass Sunday newspapers, Linton never really reached the public taste with his high didacticist ambitions, and accodingly all his journals had only a very limited dissemination.

 “In 1838 I was a reader in the old Reading Room at the British Museum, for several months a close student while preparing for the issue of a cheap weekly publication, which, as A Library for the People, I hoped might supply the working classes with political and other information not open to them with their limited means for purchase and time for study, and scarcely to be printed under the laws then gagging the press. I asked Watson to publish for me, at my own expense. At first he tried to dissuade me from it, as likely to lead me into trouble personally as well as pecuniarily; but when he found me determined, he accepted and heartily helped.” (Memories


The concept of Linton’s Library for the People can be conceived as an educational counterdraft to the rather loyalist efforts of the Whiggish Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge with their most popular commmodity, the cosy Penny Magazine. What Linton was addressing was the usefulness of stirring emancipatory knowledge, and accordingly he provides his readers with an extensive body of radical literature, collecting excerpts from treatises and poems mainly from the period of the French Revolution, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Comte de Volney, Maximilien de Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Gracchus Babeuf, William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as by some contemporaries, mainly from the Wade-Fox circle, like Douglas Jerrold, Richard Hengist Horne and Harriet Martineau. Especially the continous contributions by Linton’s paternal friend, the physician and former Unitarian preacher Thomas Southwood Smith about ethical, educational, religious and medical concerns have to be pointed out. Southwood Smith was a very unique character, who was inspired by such contrary characters like William Blake and Jeremy Bentham. He embodied a unison of mysticism and scientific facticity that played an important role in the shift from poetry to prose as the trend-setting Victorian medium, that occurrred in  the late Thirties. With his early moral teachings, Southwood Smith had considerable impact on Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Lord Byron, and with his campaigns for sanitary reforms he had attracted the attention of the young Charles Dickens.

Unlike previous radical compilers like Thomas Spence in his Pig’s Meat or Thomas Wooler in his Black Dwarf, who used to arrange their materials rather shambolic in the mode of radical bricolage, Linton had grouped them thematically. Amongst the weekly topics of The National were themes like universal suffrage, slavery, colonialism, atheism, marriage and divorce, woman’s liberation, education or punishment. The predominant part of the contributions came from the editor himself. Under various pen names like Spartacus, Gracchus or One of the People, Linton created a rather ingenious choir of disparate voices. He was the author of three series, which ran through several issues: Records of the World’s Justice, Hymns for the Unenfranchised and Revelations of Truth.

The prose cycle Records of the World’s Justice, consisting of twelve political parables, seeks to undermine the genre of the moral treatise, this popular instrument of loyalist propaganda, with free-thinking contents inspired by William Godwin’s anti-statist tract An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. The extremely individualistic and egalitarian approach of Godwin’s theories had made them especially attractive for artists of a lower social rank,  such as William Blake or James Northcote, but his closest and most influential follower had been his son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although Linton later had distanced himself from the Utilitarian and atheist views of the Jacobine Godwin circle, he remained tied to Godwin’s thoughts all his life in his conceptions of radical democracy.

The twenty-two political sonnets Hymns for the Unenfranchised „represent Linton’s conscious use of the hymn tradition, widely spread through Methodist chapels, as a secularised mode of poetic-political intervention. These poems mimic oral hymnody, but have been invented and produced within a print-culture pedagogy for the working person.“  Anne F. Janowitz considers this cycle of sonnets to be a forerunner of  William Morris’ Chants for Socialists, bringing together the oral “ballad tradition and the depth psychology of the inward lyric.” His long prose poem Revelations of Truth, published in The National as a sequel, „is written in the same loose prophetic line as Blake’’s, and it carries the biblical line forward in counter-cultural poetics to Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg." (Anne F. Janowitz)



In their pictorial expressivity, the series of stirring scenarios that he created for the title pages of The National, reveal him as a contemporary of Théodore Rousseau, the founder of the French Barbizon school, and his dramatised landscape ideal. Several of the localities that Linton presented, for example, Tintern Abbey, the Castle of Chillon or the Chapel of Wilhelm Tell, were combined – corresponding with the didactic claim of his periodical – with poems of revolutionary Romanticism. The sense of directness that the engravings conveyed, however, was not caused by a direct impression of nature but, reproduction graphically, by the impulsive style of the hatchings and the expressive chiaroscuro into which Linton had translated the graphic model. This mode of a pressing temporality, unparalleled in the landscape graphics of his times, was in line with the script on which the series was based. Viewed individually, one could regard the depictions of destructive forces of nature and ancient ruins, such as the Sun Temple of Baalbek, the Colosseum in Rome, or Puerto Rico devastated by an earthquake, as manifestations of Edmund Burke’s picturesque definition of the horrific and sublime. Only viewed in sequence does it become evident that they follow the models of the Comte de Volney’s anti-imperialistic treatise, The Ruins, or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (1791), from which Linton repeatedly cited in the periodical. For De Volney, the unleashed forces of nature and imperial relics presented the regulating forces of a nature that in an entropic way strove for a state of perfect equality as the ultimate aim of creation. The eschatological grounding of Linton’s image sequence is superimposed by a second line of argumentation that uses the rousing dynamism of the cataracts, storms, waterfalls, and earthquakes overwhelming the viewer as a symbol of the revolutionary power of accumulation. In his poem The Gathering of the People, also written in 1839, Linton gave this vision of the propellant power of creating swarms a highly suggestive expression. Under the title Storm Song, it became a central hymn of the early English workers’ movement during the uprisings of 1848, where it was sung by a choir and with musical accompaniment at Chartist assemblies – to the music of Beethoven. In a much more concrete and precise manner than many other republican-minded artists of the day, Linton interpreted the image of boundless nature as a reflection of revolutionary forces in that he additionally understood it, beyond the aspect of energetics, in process-related terms as an historical image. Forty years later, in his illustrations for William Cullen Bryant’s poems, Thanatopsis and The Flood of Years, he returned to this complex and dynamic concept of his early years.

In the xylography of its time, the expressivity of The National engravings has no parallel. As Linton later revealed in his theories of wood engraving, he had considered the demands of the rising illustrated press as a productive challenge in order to break the codes of an artificial kind of xylography which meticulously sought to imitate the structures of copper engraving. By that time the Bewick succession was to get split into two factions, the followers of William Harvey and John Thurston who sought to give wood engraving the precious artistocratic appeal of intaglio, and the likes of John Jackson and Ebenezer Landells, who were, rather pragmatically, as “art directors” of the early journals, just developing the pictorial syntax of the popular press. To grasp Linton’s achievement of turning wood engraving into the  medium of an utmost intense expression, it may be instructive to realise the stereotype and coarse manner of John Jackson’s cover engravings for the Penny Magazine on the one side, defined by the requirements and confinements of the mass medium, and to envision on the other hand the freedom of expression which Luke Clennell had achieved in his Bewick workshop engravings, a coarse yet unpredictable style, a similar kind of  boldness and frankness in graphic terms as it is represented in Elliott’s Corn Law Rhymes or in Horne’s proto-Brechtian plays, but on a literary scale.

When Linton engraved the twenty-six cover plates for The National, his artistic hero Luke Clennell had been locked away for the preceding decade in a lunatic’s asylum after having thrown his painting materials on the canvas in order to come to the utmost proper expression. The proper expression that Linton had created in his National engravings lay in his ability to turn the stereotypical results of the rough and hasty production conditions of press imagery into a fresh and nervous mode of notation, into a psychologically charged variety of the Penny Magazine cuts; a strategy almost congruent to his editorial conception of undermining the contents of this main organ of loyalist education by translating its remote and generalized mode of communication into a direct and urgent way of addressing its audience. The nervousness of graphic expression which Linton had developed here became a kind of trademark, which was relatively easy to decode for his peers. In her fundamental work Visual Communication and the Graphic Arts (1974), Estelle Jussim had decried the late The Lintonesque as being a monotonous and predictable kind of graphic syntax, though without having taken in account that even her favourite engraver-artist Elbridge Kingsley from the opponent New School had been substantially influenced by this seismographic engraving manner typical for Linton