Linton, a wood-engraver, polemicist, and poet, was born on 7th December 1812 in Ireland’s Row at Mile End in London, probably the second among four children of William Linton, a provision broker in the London docks and his second wife, Mary (née Stephenson), apparently of a ‘superior’ shop keeping background. The family moved to the village of Stratford, Essex, in 1818, and the young William was sent to the grammar school in Chigwell, a distinguished early seventeenth-century foundation attended by sons of the Essex and City of London middle classes. With the advantage of a rounded education, William seemed destined for the world of London commerce, but persuaded his father to pay for drawing lessons, and in 1828 was bound apprentice to the engraver George Wilmot Bonner (1796–1836) in Kennington in south London. With this declaration of Romantic belief in the superiority of a life of art over that of the counting-house, Linton signalled the future direction of his whole career: a life driven by the conviction that he had much to tell the world, yet held back by his unworldliness. Not that the decision to become an engraver was itself unworldly: engraving was the principal means of mass visual communication in the early nineteenth century and, for a young man without capital, could promise good wages and the possibility of an independent establishment in a market certain to expand. This was doubtless why William Linton senior allowed his younger son, Henry Duff Linton (1816–1899), to enter the same trade and Henry, less prudent even than his brother, also found the mobility of his trade a valuable resource in later life.
On 21st October 1837, Linton married Laura Wade (1809–1838), who was well educated and freethinking and belonged to a family of independent if insufficient means. Fulfilling another Romantic stereotype, she had been a governess and died of consumption six months after her marriage. Linton never ceased to mourn for her, and some of his late poems (Love-lore, 1887) look back to this tragic moment. By about 1839, he was living with Laura’s sister Emily and a child registered later as William Wade Linton (d. 1892), known as Willie, was evidently born soon afterwards. At this time, Linton publicly advocated an end to all state interference in marriage, with partners associating as consenting equals, free if they wished to use contraception. Since 1835, the biblical prohibition against marrying a deceased wife’s sister had been incorporated into English law, so there was never a formal marriage, and Emily simply assumed the name Linton, bearing some seven children: three boys (Willie, Lancelot, who died in December 1863, and Edmund) and four girls (Emily, Margaret, Ellen, and Eliza, who died in December 1857), the youngest of whom was born in July 1854. Emily died, also of consumption, in December 1856.
On 24th March 1858, at St Pancras Church, Linton married Eliza Lynn (1822–1898), the writer and moralist. His marriage to Eliza was childless and unhappy. She soon began to dislike his distinctive clothing, the peculiar cut of his long-waisted coat, which lacked the two buttons at the junction of the skirts at the back—Linton seeing these, according to Walter Crane, as ‘superfluous reminders of gentlemanly, militaristic dress’. She found him ‘ungraceful—careless in the matter of dress and generally unkempt—with unstarched collars and long hair’, adding: ‘I could not convince him of the need of method, regularity, foresight, or any other economic virtue. He was sweet in word and acquiescent in manner; smiled, promised compliance and indeed did much that I wished because I wished it. But I never touched the core.’ The couple grew steadily apart during the early 1860s, separating informally but finally in 1867 when he emigrated to the United States.
The craft that Linton learned from George Bonner was not that of the woodcut, which had been historically the cheapest means of image-making and the mainstay of popular religious and topical publications well into the eighteenth century. Linton was a wood-engraver and his was the craft which, more than any other nineteenth-century printmaking technique, pushed forward the illustration of books, periodicals, newspapers, and ephemeral publications and transformed visual awareness in all advanced societies. Wood-engraving was the first of the major printmaking media to exploit photography, and it was partly as a reaction against the effects of lithography and photo-mechanical printing that the so-called original printmaking media of etching and engraving were re-invented in the second half of the nineteenth century as a major vehicle of artistic expression. Linton’s career spans these developments, in craft terms linking Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) to Walter Crane (1845)–1915 (Crane was Linton’s apprentice from 1858 to 1862) and linking the world of art to that of the Illustrated London News and the pictorial advertisement boom of the last quarter of the century. In his own practice, Linton increasingly found the personal independence and control over the means of production associated with the ideology of the arts and crafts movement by operating his own small private press.
No one was more aware than Linton of the large professional and social issues involved in these developments. He wrote extensively on the technical aspects of his craft (Specimens of a New Process of Engraving for Surface Printing, 1861), on the inherent tension between the artistic and the artisanal aspects of printmaking (‘Art in engraving on wood’, Atlantic Monthly, volume 43, June 1879), on the history of the craft in Britain and America (History of Wood Engraving in America, 1882; Masters of Wood Engraving, 1889), and on his own life (Three Score and Ten Years?, New York, 1894; published in London as Memories, 1895). As a reproductive engraver, he participated in many of the most important publishing projects of the epoch, including Moxon’s edition of Tennyson and George Eliot’s Romola, on which he and his brother worked after designs by Frederic Leighton. Beyond his vast output of relatively ephemeral material, Linton’s most important works are the botanical studies for his own Ferns of the Lake District (1864), and the views and other subjects for Eliza Lynn Linton’s The Lake Country (1864) and for Harriet Martineau’s The English Lakes (1858). A considerable group of his flower drawings, probably intended for another botanical work on the Lake District, was presented by Kineton Parkes to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1938.
Linton ‘discovered’ the Lake District during a walking tour of 1846. He acquired the lease of a house at Miteside in Eskdale, where he installed his family in April 1849. In March 1852, they moved to Brantwood, on Coniston, which Linton then managed to buy outright by means of mortgages. At Brantwood he set up his first private press, using it with help from a group of intense young radical printers to produce a stream of pamphlets on English and European politics, mostly written by Linton himself.
From his earliest years in London, Linton had been heavily involved in fringe republican and Liberal nationalist circles, becoming acquainted with Giuseppe Mazzini about 1842 and regarding himself as the leading English agent and interpreter of the master’s views. Within the Chartist movement Linton tended to take his own line. He strongly opposed O’Connor and in 1848 backed the People’s Charter Union, which favoured collaboration between middle and working classes. In the 1840s, he had regularly composed anti-odes on royal birthdays and he now proposed the sovereignty of a single legislative chamber, elected by universal adult suffrage, its laws subject to referendum. At the general election of 1852, however, he toyed with the idea of standing as a Chartist candidate at Carlisle, but found that he lacked adequate support.
The Chartist failure in 1848 led Linton and other radicals increasingly to find their inspiration in European nationalism: ‘for true civilization, for the free growth of national peculiarities of character; for the unlimited development of the boundless resources of varied clime and country … that every man may have the opportunity of placing himself in that sphere to which his energies may be turned in the best account for the public service … We claim for every People the right to choose their own constitutions, to determine their own way of life.’ Italy, Poland, Switzerland, France, and Ireland successively and simultaneously aroused Linton’s journalistic intervention during the 1850s and 1860s, and it was in this cause that he launched his own most important contribution to this ferment of constitutionalist debate in early January 1851. This was the English Republic, published weekly and monthly until April 1855, virtually all of whose copy and illustrations Linton himself supplied. The English Republic’s programme involved individual self-realisation under the law providing ‘opportunity for growth even for the least and weakest’. A leading function of the state was to provide education for all, to cultivate the ‘perceptive faculties’ of children, and to teach the ‘broad facts of Nature and God in relation to [their] position in the Universe’. Later the curriculum would include geology and botany, with gardening as the principal out-of-school activity. This was the curriculum experienced by his own children at Brantwood, the family being packed into the house together with Emily’s mother, four bachelor printing assistants, the Polish carbonaro Karl Stolzman (1793–1854) and his wife, and Agnes, the servant. The children were all dressed in shifts of blue flannel, and all had shoulder-length hair and wide hats. Their food was home-grown by Linton, and in winter consisted largely of porridge.
Emily’s death at the end of 1856 signalled the beginning of the difficult but, in terms of literary stimulus, not unfruitful relationship with Eliza Lynn. In 1865, Linton published Claribel and other Poems, illustrated with engravings after his own designs. They reflect his stoical acceptance of private adversity and their lyrical style shows the influence of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. But his financial circumstances reached a decisive crisis, and in November 1866 he set off to reconnoitre prospects in New York. Armed with introductions from Mazzini to the American enthusiasts for European national self-determination, he quickly made contact with the Cooper Union and the Society of Wood Engravers of New York, and secured a salaried appointment as artistic director of the local equivalent of the Illustrated London News. This enabled him briefly to return early in 1867 to London, where he began collecting material for his history of wood-engraving, gathered up his younger son Edmund, and (his wife having declined to accompany him) set sail again for the New World. Linton’s old life of financial deficits was now transformation into one of surplus and social acceptance in the liberal republic of the United States. His artistic and literary reputation secured election to the Century Club, the self-electing élite of artistic New York and he was honoured by the high-minded liberal intellectuals of New England society as an authentic voice of European radicalism. Not that this stopped him, as a journalist, from castigating various aspects of American life, social organisation, and foreign policy including the sentimental Fenianism of the New England Irish and the Monroe doctrine’s implementation in Spanish America nor from maintaining his voice in European affairs with a passionate but un-American advocacy of the Paris communards in 1870–71.
In 1870, Linton moved out of New York and acquired a farmstead at Hamden, near New Haven, Connecticut, which became his home for the rest of his life. Threatened with bankruptcy proceedings in the English courts, he suggested to Willie, who was looking after the house at Brantwood, that he should contact Ruskin and offer him the property at a nominal discount, for £1500. The sale was completed in May 1871, and was in many ways a serendipitous event, for the characteristic Ruskin works of the Brantwood years, apart from his own increasing interest in fine printing and book illustration, were the radical Fors Clavigera addressed to the workmen of Britain, Deucalion, and Proserpina, the last two respectively his reformulations of field geology and botany for the education of the young. Linton invested proceeds from the Brantwood sale in a new press for the house at Hamden, named Appledore, and again the tireless voice rang out, identifying significant long-term issues such as the corruptions of Tammany Hall politics and the anti-competitive practices of big business and finance. The family was now more or less gathered round him at Appledore, with the exception of his wife, Willie—who worked as a printer in London—and his eldest daughter, Emily, who was partially paralysed and was looked after in an asylum in Dumfries, Scotland. Margaret, the second daughter, was married locally to an engineer at Yale, Thomas Mather, and Ellen helped her father as amanuensis and typesetter. Edmund helped his father in growing vegetables for the house and, again as at Brantwood, in botanising.
Proximity to Yale’s libraries as well as his literary acquaintances encouraged Linton to publish in 1878 a volume of selected American verse, Poetry of America, followed by a limited edition of an anthology of English verses showing an exceptional knowledge for this period of the metaphysical poets, The Golden Apples of Hesperus (1882); another limited edition, Rare Poems of the Seventeenth Century (1882); and, with R. H. Stoddard, the five volumes of English Verse (1884). Alongside his genuine editorialising of early seventeenth-century verse, there is evidence that he flirted with producing forged pamphlets, probably, like some art forgers, to mock the scholarship of ‘experts’. But he himself was now an increasingly respected figure in the English-speaking world of art and letters. In 1882, he was elected to the American National Academy of Arts, and on his occasional trips to England he became a figure more familiar in the libraries and print rooms of London than on the radical fringes of politics. He particularly loathed W. E. Gladstone, however, regarding him as the betrayer of the old radical vision of land reform and universal suffrage, and he backed Disraeli during the Bulgarian atrocities controversy of 1876. On the last of his English trips in 1889, he brought his magnum opus—Masters of Wood Engraving, printed by hand at Appledore in only three copies—for reproduction in two limited folio editions at the Chiswick Press. In 1891, he was awarded an honorary MA degree of Yale University. Linton’s late books are mostly memoirs: European Republicans: Recollections of Mazzini and his Friends (1893), a Life of Whittier (1893), and his own Memories (1895). A further volume of his own verses, Poems, was published in the same year.
During the 1890s, Linton’s prodigious energies declined, and by autumn 1897 he was unable to continue to operate the press at Appledore. He died at his daughter’s house in New Haven on 29th December 1897 and was survived briefly by Eliza Lynn, who died in July 1898. His papers, the basis for F. B. Smith’s scholarly biography Radical Artisan: William James Linton, 1812–97 (1973) are preserved in three main collections: the Istituto Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in Milan, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Smith reproduces photographs of him in his forties as international agitator with long brown hair, and in his eighties as the benign patriarch, with a cloud of white hair and deep smile-lines around his eyes. The modern view, largely influenced by Smith, is increasingly to see Linton as a significant figure in the non-socialist tradition of European radicalism. He has benefited also from art historians’ changed valuation of ‘reproductive’ printmaking, and from the recognition of his own ‘original’ work as a designer of images, illustrator, and poet. His integrity, courage, and moral stature are beyond doubt.
 G. White English illustrators of the sixties, 1897, W. Linton Specimens of a new process of engraving for surface printing, 1861, W. Linton Three score and ten years?, New York, 1894, published in London as Memories, 1895, J. Murdoch The discovery of the Lake District: a northern Arcadia and its uses, 1984 and F. B. Smith Radical artisan: William James Linton, 1812–97, 1973. Archives: Instituto Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Milan: correspondence and papers; National Australian Library, Canberra: papers; Yale University, Beinecke Library: correspondence, notebooks, journals, literary MSS; Bishopsgate Institute, London: correspondence with Charles Bradlaugh and J. G. Crawford: Co-operative Union, Holyoake House, Manchester, Co-operative Union archive: letters, mostly to G. J. Holyoake; Harvard University, Houghton Library: letters to W. E. Adams; and, John Rylands Library: letters to J. H. Nodal.