Mary Linwood never married and devoted herself to needlework. Her works imitated those paintings done by painting masters, such as Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and James Northcote. Linwood’s masterpieces bedazzled those who viewed them. They were created from worsted or crewel embroidery but said to be so “unique and exquisite … that it is absolutely impossible for the eye to detect the fact that it is gazing upon the production of the needle, and not of the pencil.” Moreover, her first picture was created when she was thirteen and her last one was finished when she was seventy-five.
Linwood’s needlepoint was accomplished in a unique way and appeared to be so much like a painting, people were shocked to learn the finished product was needlepoint and not a real painting. The English composer William Gardiner, best known for his hymns, once described Linwood’s technique as she worked. He noted:
“Miss Linwood’s mode is analogous to that of a painter; she first sketches the outline, then the parts in detail, and brings out the whole of the design by degrees. I once saw her at work accoutred as she was with pincushions all round her, stuck with needles, threaded with worsted of every colour, and after having touched the picture with a needle, instead a brush, she would recede five or six paces back to view the effect.”
Mary Linwood’s works were also different from tapestries. One difference was her works were finished on coarse linen tammy cloth. Another difference between Linwood’s and the famous fifteenth century Gobelin tapestries, was that the Gobelin tapestries were worked from behind with a shuttle and Linwood’s works were completed entirely with a needle and from the front. Linwood’s stitches were also a variety of different lengths, and she used silk to create highlights. Moreover, to obtain the appropriate colors, her yarn was specially dyed.
Linwood’s first exhibition consisted of twenty works and was held at the Pantheon in London. She later exhibited her works in 1776 and 1778 at the Society of Artists. Regular advertisements for her exhibitions began in May of 1787 with admission priced at one shilling. Thereafter exhibitions ran Monday through Saturday and usually ran between April and October. In 1804, Linwood had exhibitions in Edinburgh, and, then, over the course of the next five years, her exhibitions were held in Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Limerick, and Cork, until a permanent exhibition was established in 1809 at Leicester Square in the Savile House, which is where her collection remained until she died.
Because her works were so amazing, her reputation grew and royalty soon took notice. Linwood’s collection was shown at Windsor Castle, and Queen Charlotte twice visited her exhibitions, once in Hanover Square and later in Leicester Square. In fact, it is believed that the Queen had something to do with Linwood’s first Pantheon exhibit and Linwood’s expanded exhibition at Hanover Square. Visits to see Linwood’s exhibitions also resulted in her garnering the Queen’s highest compliments, which then also encouraged King George III to schedule a visit to see Linwood’s exhibition. In addition, in 1783, Linwood sent one of her works to the Empress of Russia at her request.
Linwood’s entire collection eventually consisted of 100 masterpieces, with many of her subjects being Napoleon Bonaparte or Lady Jane Grey. The largest piece was an original piece she created, took ten years to complete, and was called The Judgment upon Cain. However, the work that everyone considered to be the “gem” of her collection was a copy of Carlo Dolci’s Salvator Mundi originally completed in the 1600s by Carlo Dolci. She was offered 3000 guineas for it but refused to sell it, and, in her will, she left it to Queen Victoria. In addition, a portrait Mary Linwood completed of Napoleon found its way to the Victoria and Albert Museum bequeathed by Ellen Markland.
Prior to her death, Mary Linwood wanted to preserve her collection in its entirety (except for the Salvator Mundi). She first offered her collection to the British Museum, with the condition that they provide a proper room to hold receptions and view her works. They declined. The museum believed the works would decay over time and they also noted that they were not “sufficiently historical and [of] national character.” Napoleon and Talleyrand saw her works and requested she exhibit her collection in Paris. Negotiations were undertaken, and about the time the collection was to be sent to France, she discovered there was no provision to return it. Shortly, thereafter, war broke out between France and England and the scheme was abandoned.
Linwood died in 1845. While she had been alive one of her works sold for more than the original painting did, and her collection rivaled Madame Tussaud‘s wax museum in popularity. However, four years after her death, her works were sold at an auction by Christie and Mason for sums far less than what they had been worth just a few years earlier. Some of those that sold at auction include The Judgment of Cain that had been completed when she was seventy-five. It sold for a mere £64 1s; Jeptha’s Rash Vow, after Opie, went for 16 guineas; two pictures based on works by Gainsborough — The Shepherd Boy and the Ass and Children — went for £17 6s 6d and £23 2s, respectively. There was also the Lady Jane Grey by Northcote that was auctioned off at £24 13s. In the end, the sum received for her works amounted to less than £1,000.
Interestingly, Linwood’s exhibitions and works helped Gainsborough become famous. One of his major accomplishments was the Woodman, a painting he painted in the summer of 1787 just before his death. When Gainsborough died in August of 1788, the painting was purchased by Charles Noel, 1st Earl of Gainsborough, for 500 guineas. Thereafter the Earl exhibited the painting at his country estate, except for the three years that Linwood borrowed it to create a duplicate. Unfortunately, in May of 1810 the Earl’s house caught fire and the Woodman was destroyed. At the time, Linwood’s Woodman was one of three copies in existence and it was “Linwood’s reproduction [that] provided the public with an extended period of exhibition and played a crucial role in popularizing Gainsborough’s art, especially his ‘fancy picture.'”
-  The Gentlemen’s Magazine, Vol. 178, 1845, p. 555.
-  Gardiner, William, Music and Friends, Vol. 1, 1838, p. 371.
-  The Gentlemen’s Magazine, p. 556.
-  Hedquist, Valerie, How a Lost Painting Endured: Gainsborough’s Woodman, Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery, and Miss Linwood’s Needle Painting, in Southeastern College Art Conference Review, 01/2013, Vol. 16, Issue 3.