Russell, John (1745-1806) (DNB00)

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RUSSELL, JOHN (1745–1806), portrait-painter, born on 29 March 1745 at 32 High Street, Guildford, was the son of John Russell, book and print seller of Guildford, and five times mayor of that town; the father was something of an artist, and drew and published two views of Guildford. Russell was educated at the Guildford grammar school, and soon showed a strong inclination for art. In 1759 he gained a premium at the Society of Arts. At an early age he was apprenticed by his father to Francis Cotes [q. v.], who lived in Cavendish Square, London. When nineteen years of age he became strongly affected by the religious views of the methodists, and was ‘converted,’ as he records on the title-page of his diary, ‘at about half an hour after seven in the evening’ of 30 Sept. 1764. His evangelical ardour caused disputes with his master and his own family. At home or abroad, in season and out of season, he never ceased from preaching and disputation. He endeavoured to convert as well as paint his sitters, and, while staying with Lord Montague at Cowdray House in 1767, he not only annoyed the household, but excited such ill-feeling among the many Roman catholics of the neighbourhood that, on his return journey, he was refused accommodation at all the inns at Midhurst. He was shortly afterwards, in 1768, the cause of a riot at Guildford. He was now practising art in London on his own account, lodging at Mr. Haley's, watchmaker, John Street, Portland Street, and he formed the acquaintance of the celebrated Dr. William Dodd [q. v.], whose portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery) he painted in 1768. He was introduced to Selina, countess of Huntingdon [see Hastings, Selina], who tried in vain to induce him to give up painting and go to her college at Trevecca. On 5 Feb. 1770 he married Hannah Faden (one of the daughters of a print and map seller at Charing Cross), whom he had ‘converted.’ They lived at No. 7 Mortimer Street, Cavendish Square, whither he had moved (2 Jan. 1770).

By this time he had obtained some reputation by his portraits in coloured crayons. All the pictures mentioned here were, unless otherwise stated, produced in that medium. He formed his style of crayon-painting on that of Rosalba Carriera, whose pictures of ‘The Seasons’ he purchased of the artist. In 1768 he exhibited three portraits at the Incorporated Society of Artists (two in oil and one in crayon), and in 1769 had sent ‘Micoe and her son Tootac’ (Esquimaux Indians, brought over by Commodore, afterwards Sir Hugh, Palliser) to the first exhibition of the Royal Academy. In May of the next year he painted a portrait of George Whitefield, and in December obtained the gold medal of the academy for a large figure of ‘Aquarius’ (now belonging to Mr. H. Webb of Wimbledon, who married one of the artist's grandchildren). In 1770 he painted William Wilberforce, the philanthropist, then eleven years old. The picture is now in the National Portrait Gallery. In 1771 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a portrait in oils of Charles Wesley, which is now at the Wesley Centenary Hall in Bishopsgate Street. In 1772 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and painted the Countess of Huntingdon in pastel, for the orphan home in Georgia. This was a symbolic picture, and was lost on its voyage out; but it was engraved. He afterwards painted her in oil, and this picture is at Cheshunt College. In the following year (1773) he painted John Wesley. This portrait and that of Whitefield are lost, but they were both engraved, the Whitefield by Watson and the Wesley by Bland. Though his religion appears to have become less militant after his marriage, his diary bears witness to his anxiety with regard to his spiritual welfare. He not only would not work on Sunday, but he would allow no one to enter his painting-room. He was afraid to go out to dinner on account of the loose and blasphemous conversation which he might hear. He was on good terms with Sir Joshua Reynolds, with whom he dined at the academy, the Dilettanti Society, and the Literary Club (now The Club), but he records that on these or other festive occasions he always left early.

In 1788, after twelve years' waiting, he was elected a royal academician, and drew an admirable portrait of Sir Joseph Banks in crayons. This and other portraits of the family (Banks's mother, his sister, and his wife) are among his finest works. In 1789 he moved to No. 21 Newman Street, where he resided till his death. In this year he received a commission from George III to paint Dr. Willis, and the king was so pleased with the picture (in crayons) that he commanded him to paint the queen and the prince of Wales. The picture of the queen was exhibited in 1790, in the catalogue of which year Russell is styled ‘Painter to the King and the Prince of Wales.’ In the following year appeared a portrait of the prince and another of ‘Smoaker the Prince of Wales's Bather at Brighton’ (a commission from the prince), and also a portrait of Mrs. Fitzherbert. In the catalogue of 1792 he is styled ‘Painter to the King and Prince of Wales, also to the Duke of York,’ and in this year exhibited a second portrait of the prince of Wales, this time in his uniform as president of the Kentish bowmen. In 1796 he painted the princess of Wales with the infant Princess Charlotte on her knees, which was sent as a present to the Duchess of Brunswick, and he exhibited a portrait of ‘Martha Gunn, a celebrated bathing woman of Brighton,’ a commission from the prince of Wales, and a companion to the ‘Smoaker.’ Of the royal portraits executed by Russell there remain four of the Duke of York and one of the Duchess of Brunswick, which are the property of the crown; the rest, though they were engraved, have disappeared, but the portraits of ‘Smoaker’ and Martha Gunn are still at Buckingham Palace.

At this period Russell was in easy circumstances. A small freehold estate in Dorking was left him in 1781 by a cousin named Sharp. In 1786 he had 600l. a year, and in 1789 he records his income as 1,000l., ‘and probably on the increase.’ He appears to have been well employed as long as he lived, and to have commanded about the same prices as Sir Joshua Reynolds. Despite, however, royal patronage, he never became a fashionable painter, and among his sitters will be found few of the notabilities of the day who were unconnected with the throne or the pulpit. In the latter part of his life he spent much of his time in Yorkshire, especially at Leeds, where he had many friends and executed some of his best works. In his own opinion his finest picture (1796) was a group of Mrs. Jeans and her two sons, now at Shorwell Vicarage, Isle of Wight, which has been engraved under the title of ‘Mother's Holiday.’ Among his portraits, interesting for their subjects, are: Philip Stanhope, the son of Lord Chesterfield; John Bacon, the sculptor; Bartolozzi, the engraver; Cowper, the poet; William Wilberforce, the philanthropist (1801); Admiral Bligh of the Bounty; Mrs. Jordan, Mrs. Siddons; the Rev. John Newton of Olney (in the possession of the Church Missionary Society); the Earl of Exeter and a group of his three children by the ‘dairymaid’ countess; Jack Bannister and John Palmer, the actors (both at the Garrick Club); Sir James Smith, founder of the Linnean Society (in the possession of the society); Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Robert Merry (Della Crusca). He painted also a few fancy pieces, mostly of children. One of them, ‘Girl with Cherries,’ is in the Louvre. Several portraits and pictures were painted for Dr. Robert James Thornton, and were engraved for Thornton's ‘Illustrations of the Sexual System of Linnæus’ (1799). The portraits include those of Dr. J. E. Smith and A. B. Bourke, which now belong to the Linnean Society.

Of the few pictures painted by Russell in oil, the best are: ‘Mrs. Plowden and Children,’ Charles Wesley, Samuel Wesley when a boy, and the Rev. J. Chandler when a boy, in cricketing costume.

In 1772 Russell published ‘The Elements of Painting with Crayons,’ a second and enlarged edition of which appeared in 1777. He also wrote two essays for Sir Joshua Reynolds (now in the British Museum in the Ward collection of manuscripts). One is on ‘Prosaic Numbers, or Rhythm in Prose,’ and the other on ‘Taste.’ They are stilted in style and full of platitudes. He is said to have written three short articles in the ‘Evangelical Magazine,’ of which he was one of the original committee.

Russell was also an astronomer, and was introduced, about 1784, to Sir William Herschel, whose portrait, painted by Russell, is at Littlemore, Oxford. He made, with the assistance of his daughter, a lunar map, which he engraved on two plates which formed a globe showing the visible surface of the moon. It took twenty years to finish, and is now in the Radcliffe observatory of Oxford. He also invented an apparatus for exhibiting the phenomena of the moon, which he called ‘Selenographia.’ One of these is at the Radcliffe observatory, and another in the possession of Mr. F. H. Webb. An explanatory pamphlet, with a folding plate and another illustration, was printed by W. Faden in 1797; and a further pamphlet was issued after his death by his son William.

Russell kept his diary in the Byrom system of shorthand; it ends on 4 Jan. 1801. In 1803 he became deaf after an attack of cholera, in 1804 his father died, and in 1806 he went to Hull, where he was visited by Kirke White. He died of typhus fever on 20 April 1806, and was buried under the choir of Holy Trinity, Hull.

Russell was a constant exhibitor at the Royal Academy from 1769 to 1805, and three of his pictures were sent to the exhibition of 1806. Altogether 332 works of his appeared on the academy walls, and he executed from seven to eight hundred portraits. Many of these are missing, probably on account of the material (crayon), which, though permanent when well treated, is easily destroyed beyond repair.

Of his twelve sons, William Russell (1780–1870), exhibited portraits at the Royal Academy from 1805 to 1809. The National Portrait Gallery contains a portrait of Judge Bailey by him. He was ordained in 1809, and gave up painting. He was forty years rector of Shepperton, Middlesex, and died on 14 Sept. 1870.

[John Russell, R.A., by George C. Williamson (with an introduction by Lord Ronald Gower), is based on his diary, supplemented by that of John Bacon, jun., son of John Bacon the sculptor, who was one of Russell's most intimate friends.]

C. M.