John Russell
by Alice Fowler

Hobbs in Guildford High Street, showing the two blue plaques that commemorate John Russell. Photo by Alice Fowler.
A blue plaque suggesting this was John Russell’s birthplace. Photo by Alice Fowler.

Next time you walk down Guildford High Street, look up at the fashion retailer Hobbs. Above the shopfront are two blue plaques, commemorating the birth of 18th century portraitist John Russell RA. While it’s now thought Russell was born close by, in Market Street, take the time to step inside. Preserved within the shop is the former rear façade of the Russell family business: old clay tiles and windows Russell would have looked from as a child. Born in Guildford in 1745, John Russell was an 18th century phenomenon. His ability to convey character, and the play of light on human skin, made him one of the great portraitists of his age: as well known – and highly paid - as Joshua Reynolds. A hundred of his works – mainly pastel, a few in oils - are held at the National Portrait Gallery, while Guildford Borough Council has its own collection.

The shop within a shop: the former rear façade of John Russell’s family business, now preserved inside Hobbs in Guildford. Photo by Alice Fowler.

The eldest of seven children born to John Russell senior and Ann Parvish, Russell came from an old Guildford family. His father was Mayor four times, and ran the family stationers and print-selling business where Hobbs is now. Russell was a pupil at the Royal Grammar School. His artistic talent was said to have emerged at age 13, when he copied a print he had seen in London. Another story tells how, when Guildford’s Holy Trinity church was being rebuilt in the 1750s, Russell took the chance to climb its tower. Waiting when he came down was his father, who rewarded him with a beating.

Aged 15, Russell was sent to London to be apprenticed to leading pastel artist Francis Cotes. By 1767 he had set up his own studio in London and from 1768, exhibited widely, including over 300 pictures at the Royal Academy. He also travelled the country making commissioned portraits of the wealthy middle classes, a practice he continued through his life. After being an Associate of the Royal Academy for many years, he was elected a Royal Academician in 1788.

Soon afterwards he was appointed ‘Crayon Painter’ to King George III (‘crayon’ meaning pastel at the time). He was now one of England’s leading artists. Soon after his move to London, Russell experienced an ‘epiphany’ and converted to Methodism. He forsook alcohol, avoided social settings where ‘blasphemies’ might occur and sometimes caused offence by preaching to his sitters. In 1770 he married Hannah Faden, with whom he had seven surviving children. He excelled in child portraiture and his own children often modelled for him: as in the engraving ‘Tom and his Pigeons’, held in the Borough collection.

Aided by his friend William Herschel, Russell was also passionately interested in astronomy. He took scientific measurements of the moon and, for twenty years, produced scientifically accurate paintings that depicted the moon’s surface.

In 1806, by now a wealthy man, Russell contracted typhus. He died at Hull: far from London, where he made his name, and Guildford, the childhood home he loved.

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