John Russell, RA, 1745-1806
Portrait of a Young Girl and Her Brother seated at a Table with an open Book and a Tiger Cowrie Shell
Portrait of a Young Girl and Her Brother seated at
oil on canvas
64 x 76 cm. (25 x 30 in.)


Despite the fact that this species does not occur in the Mediterranean Sea, shells of the tiger cowrie and the related panther cowrie, Cypraea pantherina, have been unearthed at Pompeii, the ancient Roman city near Naples, Italy, where these shells may have been used as some form of ornament. It is also conceivable that the shells were part of a natural history collection. There was an interest in natural history at the time, as exemplified by Pliny the Elder who wrote extensively about seashells in his book Natural History and who died investigating the eruption of Vesuvius.

The shells of this species of cowry are still popular among shell collectors, and are also used as a decorative object, even in modern times.
The shell of Cypraea tigris is believed to help to facilitate childbirth: some women in Japan hold a shell of this species during childbirth. Large cowry shells such as that of this species were used in Europe in the recent past as a frame over which sock heels were stretched for darning, i.e. instead of using a darning egg. The cowry's smooth surface allows the darning needle to be positioned under the cloth more easily than when using a darning mushroom made of wood.

Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth-century the mania for seashells steadily swelled; they featured on Christmas cards, and adorned countless keepsakes, jewellery, and furniture. The Gradgrind nursery in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times is equipped with a “little conchological cabinet, a little metallurgical cabinet, and a little mineralogical cabinet”, whilst, inspired by works of natural history, men and women scoured the seashore for conchological specimens. Conchology, unlike other branches of natural history such as zoology or mineralogy was easily accessible to everyone, and did not require specialist equipment. It also had the added bonus of including inanimate specimens that were not subject to disease or decay.

Victorian women made use of their collection in various handicraft projects. Many put together imitation bouquets: using various miniature shells to create the desired flower.

Soon enough collectors, having exhausted the beaches of Britain, took to harvesting more impressive shells from overseas. An army of merchants, catering for the increasing demand, set up shop in London.The name of the global oil company “Shell” is, oddly enough, a reminder of the victorian love of conchology.

In 1833 one Marcus Samuel opened such a shop selling shells, curios, and other trinkets to natural history enthusiasts. By 1851 Marcus was described in the census as a ‘shell merchant’ and was listed as proprietor of ‘The Shell Shop’ in Houndsditch. He later formed the ‘Shell Transport and Trading Company.’ In 1882 his son (Marcus Junior) while travelling in the Caspian Sea, saw a potential for exporting oil from the region. He commissioned the world’s first purpose-built oil tanker and named the tanker the Murex, Latin for a type of snail shell, as a nod to the company’s beginnings. The first logo (1901) was a mussel shell, but by 1904 it was replaced with a scallop shell.

Artist biography

John Russell, (1745–1806), portrait painter and astronomer, was born on 29 March 1745 at 32 High Street, Guildford, the second child of John Russell (1711–1804), book- and printseller, five times mayor of Guildford, and an artist himself (his Prospects of Guildford were engraved and published in 1759 and 1782), and his wife, Ann Parvish (1719–1775).

John Russell was baptized in the ruins of Holy Trinity Church, Guildford, and educated at the local grammar school before winning premiums at the Society of Arts in 1759 and 1760. He was then apprenticed to the painter Francis Cotes, who became a friend and mentor, and painted a miniature of his promising pupil. This happy relationship was frequently endangered by Russell's religious ‘conversion’, which began with an entry on the title-page of his diary, decorated with a stony desert and a view of Golgotha in the background: 'John Russell converted September 30, 1764, aetat. 19, at about half an hour after seven in the evening' (Russell). This prompted an evangelical ardour. For example, while painting Lord Montagu's portrait at Cowdray House in 1767, Russell not only annoyed the household by his intrusive fanaticism but excited such ill feeling among the many Anglicans and Roman Catholics of the neighbourhood that on his return journey he was refused accommodation at all the inns in Midhurst. Even his fellow citizens of Guildford rioted in protest.

In 1768 Russell settled in London, first in Portland Street, where he painted, in 1769, an oil portrait of the notorious forger Dr William Dodd (NPG). Here he met another celebrated Methodist, Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon, who tried unsuccessfully to make him give up painting and to lure him to her religious community. On 5 February 1770 he married one of his ‘converts’—Hannah Faden (1745–1816), daughter of a map- and printseller at Charing Cross—and moved to 7 Mortimer Street, Cavendish Square. They lived contentedly there, moving later to Newman Street, and produced twelve children, their religious enthusiasm gradually subsiding.

At about this time Russell turned from oils to pastel, a medium in which he excelled, forming his style on that of Rosalba Carriera. A stream of portraits followed, exhibited first at the Incorporated Society of Artists, then in 1769 at the first exhibition of the Royal Academy, where he continued to show annually until his death in 1806. His pastel portraits are technically and aesthetically brilliant, easily surpassing those of his master, Francis Cotes. They are usually laid on blue paper, the pastel colours vivid, a striking sfumato effect achieved by blurring with the finger and crayon, and the details accented with black chalk. In 1770 he showed his Portrait of George Whitefield and his large figure Aquarius won the Royal Academy's gold medal. He also painted the eleven-year-old William Wilberforce (the work is in the National Portrait Gallery, London), the first of many oil and pastel portraits of the philanthropist who later described Russell as 'A religious man, very high-church indeed.' (R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 1, 1838, 5–6). Marriage may have softened Russell's militant evangelicalism but his diary bears daily witness to anxiety for his spiritual welfare. He would not work on a Sunday nor would he allow anyone to enter his studio. He was afraid to go out to dinner on account of the loose and blasphemous conversation he might hear. He was on good terms with Sir Joshua Reynolds, with whom he dined at the Royal Academy, the Dilettanti Society, and the Literary Club, but on these and other festive occasions he always left early.

Dozens of fancy pictures followed, specially of children with dogs, cats, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, and owls. One of these, Girl with Cherries (1781), is in the Louvre, and two others, Fortune-Teller and Girl with Cat (1790 and 1791), are in the Tate Collection. Russell produced hundreds of portraits, many exhibited at the Royal Academy, beginning with three or four a year, and working up to seventeen in 1789 and twenty-one in 1790. One oil, Charles Wesley (1771), hangs in Wesley's house in Bristol (collection of the Museum of Methodism, London); his Countess of Huntingdon (1772) was lost in a shipwreck on a voyage to Georgia or destroyed in a fire at Huntingdon's Georgia orphanage, and another, John Wesley (1773), was also lost; both survive in engravings (Bethesda Boys' Home, Savannah, Georgia, and Kingswood School, Bath, respectively). From 1781 he tried his hand at painting miniatures, exhibiting nine in the next five years. They are scarce and painted in watercolour or gouache on ivory with broad sweeping strokes of the brush. One of George IV when prince of Wales, is a miniature variant of a pastel in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, which in turn is closely related to his full-length oil of the prince in the uniform of the royal Kentish bowmen, in the Royal Collection. Another is at Corsham Court and two, attributed to Russell, are at Petworth House.

In 1788 Russell was elected a Royal Academician and in the following year, as a result of his portraits of the king's physician, Dr Willis, and Queen Charlotte and her family, he was appointed painter to the king and the prince of Wales, also to the duke of York. In 1796 he painted the princess of Wales with the little Princess Charlotte on her knee, seen in Russell's house by Joseph Farington, who described 'the manner of the Princess as very affable, witht. the least of German hauteur' (Farington, Diary, 11 Nov 1796). His large pastels (91 × 71 cm) of the two famous bathing attendants at Brighton, John ‘Smoaker’ Miles and Martha Gunn, were commissioned by the prince of Wales, and both are still in the Royal Collection.

Royal patronage and his own prolific output assured Russell relative affluence. A small freehold estate in Dorking was left him in 1781 by a cousin. His diary records an income of £600 in 1786 and £1000 in 1789, 'and probably on the increase'. He appears to have been well employed as long as he lived, charging about the same high prices as Sir Joshua Reynolds, but he never became a fashionable artist; most of his sitters were connected with the throne, the pulpit, or the stage where, curiously enough, he had many friends. In the latter part of his life he spent much of his time in Yorkshire, specially at Leeds, where he also had many friends and painted some of his best works. Among his pastel portraits, interesting for their subjects, are: Philip Stanhope, son and recipient of Lord Chesterfield's letters; John Bacon, the sculptor and an intimate friend; Bartolozzi, the engraver; William Cowper, the poet; William Wilberforce, the philanthropist; Admiral Bligh of the Bounty; Mrs Jordan, Mrs Siddons, and Jack and Elizabeth Bannister of the stage; and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (NPG).

In 1772 Russell published his excellent and detailed Elements of Painting with Crayons, purporting to explain the technique of Francis Cotes but in fact a handbook to the art of pastel painting. He revised and enlarged it in 1777, and it became popular throughout the nineteenth century. He recommended a strong blue paper, the thicker the better and mounted on linen. The posture he advised was 'sitting with the box of crayons in his lap'. The smudging or sfumato effect he described as 'sweetening with the finger'. He made his own crayons, mixing the colours with spirits of wine on a grindstone, then rolling them quickly 'into pastils in the left hand with the ball of the right, first forming them cylindrically and then tapering them at each end' (Williamson, 93–4).

Between 1797 and 1807 Dr Robert John Thornton published The New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus, a great work which included The Temple of Flora, illustrated by Philip Reinagle and others. Russell made the frontispiece, and also pastel portraits of Thornton himself (exh. RA, 1799), Mrs Thornton, and other botanists, including Sir James Edward Smith, founder of the Linnean Society (oil), and Dr A. B. Lambert, both in the society's collection in Piccadilly, London.

Russell was also an astronomer: about 1784 he was introduced to Sir William Herschel, whose portrait, holding a diagram of the Georgian planet (Uranus) and its satellites, he painted in 1794 (Science Museum, London). Another sitter was the astronomer royal, Nevil Maskelyne (1804), and several fellows of the Royal Society, including William Hey, Thomas Martyn, and George Keate. His portrait of Dr John Jeffries (NMM) shows the American loyalist crossing the English Channel, with the French astronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard in an air balloon equipped with scientific instruments. But his interest in astronomy began long before when, as a young man, he was struck by the beauty of the moon seen through a telescope belonging to a friend, the sculptor John Bacon. This developed into serious lunar studies which produced the largest and most accurate picture of the moon to date, a mechanical moon bearing an engraved lunar map (the selenograph), a relief map of the moon, and an engraving of the full moon maps, the lunar plenispheres. In his portrait Sir Joseph Banks (oil), the president of the Royal Society is shown holding one of the moon maps. An album in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, contains working drawings, with the first sketch labelled: 'Drawn about the Year 1764. This is the first drawing I ever made from the Moon. J. R. in the Garden of John Bacon RA, 17 Newman Street' (Russell's drawings, fol. 1, appx 3). Joseph Farington took tea with Russell in 1793,

and was highly gratified by seeing the different representations he has made of the appearance of the Moon—he told us he had been about 7 years engaged in this undertaking … He described to us the manifest errors which have been given by others. That of Cassini is very incorrect.

Russell's diary, kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum Library, was written in the Byrom shorthand system, and deciphered and indexed by his grandson, the Revd S. H. Russell, in 1871. A specimen page is illustrated in Williamson (p. 96). It begins with his conversion on 30 September 1764 and ends on 4 January 1801. In December 1800 Russell injured himself by a fall through a broken cellar-flap, and early in 1801 he caught his finger in a steel trap which prevented his working for some weeks. In 1803 he became deaf after an attack of cholera, but he was none the less able to produce what was his largest pastel picture, Lady Johnstone and her Family and a Greyhound (185 × 140 cm; priv. coll., Yorkshire). In 1805 he complained of 'having the stone' (Farington, Diary, 14 April 1806). Early in 1806 he went to Hull where he was visited by the poet Kirk White who earlier had described him as 'a complete artist … inclined to Hutchinsonian principles' (White to B. Maddock, 31 Jan 1805, Williamson, 83). He died there of typhus on 20 April 1806 and was buried under the choir stalls of Holy Trinity, Hull.

His third son, William Russell (1784–1870), born on 26 November 1784, who was with him when he died, exhibited pastels at the Royal Academy and the British Institution from 1805 to 1809, and the oil portraits Lord Erskine (exh. RA, 1808) and Judge Bailey (NPG). He was educated at the Revd George Gibson's school, London. He was ordained on 21 May 1809, giving up painting for fear it might interfere with his spiritual duties, and became, for forty years, rector of St Nicholas, Shepperton, Middlesex. He married Laetitia Ann Nichols. He died on 14 September 1870 at 5 The Grove, Highgate, Middlesex.

R. J. B. Walker DNB.