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John Russell's scrapbook - part one: sketches and drawings

With the help of scholar and researcher, Dr Timothy Underhill, our Curatorial Assistant, Gemma Haigh, has been discovering more about a scrapbook in our collection that contains drawings by Guildford artist, John Russell RA. Part one of this blog post explores Russell's drawings and sketches from the scrapbook.

Page with notes

Head and shoulders
John Russell RA is Guildford's most famous artist to date. He was born in Guildford in 1745 to four times mayor of Guildford, John Russell Senior, and Ann Parvish, the daughter of a printer and bookseller. Russell was baptised at Holy Trinity Church on Guildford High Street and as a boy, attended the Royal Grammar School.

From an early age, Russell's talent for drawing became obvious. As a teenager, he was apprenticed to the pastel-artist, Francis Cotes, who had a studio in London. Russell soon mastered the art of pastel portraiture and in 1768, set up his own premises near Cavendish Square. Russell's enormous popularity as a portrait artist eventually led to him becoming a member of the Royal Academy in 1788, and to his appointment in 1790 as 'Crayon Painter to the King' (crayon meaning pastel in the eighteenth century).

The Russell scrapbook in Guildford Heritage's collection is the latest source linked to Russell that we have explored in more detail. John Russell is known to have kept records throughout his life and his personal diaries are now at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Russell's tendency to hold onto thoughts, feelings, memories and drawings means that we can learn more about him as an artist and a person. The scrapbook has been silently waiting to be rediscovered in our stores for many years. Is it possible that we never understood its true significance?

leather book
The scrapbook itself is a large leather-bound volume filled with sketches and watercolours of Guildford landmarks and landscapes, dating from the 1780s to 1806. It features a sketch of Guildford-famous local man, George Abbott, who founded Abbott's Hospital on the High Street and text, presumably written by Russell, about Guildford. The book was donated by a family who owned a book shop in Guildford in the early twentieth century.


Richard Onslow sketch
The book also contains a preparatory watercolour of a portrait commissioned by John Russell Senior of Vice-Admiral, Sir Richard Onslow, whose family owned the estate at nearby Clandon Park. The oil portrait is more than two metres high and depicts the Vice-Admiral on the deck of the HMS Monarch after the victory of Camperdown. The painting was gifted to the Guildford Corporation by Russell Senior and can be seen decorating the wall of the council chamber in Guildford's Guildhall. If you look carefully at the preparatory sketch and final piece, you will see that Russell slightly changed the placement of the flag and boy's leg.
commissioned portrait


The scrapbook also contains some sketches of scenes from Guildford, which have been labelled with shorthand. Dr Timothy Underhill, who has studied the shorthand used in Russell's diary, believes that Russell labelled these sketches to remind him of what he was seeing. Some notes are: 'yellow tiles', 'white', 'tiles red lead'. It is possible that Russell made these notes so that he could reproduce the images and add colour. Occasionally, the places have been labelled, though the names are very difficult to make out.

However, there is so much more to this book than meets the eye. Not only is it filled with Russell's original artworks and memories of Guildford, the supporting book is itself an enigma. In the second part of this month's blog, we will explore the secrets of the scrapbook and reveal the discoveries we have made.

Part one of this blog post was written by Gemma Haigh, Curatorial Assistant.

See part two of Gemma's blog post: John Russell's scrapbook: Secrets and discoveries.