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John Russell's scrapbook - part two: secrets and discoveries

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 two of this blog post will explore the discoveries we have made about the object and share some of its many secrets.


The first part of this month's blog post introduced John Russell's fascinating scrapbook, which is a part of Guildford Heritage Service's collection. The drawings and sketches aren't the only interesting thing about this object though.

Timothy Underhill has identified the scrapbook as being a possible first edition folio of Christianity as Old as the Creation by Matthew Tindal. This text was controversial for its time. Published in 1730, it dealt with Christianity and the wider concept of religion. Tindal was part of a group of radical freethinkers belonging to a movement described as 'deism'. He believed that every Christian should find religion through his own sense of reason and reject the teachings of the Church as the basis of fact. Tindal was writing at the time of the enlightenment, which favoured reason and science over superstition and miracles.

John Russell was extremely religious from his 'epiphany' moment in 1764 and recorded much of his religious journey in his diaries. He belonged to the Methodist faction of the Christian Church. Russell and many of his friends believed in influencing others' religious beliefs and converting non-believers. Antje Mathews, who wrote a PhD about Russell, said that "Russell's Methodism exerted an overwhelming influence on his life and work".

To someone like Russell, who believed in preaching the gospel, Tindal's text may have seemed like sacrilege as it rejected the teachings of the Church, favouring personal choice and reason. We know from Russell's diaries that he held strong and spirited beliefs, so it seems very likely that his decision to use Christianity as Old as the Creation as a scrapbook was a conscious one.

We cannot be sure where this old, leather-bound book came from. The book itself is probably older than Russell, so it's possible that it may have been given to him to read. Another option is that he found it on the shelves of his father's book and print shop in Guildford and targeted it for destruction!

Throughout the book, Russell sticks and pastes and obliterates the passages. He tears pages from the book, presumably to reduce its size, so that it can fit more drawings in. Pieces of loose scrap paper litter the volume. The headers, and potentially, most offensive parts of the text, have been covered with torn pages from other books.

One of the texts used to cover parts of Christianity as Old as the Creation has been identified by Dr Underhill as Samuel Collins's 1685 book, A Systeme of Anatomy. It was commonplace for eighteenth century artists to own anatomy books and the practice was taught at the Royal Academy schools. Russell shared his views on the importance of anatomy in his publication, Elements of Painting with Crayons. He also encouraged a little artistic licence to final drawings though, to give a more pleasing finish.

A page towards the end of the book contains a copied entry from the Britannica Encyclopaedia in spidery, frail handwriting. The text relates to Holy Trinity Church in Guildford and is dated 1806 - the year of Russell's death.

Having travelled to Hull for work, could it be that in his sickness, Russell was thinking of home? Russell died of typhus and was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Hull, which has now been renamed Hull Minster.

Is it just a coincidence that Russell's friends had him buried at a church with the same name as his family church in Guildford?

In many ways, Russell's scrapbook has posed more questions than it has answered. Can we really even be sure that this book was put together by John Russell? We are certain that the sketches inside the book are Russell's - the watercolour of Vice-Admiral Onslow and shorthand annotations seem to confirm that. We cannot, however, dismiss the possibility that a relative of Russell's came across the drawings and decided to make a scrapbook of them.

The blog post was written by Gemma Haigh, Curatorial Assistant.