The Hon Mrs Charles Russell (1867–1959).

Hon. Mrs Charles Russell, by John Singer Sargent 1908

 

This painting is an autograph copy of the original painting entitled “The Honorable Mrs Charles Russell”, painted by Sargent  in 1900, and is now in a Californian private collection. This copy was painted in 1908, and is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum  in Madrid.

The main reason for starting to work out who she was,  came from Frank Purssell and Lily Kuyper’s wedding in June 1896. In the guests listed are Mr and Mrs Charles Russell, sandwiched between ” Mr. Everard Green,…. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Russell,…. Mr. Bradshaw Isherwood,”. 

Everard Green was the Rouge Dragon Pursuivant in the College of Heralds 1893; and the Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries 1897. A convert to the Church, and one of the Catholic great and the good. Mr Bradshaw Isherwood was the uncle of Christopher Isherwood, the novelist and playwright. He was the elder brother and inherited the family estate at Marple Hall, near Stockport, eventually leaving the estate to Christopher. Henry Bradshaw-Isherwood married into the Bagshawes in about 1910 becoming the rather absurd Henry Bradshaw-Isherwood-Bradshawe on marriage.

So who were Mr and Mrs Charles Russell?  They were guests at a grand society wedding, and a grand Catholic wedding at that. So working on that basis, and using our old friend the Catholic Who’s Who, the only realistic candidates are the Hon. Charles Russell (8 July 1863 – 27 March 1928) and his wife Adah Adeline Walmsley Russell, neé Adah Adeline Walmsley Williams (1867–1959).  Charles Russell was a solicitor and local politician, and the second son of Charles Russell, Baron Russell of Killowen. His father received his peerage shortly before becoming Lord Chief Justice in 1894.

In 1896, Charles was still Mr Charles Russell, even if he was the Hon. Charles Russell from 1894, once his father had received his peerage. He was the second son, and third child of ten brothers and sisters. Rather neatly, five boys and five girls; at least three of the boys were lawyers, and Charles’s younger brother Frank became a Law Lord following in the footsteps of their father who was Lord Chief Justice, and he, in turn, was followed by his (Frank’s) son Charles who was made a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 1975. All three took the same title of Baron Russell of Killowen.

So, Charles Russell was a successful lawyer in 1896, eventually receiving a baronetcy in 1916 when he became Sir Charles Russell. We’ll come back to him in another post

The next paragraph from the description of the picture on the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection website was slightly startling  “Adah Adeline Russell, neé Adah Williams, was the granddaughter of Sir Joshua Walmsley, one of the founders of the London Daily News. In 1889 she married Sir Charles Russell, a union that produced a single daughter. Her husband was a solicitor, best known today as instructor for Lord Carson during the trial in which Carson successfully defended the marquis of Queensbury against the charges of libel brought by Oscar Wilde. The acquittal led to the writer’s own criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and early death in 1900, the year Mrs. Russell was painted.”

The Oscar Wilde bit’s interesting, but from my point of view the Joshua Walmsley bit was one of those weird coincidences that explode every so often. Is this the same Sir Joshua Walmsley we’ve come across before?

It is  the same person,  so we have, rather bizarrely, stumbled across a portrait of a first cousin [five times removed] whilst trying to work out who’s who at a great, great uncle’s wedding. Even better, and in an attempt to discover more about a one hundred and twenty year old wedding, we have the pleasing symmetry of this only being made possible by another wedding, sixty years later.

It worthwhile leaving the rest of the description from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection regarding the portrait, though I’m not entirely sure that I agree with all the phrasing………….

“John Singer Sargent first painted Mrs Charles Russell in 1900, exhibiting the portrait (San Francisco, California, Private Collection), among his eight entries at the Royal Academy the following year. He was at the apex of his career as a portrait painter, but would soon turn away from the profession, tiring of painting images of the fatuous elite. His portrait of Mrs. Russell, however, the critics quickly noticed, was a singularly haunting, introspective image, a portrait that provoke a number of unanswered questions. “What he tells us of this pathetic face is very interesting and very sad,” wrote one reviewer, while another observed that “the face is of extraordinary character, infinite pathos, and a masterpiece of painting […] the face haunts us, with its sad eyes and intellectual distress. Who shall read the secret so surely set there?” “

Little is known of the enigmatic sitter. Mrs. Russell, neé Adah Williams, was the granddaughter of Sir Joshua Walmsley, one of the founders of the London Daily News. In 1889 she married Sir Charles Russell, a union that produced a single daughter. Her husband was a solicitor, best known today as instructor for Lord Carson during the trial in which Carson successfully defended the marquis of Queensbury against the charges of libel brought by Oscar Wilde. The acquittal led to the writer’s own criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and early death in 1900, the year Mrs. Russell was painted.

Describing the painting in 1925, William Howe Downs wrote of the “nervous face, the long, slim neck, and the sensitive hands” as well as the sad eyes and mouth. The tense, nervous quality found in Mrs. Russell, recent scholarship has pointed out, is a salient feature in many of Sargent’s portraits. The perceptive critic, Royal Cortissoz, writing in 1924, considered it the very aspect that made Sargent “modern” and that it identified him with the spirit of his time. Each century, Cortissoz felt, had a prevailing impulse. While the mood of the 18th was “cerebral,” “nervous” was the quality of the 19th. “What Sargent has had to portray has been a restless race,” he wrote, “the conclusively representative Sargent in this matter of modernity is the alert ‘Mrs. Boit’ or the tense ‘Mrs. Charles Russell.”

Two drawings are known to exist which relate to the painting, one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the other, in The Harvard University Art Museums. They capture the gesture of the sitter, but in each, the poignancy of Mrs. Russell’s features is only suggested. In the drawings, however, most noticeably in the Boston version, the hands assume a greater importance and reveal in a nervous fluttering of fingers, the apprehensive tenseness of Mrs. Russell.

The Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza 1908 replica of Mrs Charles Russell, painted at the very time Sargent abandoned his career as a portraitist, remains as puzzling as the sitter. No mention of it seem to have appeared in the Sargent literature. More vivaciously executed than the 1900 portrait, it nevertheless duplicates, almost stroke by stroke, Sargent’s handling in the earlier version. Only the lamp, which still remains in the artist’s family, is indicated in a more cursory manner. The signature, which has been questioned as unusual for the artist, is now placed below the ledge of the table rather than at the bottom left of the canvas-hardly typical in the work of a copyist. While few replicas of Sargent’s portraits exist, the artist twice painted Baron Russell of Killowen, Mrs. Russell’s father-in-law, in 1899 and a replica in 1900. The one clue to the painting’s significance, the inscription “Alice Copley, Boston” on the back of the canvas, has so far proven unproductive. “

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