John Peter Russell

John Peter Russell


1858 - 1930


Artist John Peter Russell spent his last years at Camp Cove, building a studio at the water’s edge, delighting in the play of light on water and the colour of his gardens at Oakley. All but unknown in his native Australia, Russell’s significance to the French Impressionist movement was nevertheless well appreciated by fellow exponents, including Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse.

Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales Archive i

Plaque location

22 Pacific Street, Watsons Bay

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Plaque unveiling

John Peter Russell plaque unveiling
Deputy Mayor Susan Wynne, Documentary maker Catherine Hunter and Councillor Anthony Marano at the plaque unveiling.

Plaque for John Russell
The plaque commemorating artist John Peter Russell was unveiled on 16 June, 2017 on the footpath outside his former home and studio at 22 Pacific Street, Watsons Bay.


Born into a Sydney-based family of successful iron-founders, Russell used his circumstances – his share in a family fortune - to pursue his art through both formal instruction in London and Paris, and cultural immersion in the Europe of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While his affluence freed him to set the pace and direction of his development as an artist, it also had a limiting effect upon his recognition and legacy. Unfettered by the need to raise funds from his work, Russell had no need to exhibit or sell his paintings – and indeed had an ethical reservation about setting into competition against artists who were struggling to eke out a living from their sales. This meant he was less well-known than he might otherwise have been, being less represented in galleries, private collections and the marketplace than had his works gone into circulation.

Russell lived abroad for most of his adult life, settling with Marianna Mattiocco, his Italian-born first wife, on Brittany’s Belle Ile, where 11 children were born to the couple – six surviving into adulthood. He returned to Australia with his second wife (the former Caroline de Witt Merrill) and their young son Hereward, to settle in the eastern suburbs – briefly at Rose Bay, and eventually at Watsons Bay – these two periods of Sydney residency separated by a two-year sojourn in New Zealand. John Peter Russell’s house in Pacific Street Watsons Bay was the last of his homes, and relished by him for its proximity to his other great love, the water – a setting which surrounded him with the reflected light and colour of a waterside location.

exterior of 22 Pacific Street Watsons Bay
22 Pacific Street Watsons Bay

Russell died in relative obscurity, and much reduced financial circumstances. It was not until the last quarter of the 20th century that his work was rediscovered and recognized, both for what it was – a distillation of the pure impressionistic technique - and for its impact on the Impressionist movement during the period of Russell’s greatest output. His life and work was the subject of several major biographies published in the 1970s, and his paintings have gradually come to be represented in major galleries in Australia and abroad, and featured in themed and retrospective exhibitions.

Family background – from Scotland to Tasmania and Sydney

John Peter Russell was the eldest son of John Russell, of the firm of P. N. Russell & Co, and his wife Charlotte Ann Russell (née Nicholl). From his mother’s side came an obvious connection to the visual arts through his maternal grandfather, as his mother was the daughter of the sculptor William Grinsell Nichol, whose work was primarily in architectural sculpture. Nichol later held a gallery in Woolloomooloo, where John Peter could often be found.

On John Peter Russell’s father’s side, the creative impulse took on a more practical form. While the Russell family claimed descent from the 17th century Duchy of Bedford (Salter p. 3) the Sydney family’s most recent antecedents when they left their Scottish homeland in 1831, was a line of iron-founders from Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire. This was the livelihood which further generations of the Russell family would carry on, with distinction, in the colony of New South Wales.

Robert Russell – John Peter Russell’s grandfather - was lured to Van Diemen’s Land by accounts of its need for free settlers, and the consequent rewards on offer of large pastoral grants with the use of free convict labour for clearing. The family travelled to Hobart Town aboard the brig Anne Jamieson, finding on arrival that the land awarded them was heavily timbered, and the allocated labour force essentially useless, with the whole governed by a frustratingly ineffective administration. Robert Russell returned to what he knew, and rather than embarking on a land clearing exercise, established a foundry - but saw little hope for the progress of his business, given the poor prospects for population growth in the southern colony. Robert Russell moved his family northwards, setting up a new foundry business in Sydney - known as Russell Brothers, to reflect his own semi-retirement and a new partnership between his sons John, Peter and Robert (Jnr).

Russell Brothers underwent various fluctuations and permutations of management, with second-born son Peter - the most stable and successful of Robert’s offspring – eventually branching out into a separate sideline in 1842, which prospered as his brothers pursued other interests without convincing success. The family business association was reformed in 1855 under the name P N Russel & Co, involving brothers John, Peter and George Russell, and built on the engineering and foundry business which Peter Nicol Russell had developed alone. This arrangement was in force three years prior to the birth of John Peter, and the wealth creation achieved by this firm was the means by which John Peter was able to fund his life-long pursuit of painting, travel and study.

John Peter Russell was born in Sydney on 16.6.1858. His father had married Charlotte Nichol in 1855, and the family’s address, and the birthplace of their first-born, was 15 Upper William Street North – present-day Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst ii. The births of three additional children followed, providing John Peter with two sisters and a brother, Percy – who would become an architect.

Education and training

John Peter and Percy Russell were sent to board at The Goulburn School, Garroorigang where both received their initial education. At age 18, John Peter was sent to England to train as a ‘gentleman apprentice’ at the engineering firm of Robey and Company, Lincoln, where he qualified as an engineer, with the expectation that he would have a leading role in the family’s engineering business. The firm founded by his uncle had undergone tremendous growth, a history recording:
The operation at Darling Harbour developed into one of the largest engineering works in the country, manufacturing rail cars and rolling stock, road and railway bridges, crushing batteries for gravel and mining, columns and ornamental architectural iron work, steam dredges, engines and even gun boats for the New Zealand Government, used during the New Zealand Land Wars in the early 1860s.iii

However, following some years of industrial action during the 8-hour day movement, at the close of which it seemed that the workers may have won, John Russell – much to the consternation of his brother Peter, who was managing the firm’s affairs in London – made a unilateral decision in June 1875 to close the doors of P N Russell & Co, and wind up the firm. John Russell’s personal financial security was assured. The decision from a corporate perspective was difficult to explain, given that the firm held capital of £250,000; and for the 1,000 workers on its books, the closure was a bitter blow.

When, in 1879, John Russell died, at age 59, his children benefited enormously from a legacy initially founded by his brother Peter - who went on to be remembered for his extreme generosity as a benefactor of the University of Sydney, and who was knighted in 1904. Meanwhile, John’s eldest son, John Peter, released from the shackles of parental expectation and buoyed by sudden wealth, decided to use the time and money given him to explore his interest in painting, and the artistic eye.

Study, travels and relationships abroad

In January 1881, John Peter Russell enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London. It was the beginning of a pattern of study interspersed by travel and excursions to paint. He studied at the Slade under Alphonse Legros, and also in Paris under Fernand Cormon. His studies, travels and social life all brought him into contact with the emergent artists of his generation, in a rich period of artistic experimentation and evolution.

In 1883 he travelled through Spain with his brother Percy and compatriot Tom Roberts, who would return to Australia to become one of the most feted national artists of the age. At the Atelier Cormon, Russell painted beside Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Barnard, and met Vincent Van Gogh, beginning a friendship of great significance to them both. His portrait of Van Gogh – which today hangs in an Amsterdam museum, was a particular favourite of his subject. Auguste Rodin became not only a long-term family friend, but Rodin’s favourite model - Anna Maria Antoinetta (Marianna) Mattiocco became Russell’s lover and eventually, his wife. Marianna and John, already the parents of three children, married in Paris on 8.2.1888, under pressure from his family in Australia to regularize their relationship (Salter p. 65). John and Marianna had made their home on the Belle Ile, where he created for her his so-called Chateau Anglaise. Here Russell met Claude Monet, in 1886 – one of the most important associations of his artistic life.

It was a time of great energy and artistic output for Russell. He relentlessly tried and tested colour theory, writing to Tom Roberts in 1887 that he had been ‘chasing colour, [and] had been floored again and again’ in his striving to attain ‘simple colour but strong... [kept] pure as long as possible’. (Letters, Russell to Roberts date range 5 October - 26 December 1887 iv

The understanding he achieved had benefits which reached beyond his own work. Hilary Spurling, biographer of Henri Matisse wrote:

Matisse himself said that it was Russell who introduced him to the Impressionists' theories of light and colour, in particular to the innovations of Claude Monet, setting technical exercises to help him assimilate them in practice.v

While the fluidity of John Peter Russell’s life at this point had appeal to him, and no doubt provided some personal and professional benefits, one biographer has hinted at a certain lack of discipline and structure, perhaps a contributing factor to the unfulfilled potential and lack of recognition he would later feel so keenly:

He studied painting as it suited him, restless and unsettled, constantly breaking the routine for painting tours and holidays. vi

The fact that the bohemian way of life was part and parcel of the accepted artistic persona no doubt validated Russell’s disregard for order. Personal wealth, inherited at a very young age, deprived him of the usual limits to choice, or the standard requirements typically demanded by life. There was no need for him to test the reception of his work in the mainstream – so he didn’t; there was no need for him to part with favourite paintings, so he held onto those which he didn’t give away.

Tragedy struck at two levels with the death of his wife from cancer on 30th March 1908. “The bottom fell out of his world” was the assessment of Lionel, youngest child of the marriage, in reference to the depths of his father’s grief (Salter p. 166). He could no longer paint until recovered, but worse, in a gesture of futile extravagance, burned some hundreds of his paintings in an “an immense auto-da-fe” - as described by his daughter Jeanne - (Salter p. 171) an inexplicable response to his circumstances. His action devastated his children, and denied the world a large portion of hi oeuvre.

Russell closed up the house he had created for Marianna and left the island, his son Lionel remarking that having expended £45,000 on creating their ‘chateau’, he gave it away for £4,000 (Salter p. 168).

John Peter Russell remarried four years later, on 27.6.1912 in Paris. His second wife was a friend of his daughter Jeanne : Caroline de Witt Merrill, known as Tottie to Jeanne, christened ‘Felize’ by John Peter – and later re-named by him as Makins, the last a reference to her patience with his eccentricities. John and Felize lived for some time in Paris. The only child of their marriage, Hereward Gilbert Russell, was born within months of the outbreak of World War I.

During the war years the family moved to England. All five of John Peter’s sons served on the western front, and all survived.

Return to Australia

In 1921, John Peter Russell took his wife and son ‘home’ to a much changed Australia. His arrival sparked no interest in the media, as he had half-expected it might, despite the upsurge of interest in art which his friend Tom Roberts had relayed to him. As remarked almost a century later by an Australian art historian, while Russell was making an impact in France, ‘his compatriots back home were being lifted high by the forces of nationalism” (Knell.)

Russell and his family lived for some little while in rented accommodation in Rose Bay, before leaving for New Zealand to establish his son Siward in an orchard at Brigham Creek, where the family lived with him for some time.

Retuning to Sydney, John Peter Russell found a fisherman’s cottage at Watsons Bay and purchased it for its waterfront, and especially for its wharf and deep water frontage. His great plan was to purchase a launch and travel the Hawkesbury River region to paint.

The house at 22 Pacific Street was in a state of poor repair, and Russell no longer had the ready funds for restoring it, but over the next eight years he threw his energy into labouring in this cause, and into the planting and layout of a garden. His cousin, artist Thea Proctor, described what she found behind the high front fence:
When the gate was opened it was like being in a Monet garden – with standard roses, carnations and gay annuals.
(Elizabeth Salter The Lost Impressionist p. 196)

Proctor was important to these last years beyond her kinship, and friendship, with Russell. She sought to foster his reputation as an artist, imploring him to exhibit in Sydney, and after his death, attempting in vain to raise his profile in his homeland.

These final years produced few art works, as Russell concentrated his energies on the Watsons Bay house, its garden, and the purchase of a launch - which was moored at his wharf when John Peter Russell died, yet to have carried him on any excursions on the Hawkesbury. He also constructed a studio at the foot of his land, described by his biographer, Elizabeth Salter, as: an extension of the cottage, built like the bridge of a ship to jut above the water. Below it were two terraces, planted with hibiscus, oleanders, and tamarisk. On these was the space for deck chairs on which visitors could be entertained with a view of ‘the briny’.
(Elizabeth Salter The Lost Impressionist p. 196)

It seems that Russell had, in this last home, found a sense of contentment and interest in his surroundings to match his younger enthusiasms for the Belle Ile.

His last known painting was of a mulberry tree growing beside a cottage near the cliffs at Watsons Bay – and it was given away, according to the recollection of family friend Emma Cobden, to a little boy who Russell noticed had been watching him sketch and paint over the previous days (Salter p. 202).

Death and legacy

John Peter Russell died of a heart attack, at Randwick, on 22 April 1930 – brought on by his exertions as he heaved rocks about in his work on his waterfront at Watsons Bay. As Elizabeth Salter has noted, his death aroused little interest in Sydney beyond the connection with the Russell engineering legacy.

Art historian Robert Hughes pondered in his Art in Australia whether both Russell’s reputation, and Australian art, would not have been served better by his returning to Australia at the height of the Impressionist movement, when he could have ‘implanted’ his knowledge into the local scene.

Critic Peter Hill observed in 2004:
Russell has been accepted by the French into the canon of Impressionism, often more enthusiastically and passionately than by his fellow Australians.

Russell’s European peers had long pondered this lack of recognition, Auguste Rodin writing to him, in a final letter:
Your works will live, I am certain. One day you will be placed on the same level with our friends Monet, Renior, and Van Gogh. viii

While Russell didn’t live to enjoy public recognition, he was presumably as gratified in the known respect of his peers as he was undoubtedly disappointed in the neglect of the general public. In the end, he saw painting as ‘all a matter of feeling, ‘tis in the man with brush & paint pot, or it is not’, and he perhaps believed that likewise, the ability to recognise artistry was all in the capacity of the beholder, or it is not.


Published works

  • i Barcroft Capel Boake (Ireland; Australia, b.1831, d.1921)
    (John Russell) circa 1883
    albumen photograph, carte-de visite, 9.5 x 6 cm
    Art Gallery of New South Wales Archive
    Photo: AGNSW
  • ii Sands Sydney Directory 1858/9; Sydney Morning Herald 10.7.1858 p.7
  • iii Dunn, Mark “Peter Nicol Russell” Dictionary of Sydney 1912
  • iv McQueen, Humphrey Tom Roberts Syd., Pan Macmillan, 1996
  • v Spurling, Hilary The Unknown Matisse: the early years, 1869-1908. Univ of Calif Pr, 2001.
  • vi Galbally, Ann E, “Russell John Peter” Australian Dictionary of Biography Melb., Melb. Univ. Pr. 1988 Vol 11.
  • vii Hill, Peter “Lasting Impressions” Sydney Morning Herald 3.7.2004 p.12
  • viii Letter, Rodin to Russell, quoted in “Lasting impressions" /Peter Hill, Sydney Morning Herald 3. 7.2004 p. 12
  • Salter, Elizabeth The Lost Impressionist: a biography of the life of John Peter Russell/ Lond., Angus & Robertson 1976

Unpublished sources or archive collections

  • WMC Rate Books
  • Trove – Newspaper collections, National Library of Australia

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