Probably England’s greatest pastellist, and certainly her most prolific, John Russell was apprenticed to the portraitist Francis Cotes and set up his own practice in 1767. In 1770 he entered the Royal Academy Schools in London, winning the silver medal for figure drawing. Exhibiting at the Society of Artists in 1768 and regularly at the Royal Academy from 1769 to 1806, he was elected ARA in 1772 and RA in 1788, when he became Crayon Painter to King George III and to George, Prince of Wales. He painted occasionally in oil but the main body of his work, hundreds of portraits and a large number of “fancy pictures” depicting children with animals, is in pastel. Given his royal patronage he attracted a large and fashionable following.
This portrait possibly depicts Robert Howarth who was born in Bolton in 1761, married Mary Nettleton in 1787 and whose family went on to establish themselves as successful cotton weavers in the area. Typical of his clientele, Russell has managed to capture good character and expression. His trademark use of blue is clearly apparent as is the subtle softness of form achieved by smudging outlines and highlighting elements such as the necktie and hair.