Robert Russell (1808 - 1900)

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Birthplace: Kennington Park, London, Greater London, United Kingdom
Death: Died in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Managed by: Sharyn Proctor (Duthy)
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Immediate Family

About Robert Russell

Robert Russell (1808-1900), surveyor, architect and artist, was born on 13 February 1808 near Kennington Common, London, the son of Robert Russell, merchant, and his wife Margaret, née Leslie.

He married Mary Ann Collis Smith in an Anglican Church in Melbourne on On 17 December 1839, they had 7 children, 5 of whom survived.

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  • After a sound education Russell went to Edinburgh in 1823 and was articled for five years to the architect William Burn, who had been a pupil of Sir Robert Smirke. Later he worked in London with two minor architects, and then in the office of John Nash during the alterations and additions to Buckingham Palace.

Ten months employment on the ordnance survey in Drogheda, Ireland, in 1830-31 gave Russell a preference for surveying, as allowing greater leisure, and curiosity about Australia led to his emigration and arrival in Sydney in the Sir John Rae Reid on 24 September 1833 with letters of introduction to (Sir) Thomas Mitchell.

  • The Sydney Herald of 23 September 1833, noted the arrival of 'the ship Sir John Rae Reid' from 'London, and Hobart Town, on Tuesday last' and among the 'passengers from England' was "Mr. Robert Russell, surveyor".
  • Russell was employed by the Survey Department as an 'acting assistant' on October 22, 1833.
  • Circumstances following their arrival led to group undertaking the survey of Melbourne which set out the inner city street grid as it is known today. Wiki

Russell's career from this time is somewhat obscure: his work involved marking out allotments in Melbourne and the interior, advising purchasers, settling disputes and acting as commission agent and speculative investor, in the early years from an office in Melbourne Chambers, Bourke Street. An offer to survey Melbourne by contract in December 1841 was rejected, but amongst work in the interior and particularly Gippsland is recorded his surveying expedition to Port Albert and the Wilson's Promontory area in April-May 1843, which produced a sequence of topographical studies and drawings. Russell had been unsuccessful in the ballot of five equally competent applicants for appointment as town surveyor on 24 December 1842, but later he received temporary official employment: for some months after August 1851 he became assistant to W. H. Wright, commissioner of crown lands, and in October-December 1866 he was mining surveyor on the goldfields in the Taradale district. Australian Biography

In 1839, Russell designed St James Old Cathedral, now the oldest church in Melbourne and one of only three buildings in the central city which predate the Gold Rush of 1851.[15]

Russell later practised as an architect in Melbourne until he was forced to retire by old age. He kept his mind to the last and died at Richmond, Melbourne, on 10 April 1900, aged 92. He married and was survived by two sons and two daughters.

In addition to being an architect and surveyor Russell did 'extensive work as a sketcher, amateur photographer, etcher, lithographer (and) carver'.[16] He did valuable work as an amateur artist by preserving many original sketches of Melbourne in its early years, in both water-colour and pencil and in 1952 an exhibition of his 'lost paintings' was held at the Tye gallery in Melbourne[17] Russell's artwork is in the collections of the State Library of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, the National Library of Australia and the State Library of New South Wales.

The range of Russell's interests was considerable. His letters provide a valuable and vivid description of early Victorian settlement and his own surroundings. He was well read in literary, technical and philosophical works and wrote articles, highly romantic poetry and verse dramas, an unpublished novel (The Shipwreck), and translations from the French. An inveterate experimenter and inventor, with interests in the graphic arts, he was the pioneer lithographer and etcher in Victoria, his etchings showing the influence of Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorraine. He also interested himself in the cliché-verre or glass-print, heliogravure and the daguerreotype, about which he had been informed by Strzelecki, and believed that such processes would supersede copper engraving for reproductive purposes; glass-prints by him reproducing etchings by Rembrandt exist. Russell achieved some local fame as a connoisseur of old-master paintings and as a print collector. By 1889 his collection contained a comprehensive selection of the great names of etching and engraving.

His topographical delineations include landscapes of Sydney, Melbourne and environs, and the coastal and inland areas of Victoria. The famous first views of the Melbourne settlement from 1837 onwards were also lithographed by Russell, and he produced painted replicas of them until the last decade of his life. Apart from occasional head and figure studies and copies from old masters, his other work was intensely romantic in feeling: idyllic picturesque fantasies and dramatic imaginary landscapes under the strong influence of J. M. W. Turner and, perhaps, Francesco Guardi. Dating largely from 1870-90, after his return from Europe, these were often in experimentally mixed media with many original effects, and invariably on a very small scale, despite their freedom and unusual colour combinations. This prolific output, intended sometimes for sale but primarily as gifts, is represented in many private collections, in the National Library of Australia (Nan Kivell Collection), the Dixson and Mitchell Libraries, Sydney, the National Gallery of Victoria and the State Library of Victoria, which possesses a portrait by Alice Panton painted late in his life.

Russell's last home was a cottage at 283 Burnley Street, Richmond, where he died on 10 April 1900; he was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery. On 17 December 1839 at an Anglican ceremony in Melbourne Russell had married Mary Ann Collis Smith. He was survived by five of their seven children; one daughter, Helen Cunard, received some local fame as a singer.

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Robert Russell's Timeline

1808
February 13, 1808
London, Greater London, United Kingdom
1839
December 17, 1839
Age 31
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
1900
April 10, 1900
Age 92
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
????
Parkville, Victoria, Australia