The most prolific of British pastellists, John Russell was born in Guildford, Surrey, son of a book- and print-seller. He won premiums at the London Society of Arts in 1759 and 1760, before serving an apprenticeship with Francis Cotes (1726–1770), the leading pastellist of the day. Russell studied with Cotes until 1767, joined the Royal Academy schools in 1770, and was made an associate there in 1772. Although Russell exhibited annually at the Academy from 1769, showing a total of 332 pastels over the course of his career, he did not become a full member until 1788. This did not stop him publishing Elements of Painting with Crayons
, an important instructional text on pastel painting, in 1772 or soliciting the highest patronage: he was appointed "crayon painter" to the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762–1830), in 1785 and to King George III (1738–1820) in 1790.
According to signed labels found on their reverses, Russell painted this pair of portraits in 1791 to commemorate the fortieth wedding anniversary of William and Sarah Man Godschall. William Man became the owner of the manor of Weston House near Albury in Surrey through his wife, whose family name he added to his own in 1752. Born Sarah Godschall (1730–1795), she is shown in the pendant portrait (61.182.2
). With his bright blue eyes and slightly ruddy complexion, William looks younger than his seventy-one years. He wears a blue coat and a freshly powdered wig, the textures of which allow Russell to show off his mastery of the medium, as well as his technique of "sweetening" or blending different shades of pastel together.
[Francesca Whitlum-Cooper 2010]