James Russel was an English artist and antiquary who lived in Rome between 1740 and 1763. At one time he was among the foremost ciceroni in Italy. His patrons included Richard Mead and Edward Holdsworth. Andrew Lumisden, the Secretary to the Young Pretender, wrote that Russel was his ‘ingenious friend’. Despite his centrality to the British Grand Tour community of the mid eighteenth century, there have been no scholarly studies of his life and work. Instead, scholars tend to favor his fellow artists, such as Robert Adam and William Chambers, and other antiquaries, such as Thomas Jenkins, James Byres, and Gavin Hamilton. Nevertheless, Russel’s career gives insight into the British community in Italy at the dawn of the golden age of the Grand Tour. His struggles as an artist reveal the conditions in which the young tyros laboured. His rise to prominence broadens what we know about both the British and Italian artistic communities in eighteenth-century Rome. And, his network of patrons reveals some of the familial and political connections that were necessary for social success in eighteenth-century Britain. In fact, the experience of James Russel reveals the importance of seeing Grand Tourist and expatriate communities as extensions of domestic social networks. Like eighteenth-century sailors who went to sea, these travelers lived in a world apart that was nevertheless intimately connected to life at home.
Despite the fact that there has been no extensive research on James Russel, historians of Italy and the Grand Tour frequently cite Russel’s letters, many of which were published in two volumes as Letters from a Young Painter Abroad to His Friends in England — the first in 1748 and the second in 1750. Not only were these two volumes popular during his lifetime, but they are essential documents for understanding the social world of Rome during the 1740s.
No matter how useful these two volumes are, however, they tell only part of the story. As it turns out, another sixty unpublished letters have remained in archival collections for the past three hundred years. Few scholars have consulted them — even though they shed light on eighteenth-century social networks, Jacobitism, art history, and more.
In 2012, I edited these letters, which I supplemented with over a dozen artworks by James Russel — most of which were in private collections and have never been published. I supplemented this edition with an essay on James Russel, the Grand Tour, antiquarianism, and Jacobitism as well as a comprehensive handlist of all extant correspondence, published and unpublished. This was published in the Walpole Society.
The Walpole Society has kindly agreed to let me provide the work as an open access document through my university’s open access repository. The text is available as a .pdf and can be cited as
Kelly, Jason M. “Letters from a Young Painter Abroad: James Russel in Rome, 1740-1763 [Introduction and Critical Edition of the James Russel Manuscripts].” Walpole Society 74 (2012). 61-164.
I hope that you find it useful. Please feel free to send me any questions that you might have. I am quite keen to discover new letters and works by James Russel and would eventually like to produce a comprehensive digital edition that includes the 1748 and 1750 volumes.