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Master of Marine Painting
Edward John Russell is known for the acciracy of his painting of ships and his depictions of 19th-century New Brunswick life.

by Carol Kuehner

    RECORDING the heyday of New Brunswick history - the era of the sailing ship - probably wasn't Edward John Russell's priority when he sat on the end of a pier in Saint John sketching a ship. More likely he was trying to support his wife and six children. Yet today his marine paintings are considered one of the best records of New Brunswick's ships.
    Born into a comfortable family on the Isle of Wight in the English Channel in 1832, Russell showed interest in art at a young age. No doubt his mother and her family helped fan that interest, Russell's mother being the daughter of John Wiltshire of Soho, a businessman and art critic who frequently entertained British portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence in his home.
    But Russell's mother died when he was seven, and his father remarried. Insisting Russell pursue a business career rather than an artistic one, his father sent him to a boarding school near- London. Later Russell was apprenticed to a dry goods firm in London, and became a junior clerk for a glove manufacturer.
    Meanwhile Irish-born John Boyd, later to become Senator Boyd and Lieutenant-Govemor of New Brunswick, had established The London House, New Brunswick's largest retail shop, on Market Square in Saint John. While doing business in London in 185 1, Boyd met young Russell and offered him a job in New Brunswick. So it was that 19-year-old Russell arrived in Saint John and went to work within sight of the harbour just as the era of New Brunswick's sailing ships was budding.
    For years Russell pursued his interest in art while eking out a living as a bookkeeper. In May, 1857, four sketches by Russell, Breaking Up of the Ice in the Saint John River, Fredericton,were published in The Illustrated London News. One showed ice piled up beside the Beckwith & Marsh lumber mill, where Russell kept books for John L. Marsh, one of the partners in the business.
    More sketches by Russell appeared in the years that followed, and in 1860 The London Illustrated News assigned him to cover part of the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to New Brunswick.
    In 1861 Russell illustrated and authored a book of sketches of New Brunswick, "beautifully illuminated with tinted lithographs," intended to encourage emigration from England to Canada.
   Russell's boss, John L. Marsh, was a wealthy man, the owner of a large farm as well as a lumber merchant. His wife was descended from French aristocracy. He wasn't pleased in 1862 when his daughter, Julia Louise LeBrun Marsh, became enamoured with his penniless bookkeeper. Nevertheless, Julia and Russell married. They immediately moved to Saint John and built a small house - apparently using Russell's design and Julia's money - on Queen Street in West Saint John.
    Russell may have kept books for a number of businesses, but he seemed perpetually unable to balance his own. He lacked neither good ideas nor ambition, but seems to have plunged into various ventures, including a photography studio, without foresight or means, to complete them. He was repeatedly forced to mortgage his home. More than once Julia's brother, who was Chief Magistrate of Fredericton for 40 years, saved him from foreclosure.
    Russell did illustrations not only for The London Illustrated News, but also for The Canadian Illustrated News and the Saint John Daily Telegraph. Around 1870 he began concentrating on marine paintings, receiving $10 for a ship's likeness during good times, as little as $4 during bad times. Because his buyers were often ships' owners or captains who cared more about accuracy than art, some of Russell's marine paintings are of little artistic value, but they form an extensive and accurate record of New Brunswick ships.
    Russell often painted background and ship on separate occasions. He painted some ships while they were still under construction, painting sails from the sailmaker's plans. He became known for making the ship's name clearly visible, and for Partridge Island in the background. Sometimes Russell sketched while sitting on a pier, feet dangling. Taking his sketches home, he made watercolours from them, removing surplus paint from his brush with his mouth. To bring out the colours, he'd turn a finished painting over, sponge the back, and press it with a hot iron.
   After Julia's death, Russell moved to Boston. There he married Marie Lewis, and spent about seven years working on a book. The book was in production when a printing shop fire destroyed it.
   After returning to Saint John in1890 Russell did reproductions and newspaper illustrations. In 1895 an inheritance from his father's estate finally relieved him from financial pressures, enabling his art to attain a high level. Eventually Russell returned to Boston, where he was working on an illustrated book when his death at age 74 left that project, like so many others, unfinished.
    Today Russell's marine paintings fetch thousands of dollars at auctions. Among art to appear at Tim Isaac's New Year's Auction on January 7 will be an unsigned depiction of the "Naval Reserve" attributed to Russell. Also crossing the block will be a European scene signed "E. J. R. 1892," and a Currier and Ives print, The Great Fire at Saint John, N.B., June 20, 1877, which was actually a copy, with flames added, of a sketch done by Russell in 1872.
   Today Russell is best.known for his marine paintings and the information they contain, but curator Huia Ryder has called many of his illustrations done for periodicals not only "unquestionably good," but "the most accurate portrayal in existence of New Brunswick life during the last half of the nineteenth century." Toward the end of his life Russell conceded more than once that his father had been right, that he should have pursued a career in business rather than art. If he had, we'd be the poorer for it in our understanding of our past.
   Carol Kuehner's auction column appears the last Saturday of every month in The Reader. Auctioneers can reach her at (506) 339-6758 or by email at: kuehner@nbnet.nb.ca

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