John Russell was admitted to the Royal Academy in March 1770, at the same time as Daniel Gardner. The nascent Academy Schools were still establishing their teaching structures, but central to the syllabus were the twin components of drawing after the antique and from life models. By 1772 Russell had already been awarded a silver medal and progressed to the life academy, where he produced this remarkable pastel study of George White. White was the most famous model employed by the Royal Academy and prominent artists in the second half of the eighteenth century. A paviour – or street mender –by profession White had been discovered by Joshua Reynolds, who in turn introduced him to the Academy. Russell’s striking head study demonstrates his abilities as a portraitist and pastellist, at the same time showing his interest in the Academy’s preoccupation with promoting history painting.
George White was one of the most celebrated models in eighteenth-century London. According to the painter Joseph Moser:
'Old George…owed the ease in which he passed his latter days, in a great measure to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who found him exerting himself in the laborious employment of thumping down stones in the street; and observing not only the grand and majestic traits of his countenance, but the dignity of his muscular figure, took him out of a situation to which his strength was by no means equal, clothed, fed, and had him, first as a model in his own painting room, then introduced him as a subject for the students of the Royal Academy.' 
As Martin Postle has pointed out, whilst characterful studies of old men posed as biblical figures, prophets or saints by Continental old masters were readily available on the art market – Reynolds himself had copied a head of Joab by Federico Bencovich in the collection of his friend and patron, Lord Palmerston - finding a model in Britain from whom to execute a painting was more difficult.
White therefore offered a rare opportunity for artists to combine portraiture and history painting, by painting a model in the guise of an historical or literary character. In 1771 Reynolds showed at the Royal Academy a picture of White entitled Resignation. It was engraved in 1772 and accompanied by a stanza from Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, implying a literary context to what is essentially a portrait. In his annotated Royal Academy catalogue, Horace Walpole noted: ‘This was an old beggar, who had so fine a head that Sir Joshua chose him for the father in his picture from Dante, and painted him several times, as did others in imitation of Reynolds. There were even cameos and busts of him.’ White sat to, amongst others Johan Zoffany, John Sanders, Nathaniel Hone and the sculptor John Bacon.
Russell’s portrait of White is a highly charged character study. Executed in pastel, Russell’s preferred medium, it shows White in the habit and attitude of St. Peter. Russell has clearly converted a life-study, made in the Royal Academy, into a historical painting. Contemporary evidence suggests that Reynolds began studies of White without a specific subject-matter in mind. His pupil, James Northcote, described the gestation of Reynolds’s Ugolino suggesting he initially painted the head-study of White and then decided to add to the canvas to create the finished composition. Russell probably began by drawing White’s head, distinctive beard and hair, before adding the hands clasped in prayer and the halo. Head studies of saints such as this, were familiar from the work of Italian seventeenth and eighteenth century painters and notable depictions of St Peter survive by Guido Reni and Pompeo Batoni amongst others. In 1772, the year Russell completed this pastel, Reynolds executed a similar profile portrait of White which he converted into a portrait entitled Dionysius Areopagita a nobleman of Athens and disciple of St Paul (Private collection, formerly with Lowell Libson Ltd). It maybe that Reynolds used his painting of White as a study to encourage the students of the Academy.
Preserved in outstanding condition, Russell’s portrait of George White is hugely important evidence of the activities of students at the Royal Academy during its first years. This life-study offers tantalising evidence that Reynolds taught his own method of historical painting to the first generation of students at the Academy. This pastel is also a depiction of the most famous model in eighteenth century London, and as such offers invaluable evidence of the mechanics of art teaching at a critical moment in the development of British art.
- Sidney C. Hutchison, ‘The Royal Academy Schools, 1768-1830’, The Walpole Society, v.38, 1962, p.135.
- For George White see Martin Postle, ‘Patriarchs, prophets, and paviours: Reynolds’s images of old age’, The Burlington Magazine, 1988, vol. cxxx, pp.736-37 and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: the subject pictures, Cambridge, 1995, pp.121-160.
- Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: the subject pictures, Cambridge, 1995, p.125.
- For other artists who used White see: Martin Postle, ‘Patriarchs, prophets, and paviours: Reynolds’s images of old age’, The Burlington Magazine, 1988, vol. cxxx, pp.739-740.
- 1818, I, pp.278-283.