John Russell

I have been reading John Russell’s book about Shakespeare’s Country, which I had not known existed:  his first book, published in Spring 1942, when he was only 23, having recently graduated from Oxford and was working as an unpaid assistant for the Tate, which had been evacuated to Eastington Hall in Worcestershire.   It belongs to an odd genre of countryside writing much promoted by Batsford – not a guidebook, because, as I learn from the Preface, publishing a guidebook during wartime was illegal;  nor was Russell a very obvious person to have written the book, as he had been brought up not in Worcestershire or Warwickshire, but in Strawberry Hill in London.   In fact, the text is as much literary as architectural.   The first chapter is devoted to a life of Shakespeare (one of the illustrations is of the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, a magnificent castellated structure, looking as if it belonged in south Germany).   In later chapters, he is most enthusiastic about places with literary associations, like Hagley, admired by William Shenstone, and Sion Hill, the birthplace of the typographer, John Baskerville.   I like the description of Cheltenham:  ‘to coast through is crescents, promenade, and acacia-shaded avenues is to hear an old, thin, bony music, as if someone in an empty house were to play upon a wooden-framed piano, a sonata of Weber’.   The qualities of Russell’s writing were much admired by John Piper, who became a lifelong friend, and Logan Pearsall Smith, who encouraged him to be a full-time writer.

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2 thoughts on “John Russell

  1. marinavaizey says:

    JR was scarily scarily cultured, immensely knowledgable, immensely musical, did a lot of curating and wrote fluently and was really prolfic, an IMMENSELY fluid and graceful writer, and I was always told that HE needed NO EDITING; I was quite terrified when I succeeded him when he went to the New York Times. He had a complex life of attachments to the Ladies, he loved writing about artists he admired, and what I remember particularly is the rare time he showed animosity publicly to an artist. He loathed Egon Schiele, and said that he was an artist who showed us things we would rather not see. John I think did not like trouble, and of course like so many who don’t like trouble, he occasionally caused it….he was disappointed that I succeeded him as he had had someone else in mind, and he did not quite manage to conceal that view. His praise in his art criticism however elegant could also sometimes be cloying. JR was staggeringly prominent in his time.

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