Dressed in black and white, in mourning for her dead husband, the sitter in this portrait stares past the viewer, a delicate crêpe bonnet covering her silver hair.
This pastel portrait shows Anne Thornton, former wife of John Thornton of Southwark, a wealthy merchant. She died on 12 March 1799 and was buried at Epsom in Surrey. ‘An Account of the Death of Mrs. A. Thornton’, written by her son, was published in 1800 and a second edition followed in 1811. An engraved version of this portrait by John Russell was used as the frontispiece to the second edition. The book describes the final illness and death of Mrs Thornton in detail, presenting the account as a representation of ‘the art of dying well’ and urging the reader to follow the Christian faith in readiness for death.
John Russell was born in Guildford; the son of a book and printseller. He studied at Guildford Grammar School before being apprenticed to Francis Cotes. He moved to London in 1768 and later married Hannah Faden, daughter of a printseller. The couple had twelve children. In the 1770s, Russell turned from painting portraits in oil to using pastel on paper. He made his own crayons and described the process in his book ‘Elements of Painting with Crayons’ (1772). He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1769 and was later elected a Royal Academician. In 1789 he became painter to King George III and the Prince of Wales. He was also an astronomer and produced several large images of the surface of the moon. He died of typhus during a trip to Hull.
Presented by Claude Dickason Rotch, September 1953
Collection of Mrs Augusta Knolleke (née Thornton, no relation); collection of Claude Dickason Rotch (1878-1961); by whom presented to the Ministy of Works through the National Art Collections Fund in 1953
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