William Alison Russell (1875–1948) was a Scottish lawyer who had a distinguished career in the British Colonial Legal Service. He was the son of the engineer George Russell, who at one time had business in Australia; the artist John Russell was his cousin. He was said to be a man of fine presence: debonair, keenly interested in modern literature, an enthusiastic musician and a painter in watercolour. He was also an active sportsman, particularly excelling in skating and sailing. He believed in noblesse oblige, and served in legal positions in the British Colonial offices in Africa, the Mediterranean and the West Indies, and was subsequently Assistant Legal Adviser at the Colonial Office.
Russell was a relative and close friend of Thea Proctor, who may have introduced him to Lambert. He joined Lambert on a short boating holiday in the Isle of Skye in 1910, and Lambert probably painted this portrait following this excursion.
Although Russell was serving as Attorney-General in Uganda in 1910, Lambert did not portray him surrounded by the emblems of empire, but presented him as a well-dressed man with reserve and natural dignity. He placed the face under a strong light, showing the right side in shadow. Lambert conveyed Russell’s sense of quiet authority through his alert, keen facial expression, through the tension in his hand and through the way his lean figure dominates the image. He suggested Russell’s sensibility and aesthetic interests through his use of whites and subdued colours. He provided a contrast of textures in the paint surface; for the figure he applied the paint with assertive strokes and used dry impasto, and for the moody, evocative background he adopted thinner paint.
In depicting Russell, Lambert adopted the pose from Gainsborough’s The blue boy c.1770 (The Huntington Library and Art Collection, San Marino, California), which was exhibited in London in the ‘Franco-British exhibition’ of 1908: a man standing with his left hand on his hip and holding a hat in his right hand. By the 1900s this pose was regularly used by artists. Sargent had used it in several of his portraits, including W. Graham Robertson 1894 (Tate, London) and Sir Frank Swettenham 1904 (Singapore History Museum, National Heritage Board), and Lambert’s friend and colleague Hugh Ramsay had also employed it in a number of his self-portraits. For Edwardian artists the pose had come to signify the aesthete, a cultivated man.