We have just succesfully bid at auction at Waddington’s in Toronto for this portrait by Sir William Orpen of Major Gilbert Russell, a former owner of Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire. We received a last-minute tip-off from Tim Knox, director of Sir John Soane’s Museum and himself a keen collector, that this was coming up. In the nick of time we were able to locate some funds and set up a bid.
Gilbert Russell was a great-grandson of the 6th Duke of Bedford. His military career took him to Egypt and the Sudan in 1898, South Africa between 1899 and 1902 and France during the First World War. He married Maud Nelke, who was to become a prominent hostess and patron of the arts.
The Russells bought Mottisfont in 1934 from the Barker-Mill family and set about refurbishing it inside and out. The interiors were furnished in the neo-Georgian style which was then a relatively avant-garde taste. In the garden the Russells employed both Norah Lindsay and Geoffrey Jellicoe to redesign specific areas.
The Russells entertained a circle of artists and writers, and Maud had her portrait painted by Orpen, John Singer Sargent, Sir William Nicholson and Henri Matisse (although she professed herself to be ‘horrified’ by how Matisse had depicted her). They commissioned Rex Whistler to decorate the drawing room at Mottisfont in his romantic and whimsical style.
We previously didn’t have any image of Gilbert, and it is very satisfying to see a portrait of the man who, together with his wife, shaped Mottisfont as we see it today – and by an interesting artist to boot.