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Robert Russell (1808–1900)

by Harley Preston

This article was published:

Robert Russell (1808-1900), by John William Lindt

Robert Russell (1808-1900), by John William Lindt

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H13838

Robert Russell (1808-1900), surveyor, architect and artist, was born on 13 February 1808 near Kennington Common, London, the son of Robert Russell, merchant, and his wife Margaret, née Leslie. After a sound education Russell went to Edinburgh in 1823 and was articled for five years to the architect William Burn, who had been a pupil of Sir Robert Smirke. Later he worked in London with two minor architects, and then in the office of John Nash during the alterations and additions to Buckingham Palace.

Ten months employment on the ordnance survey in Drogheda, Ireland, in 1830-31 gave Russell a preference for surveying, as allowing greater leisure, and curiosity about Australia led to his emigration and arrival in Sydney in the Sir John Rae Reid on 24 September 1833 with letters of introduction to (Sir) Thomas Mitchell. He was appointed to the Survey Department as acting assistant to the town surveyor on 22 October, much of his work being concerned with crown land grants. Like his father Russell had been an amateur artist and collector and became in 1835 one of the first pupils of Conrad Martens, with whom he corresponded until 1871.

On 10 September 1836 Russell was appointed surveyor to the infant settlement at Port Phillip and he arrived with a group of officials in the Sterlingshire on 5 October, accompanied by his assistants, Frederick Robert D'Arcy as draughtsman and William Wedge Darke as chainman; he was also to be commissioner of crown lands. Russell's first surveys were in the Geelong and Werribee areas, but in general his work was not considered to be characterized by enough alacrity. A topographical feature survey of the Melbourne site was produced (and later lithographed in England) on his own initiative, but his horses were unready for further expeditions. On this survey Robert Hoddle drew the standard grid plan, after he superseded Russell upon his appointment as surveyor-in-charge on 1 May 1837. Russell was obliged, after one false start overland, to return to Sydney to complete surveying commitments and while there he made a series of drawings of the city's environs in the style of Martens. He returned to Melbourne about 30 March 1838, as clerk of works with architectural responsibilities. A contentious and discordant government career continued until 18 June 1839 when he was removed from office. Amid discontent on both sides Russell entered into more remunerative practice as architect and, primarily, surveyor.

Russell's career from this time is somewhat obscure: his work involved marking out allotments in Melbourne and the interior, advising purchasers, settling disputes and acting as commission agent and speculative investor, in the early years from an office in Melbourne Chambers, Bourke Street. An offer to survey Melbourne by contract in December 1841 was rejected, but amongst work in the interior and particularly Gippsland is recorded his surveying expedition to Port Albert and the Wilson's Promontory area in April-May 1843, which produced a sequence of topographical studies and drawings. Russell had been unsuccessful in the ballot of five equally competent applicants for appointment as town surveyor on 24 December 1842, but later he received temporary official employment: for some months after August 1851 he became assistant to W. H. Wright, commissioner of crown lands, and in October-December 1866 he was mining surveyor on the goldfields in the Taradale district.

Despite his distinguished background Russell's architectural work was limited. He is assumed to have been responsible for his office as clerk of works, a small brick and shingle construction said to be the first durable government building utilizing plans and elevations (1838), and a watch house (1839); the first formal stone government building, the Customs House (1839-41, demolished 1858) was commenced under his supervision upon the basis of a design from the Sydney colonial architect's office. Russell was architect also for the austere, stone Bank of Australasia (1840-41, now demolished), and at least one contemporary domestic commission, a house for Lyon Campbell is recorded. The only documentable work remaining is St James's Old Cathedral, built basically under his supervision in 1839-42. The slender pyramidal spire of his original design was omitted, and an octagonal domical termination, added in 1851 by Charles Laing, is alien to the Regency classicism of the concept. The church, consecrated in 1853, was moved to King Street near Flagstaff Gardens in 1914 with considerable alteration to the substituted tower design.

Russell left for England with his wife and children in the Kent in June 1856, and returned in the Norfolk in May 1860. While in London he appears to have acted as guide to art exhibitions for visiting colonial friends. After his return he worked from offices situated variously in Collins, Swanston, Little Collins and Elizabeth Streets. His private address also moved around the city proper: Fitzroy, East Melbourne and Richmond. Russell's last home was a cottage at 283 Burnley Street, Richmond, where he died on 10 April 1900; he was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery. On 17 December 1839 at an Anglican ceremony in Melbourne Russell had married Mary Ann Collis Smith. He was survived by five of their seven children; one daughter, Helen Cunard, received some local fame as a singer.

The range of Russell's interests was considerable. His letters provide a valuable and vivid description of early Victorian settlement and his own surroundings. He was well read in literary, technical and philosophical works and wrote articles, highly romantic poetry and verse dramas, an unpublished novel (The Shipwreck), and translations from the French. An inveterate experimenter and inventor, with interests in the graphic arts, he was the pioneer lithographer and etcher in Victoria, his etchings showing the influence of Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorraine. He also interested himself in the cliché-verre or glass-print, heliogravure and the daguerreotype, about which he had been informed by Strzelecki, and believed that such processes would supersede copper engraving for reproductive purposes; glass-prints by him reproducing etchings by Rembrandt exist. Russell achieved some local fame as a connoisseur of old-master paintings and as a print collector. By 1889 his collection contained a comprehensive selection of the great names of etching and engraving.

His topographical delineations include landscapes of Sydney, Melbourne and environs, and the coastal and inland areas of Victoria. The famous first views of the Melbourne settlement from 1837 onwards were also lithographed by Russell, and he produced painted replicas of them until the last decade of his life. Apart from occasional head and figure studies and copies from old masters, his other work was intensely romantic in feeling: idyllic picturesque fantasies and dramatic imaginary landscapes under the strong influence of J. M. W. Turner and, perhaps, Francesco Guardi. Dating largely from 1870-90, after his return from Europe, these were often in experimentally mixed media with many original effects, and invariably on a very small scale, despite their freedom and unusual colour combinations. This prolific output, intended sometimes for sale but primarily as gifts, is represented in many private collections, in the National Library of Australia (Nan Kivell Collection), the Dixson and Mitchell Libraries, Sydney, the National Gallery of Victoria and the State Library of Victoria, which possesses a portrait by Alice Panton painted late in his life.

Select Bibliography

  • T. O'Callaghan, ‘Scraps of Early Melbourne History, 1835-1839’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 3, no 4, June 1914, pp 145-67, vol 7, 1919
  • E. Scott, ‘Captain Lonsdale and the Foundation of Melbourne’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 4, no 3, Mar 1915, pp 97-116
  • A. W. Greig, ‘The Official Foundation of Melbourne’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 7 (1919)
  • A. W. Greig, ‘Who Selected the Site of Melbourne?’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 11, no 4, June 1927, pp 232-36
  • H. S. McComb, ‘Surveyor Hoddle's Field Books of Melbourne’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 16, no 3, May 1937, pp 77-101 and vol 17, no 1, May 1938, pp 20-40
  • H. Preston, ‘Robert Russell, the Father of Melbourne’, Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Bulletin, Mar-Apr 1956
  • Evelyn Observer, 28 Dec 1888
  • Table Talk, 13 Sept 1889
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 June 1897, 26 Apr 1899.

Citation details

Harley Preston, 'Russell, Robert (1808–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Russell (1808-1900), by John William Lindt

Robert Russell (1808-1900), by John William Lindt

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H13838

Life Summary [details]


13 February, 1808
London, Middlesex, England


10 April, 1900 (aged 92)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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