Sir William Russell Flint

Sir William Russell Flint

Sir William Russell Flint was surely the greatest watercolour painter of the last century. In a lifetime spanning almost ninety years he fulfilled the role of devoted husband and father, medical illustrator, naval officer, etcher and painter. He enjoyed a dedicated following, was honoured and admired by his peers, and knighted by his monarch.

He was born in Edinburgh on the 4th April 1880 and was educated until the age of fourteen when he began a six-year apprenticeship as a lithographic draughtsman. Following completion of this apprenticeship he left for London to work as a medical illustrator. This lasted for eighteen months, after which he spurned regular employment and attended Hatherleys Art School for three days and evenings a week. At this time his main ambition lay in the field of book and story illustration and following an approach to the editor of The Illustrated London News he was commissioned to provide a series of illustrations for the 1903 Christmas week issue.

As further assignments at the ILN followed so his reputation as an illustrator grew, leading in 1905 to a commission for drawings of Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, the first of ten books he would illustrate before the First World War. During the war he served with the RNVR on the development of rigid airships, spending time in the Isle of Man, Devon and his native Scotland.

After the war he consolidated his position as a painter and became one of the most popular and respected artists of his day. His first limited edition ‘Phillida’ was published in 1924 but it was not until the 1950s, when Russell Flint was in his seventies, that the publishing gathered real momentum. Between 1951 and his death in 1969 a further 70 titles were released as demand and interest in his work increased. In all 106 signed limited editions were published by five different publishers from 1924 to 1970.

Despite the perennial misconception that he painted many pictures in Spain it was usually to France that he made his annual painting visit. Russell Flint enjoyed painting in the open air, applying beautifully controlled broad washes over the faintest of charcoal outlines. He seldom if ever included figures at the time, preferring to leave precise blank spaces on the paper to be filled in at his leisure upon his return to London.

He was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy and was elected an Associate member in 1924 with full membership being granted in 1933. However his first love amongst the societies was the Royal Watercolour Society. Formed in 1804 the RWS was the senior of the watercolour societies. Russell Flint was elected a member in 1914 and served as their President for twenty years from 1936, and subsequently retained the title of Past President. (PPRWS).

Recognition of another kind occurred on the 8th July 1947 when he was knighted for services to art. He was in very good company that day as music and the theatre were similarly honoured with knighthoods for Malcolm Sargent and Laurence Olivier.

Amongst his early models were professional dancers, actresses and ballerinas but the model he will be forever associated with was Cecilia Green. She so epitomized his ideal of beauty that he seemed to have been painting her long before they first met in 1953. For the next fifteen years or so she became a trusted confidant and critic as well as his muse.

Although he once said he’d painted more Scottish landscapes than anything else the publishers of his work had firm beliefs in the subjects necessary to sell an entire edition. With few exceptions this was either a large-scale figurepiece or a landscape or interior with figures. Russell Flint was astute enough to realize what the collectors liked best and deferred to his publisher’s wishes. He was however very strict with them about the quality of reproduction and expected the very highest standards of printing.

After his death from leukaemia on 27th December 1969 the publishing of limited editions continued. Initially this was because a number of subjects had received his approval and had been printed awaiting signature. Not wishing to disappoint collectors his publishers decided to go ahead with the release of these unsigned editions and in doing so unwittingly began a new era of posthumous publishing.