John Russell, R.A., Portrait of John Withers
John Russell, R.A., Portrait of John Withers, One of the Porters at the Royal Academy, pastel on paper, c.1792

When this affectionate portrait by John Russell, the period’s foremost pastellist, was exhibited in 1792, it presented the spectator with a familiar sight; John Withers, Academy porter since 1770 and model in its life-class, stands at the foot of the famous staircase to the main exhibition rooms and, holding aloft an entrance ticket and a one shilling catalogue, welcomes the visitor to the exhibition of 1792. In the background, the contrast between the undisciplined, fashionable crowd on the stairs and the cast of the Belvedere Torso — epitome of classical masculine beauty and key model of the Academy’s drawing class — intimates, ironically or perhaps unconsciously, the dichotomy between the Academy’s lofty didactic aims and the popular appeal of the summer exhibition as highlight of the 'season’. By incorporating the Torso, in place of the plaster model of the Furietti Centaurs, which actually occupied that position in the entrance hall, Russell may also have wanted to emphasise the realism of his approach to Withers, and to art in general, over the idealised body of the classical past.

The portrait features in the Courtauld Institute Gallery’s exhibition Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836, October 18 2001 — 20 January, 2002.

Anne Puetz
Curatorial Research Fellow