obituary of Bruce Russell | art

My friend and fellow artist Bruce Russell, who passed away at the age of 76, was one of the most original and admired abstract artists of the 1970s and 1980s. His paintings will be remembered for their surprising liveliness, their verve, their haunted cubism. In 1977 he wrote that he liked “chemical, candies, culinary, ‘untasteful’ synthetic colors, in dissonance with earth pigments”. He drew his motifs from “Vorticism, Bauhaus, Art Deco, those interestingly hideous ‘contemporary’ fabrics and decor of the 50s”. When I looked at his paintings in a small Putney studio in the mid-’70s, I remember thinking about those Fablon kitchen patterns, the aluminum grays of hi-fi sets and random logos swinging back and forth in a dance – Foxtrot was a title from 1978. I was really impressed.

From the 1970s, Bruce had a number of solo exhibitions in London and New York, including at the Hoya Gallery, AIR, Ian Birksted, Benjamin Rhodes and the New York Studio School, with his last exhibitions at the Beardsmore Gallery. His paintings came into public collections. He was an early contributor to the artist-run magazine Artscribe. In 1979, his paintings were featured in the most important survey of the time, the Hayward Annual (alongside works by Bill Henderson, Gary Wragg, Jennifer Durrant, and me).

He became an inspiring teacher. At Newcastle Polytechnic (1975-78) he founded the Newcastle Polytechnic Gallery. His students at St Martins, in London, from 1979 included Peter Doig and Simon Bill. From 1987 to 2006, he was head of fine arts at Kingston University, West London, where he founded the Stanley Picker Gallery, which has a wide range of exhibitions, some of them international in scope.

Nineveh, 2006, by Bruce Russell

He was born in London. His mother, Betty, a young Irish nurse, gave Bruce up for adoption; his father, Kingsley Armstrong, who had met Betty while stationed in Glasgow in wartime with the New Zealand Navy, had returned home and may never have known of his son’s existence. Bruce was raised in Hounslow by Jean and Jack Russell, who returned to civilian life after wartime with the RAF, working for London Transport and as a butcher. Bruce knew he was adopted and later found out that he had four half-siblings in the US and six in New Zealand.

Leaving Latymer School in Hammersmith, he entered the Chelsea School of Art in 1964 and studied graphic design before switching to painting. Future actor Alan Rickman, a classmate from Latymer and a lifelong friend, was a fellow student.

He married Alison Delacour in 1979. The Wiltshire wedding attracted many artist friends, including John Hoyland, whose collective sense of dress – tipper ties, ill-fitting suits – convinced the locals that they were the Flying Squad. In 1988 Bruce and Alison moved with their children to Liss, Hampshire.

In 2014, he was diagnosed with blood cancer (lymphoma and myeloma). Alison gave him all the support he needed, curtailing her teaching career. He continued to paint until the very end, ordering canvas the week before he died. He was modest by nature, always generous with his time and helping other artists. As one friend put it, he was “great fun to be with, extremely enthusiastic, considerate and always involved with others, both with their work and with themselves.”

He leaves Alison and their children, Jack, Amelia, Rowena and Phyllida, and eight grandchildren.

Leave a Comment