Colonel Thomas Thornton

JOHN RUSSELL RA (1745-1806)


Height - 36.00inch (91.44cm)
Width - 28.00inch (71.12cm)
Framed Height - 44.00inch (111.76cm)
Framed Width - 36.00inch (91.44cm)


Colonel Thomas Thornton






1745 – 1806
Oil on canvas 36 x 28 inches
Framed size 44 x 36 inches

Russell was born in Guildford, Surrey on 29 March 1745, the son of John Russell a book and print seller and four times mayor of Guildford. Russell was educated at Guildford Grammar School. He became interested in art and in 1759 and 1760 won premiums for his drawings at the Society of Artists of Great Britain. He went on to study crayon drawing with Francis Cotes until 1767. By the age of 19 he had converted to Methodism and was deeply religious, sometimes upsetting sitters by trying to convert them. On the 17 March 1770 he entered the RA Schools and was silver medalist the same year. Russell went on to exhibit 332 works at the Royal Academy and British Institution from 1768 until his death in 1806. In 1772 he was elected associate of the R.A and a full member in 1788. He married Hannah Faden, daughter of a Charing Cross print and map seller, (whom he had converted to Methodism) on 5 February 1770. They lived at No. 7 Mortimer Street, Cavendish Square. Russell's work caused him to travel extensively around Britain producing attractive crayon portraits and the occasional oil. In 1772, he published Elements of Painting with Crayons. In 1790, he was appointed Crayon Painter to King and the Prince of Wales and with such royal patronage he developed a large and fashionable clientele.
Russell painted the portraits of Dr William Dodd, Methodist minister, George Whitefield, William Wilberforce, Charles Wesley, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, John Wesley, royal physician Francis Willis amongst many members of nobility.
He was a keen astronomer and spent 20 years compiling a map of the moon, which for its time was remarkably accurate.
Russell was bequeathed a large estate in Dorking by his cousin in 1781; however after 1790 he worked mostly in Yorkshire. In 1803 he became deaf following an attack of cholera and died on 20 April 1806 in Hull after contracting typhus and is buried under the choir of Holy Trinity, Hull.
His son William Russell was also a portrait painter.

Works Represented: National Portrait Gallery London; Her Majesty the Queen; Tate, Hove Art Gallery; Petworth House NT; Clandon Park NT; Brighton Art Gallery; Leeds Art Gallery; Guildford Corporation; British Museum; Victoria & Albert Museum (his diaries)

Bibl: Dictionary of Portrait Painters - Brian Stewart & Meryvn Cutten

Provenance: With Leggatt Brothers, London
Farrouste Madrid
Leger Gallery London 1963
Private Estate U.S.A


Thomas Thornton was one of the great characters of the late 18th Century Britain and is remembered as the most prodigious sportsmen of his day.
The date of his birth is not actually recorded. The DNB records his birth as 1757 but more recent investigation gives a far more likely date of 1751 or 1752.
He was born in London to William Thornton of Thornville Royal (now Stourton) Yorkshire and his wife Mary (nee Myster) of Epsom Surrey.
William had an illustrious career as M.P for York and as a soldier who raised a militia against ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’ and his forces marching south.
On the death of his father in 1769, Thomas inherited a considerable fortune and Estates when he reached the age of maturity (21 years) recorded as being 1772.
At this point after his education at Charterhouse and Glasgow University he set about building Thornville Royal into the finest sporting Estate in England.
He revived the sport of Falconry and divided his time between his army commission but more often hunting, shooting, fishing and horse racing. It seems that around 1772 he was appointed Colonel in Chief of the West Riding Militia.
It is most likely that this portrait came about then because Thomas’s mother’s family came from Epsom, Surrey and would almost certainly have known the Russell family from nearby Guildford.
However the sitter and the artist would have had little in common, with Thornton a famous ‘Bon viveur’ and Russell a devout Methodist!
Thomas Thornton embarked on a life of controversy and high living.
He was fond of collecting a large retinue of fellow sportsman guides and artists then setting off on sporting expeditions starting in 1786 with his tour of the Scottish Highlands.
His name was linked with many young women but it is not until 1798 that a vivacious young woman called Alicia Massingham came to live at Thornville as mistress of the house. Locally called by many as ‘Mrs T’ she was a highly accomplished sportswoman and a very skilled horse racing jockey. Thomas won bets in private horse matches between Alicia and gentleman riders.
In his extraordinary life the Colonel made the acquaintance of many in the English nobility and then seemed to fall out with many of them including the Duke of York. He was a keen Francophile and visited France regularly and even petitioned Napoleon, whom he met whilst on a visit to France.
In 1806 the Colonel vacates Thornville Royal and moves variously to Bedfordshire, back to Yorkshire, to Spye Park, Wiltshire and also for a time in London.
He finally marries in 1806, Eliza Cawston of Mundon, Essex. (a wealthy heiress who revived Thomas’s flagging finances) and they had a son, William Thomas Thornton.
Colonel Thomas had become so fond of France he rented the Chateau Chambord and then purchased an estate in Pont Sur Seine. However the peak of the Napoleonic War meant he had to leave until after the Battle of Waterloo. He returned in 1817 but his application for French citizenship was refused.
Controversial to the end, the Colonel left most of his estate to his illegitimate daughter Thornvilla Diana Thornton. This was disputed by his legal heir and wife but the claim was rejected.
Thomas dies in Paris in 1823 some two years after the newspapers had ‘killed him off’.
He was friends with a great many people, particularly artists like Reynolds, Morland, Reinagle and George Barret. During his life he amassed a great sporting art collection which was mostly sold off in 1820.
This remarkable character wrote many essays and articles and had a song written about him. He was court-martialed from his regiment, arrested 20 times or more, was a frequent visitor to the Law Courts both in the dock and the witness box.
It is reported that he could jump his own height 5ft 9 inches from a stand start!

References: DNB
Colonel Thomas Thornton of Thornville Royal - John R. Swift

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