'Harry the Artist'

Portrait of the Artist

Harry was born Henry Gerald Russell on July the 3rd, 1911 in West Ham, London.   After a pretty full life, he died on November 11 1992, at the age of eighty one.

Most of his life he preferred the name Harry, although his father was a Henry too, Henry James, who was killed in action with the British Expeditionary Force in France, while serving with the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, on September 1916. Harry, his mother and two younger sisters, Phyliss and Iris, moved from Woodhouse Road in Leytonstone to Canvey Island in Essex shortly after the war and ran a small cafe on the seawall at Small Gains Creek, the centre of small boat activity for Canvey at the time.   She met and married Albert Mcrerie not long after and Harry’s childhood was spent in the then green and pleasant land of Canvey, itself a holiday resort for exhausted Londoners.   The Mcreries had property on Canvey, several plots in Benham road. There were three dwellings and a shop on the plot, the White house, the Red house and the Cabin – a part converted railway carriage – quite a popular base for early dwellings on Canvey. I think his step sister Helen and step brother Peter were born then, though later they moved to Percy Road in Hampton, around the time of the second world war.

He joined the Sea Scouts and was swept up into the second world war in the Royal Navy, where he served on a variety of destroyers and warships, mostly doing escort duty to Russia and across the Atlantic. He clearly started painting before the war and continued on through the mayhem, as some of his works show.  His nature was to draw and paint for others as well as himself and he probably gave away many sketches of the wartime.

The war effectively destroyed the potential development of any proper career for Harry, as it did for so many others, and he decided to be re-skilled as a bricklayer before being demobilised in 1945.  He mentioned later to me that he felt he had little choice as he had not much idea then of what else he could do and there was sure to be plenty of work for builders. Adult education was not them what it is now and a bad choice could not be undone.   He made the best of it and became well known by the building community for fast, accurate and dependable work, and as a perfectionist. Many buildings still standing in Benfleet and Canvey were created or improved by his efforts.  Probably the best example stands just beyond the top of Essex way, at the house that used to be owned by Jack Purle, where he made many many modifications.

Bricklaying, while satisfying in many ways, was not enough and he started to develop his painting skills, eventually successfully submitting for a few glorious years to the Summer showing of the Beecroft Art Gallery in Southend. He never gained any formal recognition however, as a member of the various London Marine artists societies, which he found disappointing as his friend and trainee artist, Vic Ellis, did become a member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists. Later in life he joined the Hadleigh Arts and Crafts Society to much mutual satisfaction.  With a keen sense of the unique nature of that part of Essex , his many sketches show buildings and sights long forgotten, but which generally capture a rural, seaside atmosphere showing a local character much more attractive than today after so much building and industry has overtaken the area.

Chapman Lighthouse

He became intensely interested in Thames Sailing Barges and the life and times of the old Chapman Sands Lighthouse as well as studying all the shipping that gave life to the river going past Canvey.  His papers contain many snippets of detail about the Chapman light, its construction and history, and of course he did many paintings and sketches over the years.   After he left the Navy, he lived for a time in the Cabin in Benham road and then a houseboat at Benfleet. He moved to the top of Vicarage hill at Berrymede, living as a lodger with the Robinson family for many years, before finally settling down to 67 Hall farm Road.  In spite of gathering a large family around himself, he really only knew four women well, His mother Gwen, His Aunt Ethel, my mother Edith Head of Canvey Island whom he met before the war, and Doris Wright whom he met in Benfleet in the fifties.   He was and is held in great affection by his family and his friends as well as people of only nodding acquaintance, as a familiar figure in Benfleet, especially at ‘The Anchor’ and ‘The Hoy and Helmet’ Pubs.

His building career came to an end when he refused finally to do sub-standard work for the company that was building the new University of Essex at Wivenhoe.  Possessed of a healthy temper, as we youngsters knew well, he walked off the job and subsequently had only spasmodic and unsatisfactory employment with the Basildon corporation, after a spell as handyman at Jack Purle’s Yard in Rayleigh.  The remainder of his life was devoted to bringing up his family and painting in oils for small commissions.  One perceptive individual, Lawrence of the old Art gallery and shop in Southend, called Harry ‘One of the best primitive painters in this part of England’  It was only when he explained that the famous Grandma Moses was described the same way by the global art community, that Harry realised he had been paid a compliment.

Comments about this page

  • Harry Russell was my step-father and I remember he had boxes of sketches and paintings in the cupboard under our stairs in Hall Farm Road in Benfleet. He painted several of the homecoming of the Royal yacht Britannia after the Queen’s world tour in 53/54 when it passed the Chapman Light.

    He also created a book of sketches of the Chapman Light complete with a long poem describing its history. Lost I expect but it would be great if it were to surface again as the Light was such an integral part of Canvey Island’s 20th Century history.

    By Bill Wright (05/10/2009)
  • Harry stayed with us many years ago here on Long Island USA.
    He did some work building a small veggie plot with a low 3 ft wall around it.
    The rabbits soon learned how to jump over it and still do.
    He painted a picture of our dog and house.
    He liked to roll his own cigarettes by hand and would not buy the then very low priced brands here.
    He would always attract stares and once or twice requests for one from strangers ,this was at the time of the youth revolution going on from California to Woodstock in NY.
    It was very funny to watch a youngster inhale and choke on his favorite smoke.
    Our 18 year old mastiff still is with us with this wonderful image he captured. K and L

    By pepperidge1139@aol.com (05/10/2009)
  • Well what can I say; Harry was my Dad, when I was younger apparently I was the ‘apple of his eye’. He nick-named me Flossie and LuLu, I think the latter was after a song ‘Dont bring Lulu’.

    I always imagined that I should have been a boy as I spent many hours with my father whilst he was building at various locations. Many happy memories of playing in Mr and Mrs Purles garden and sharing his sandwiches and coffee in the shed that overlooked an unspoilt and unbuilt up section of Benfleet. I wonder what this view is now??

    He would get up early and carry me on his shoulders over to Canvey towards the fields adjacent to the Dutch cottage museum to pick the early morning mushrooms. The air would have been fresh and crisp back then and the view was wide open spaces. He would sing and create ditties aloud which were usually followed by raspberry blowing noises. He showed me how to pick the reed grass and hold it between my hands and blow on it to make a whistling sound; I was never that good at it.

    I would get rides around our garden in the wheelbarrow, He built us a ‘Platform’ an early more robust version of what you find in todays parks, He gave us sand to play with and my brother and I spent hours making mud pies. He made us super dooper go karts and extra large sledges for when winters were winters.

    He wrote me poems to keep me amused when I had to spend time in Hospital, and these were accompanied by silly sketches. I still have the poem about Dan the Tortoise who got his head stuck in a watering can. My happy list goes on.

    Sadly when my mother departed for pastures new part of him went with her; He never got over her loss. She found happiness of a different kind and he found my resemblance to her a stab in the heart.

    Many years later when I had children of my own I began to understand how much he had actually done for me. We did, I think make up for lost time in the end and he thought the world of my offspring. They may have been young when he died but they all have their memories of him. My eldest son David, even used his Grandfathers image in a piece of artwork for his GCSE’s, and they have all in their own ways inherited some of his artistic talent.

    I am also lucky enough to be in possession of several of his pictures which cover the walls in my home. One day these will pass onto my children and hopefully onto their children. And so ‘Harry’ will live on.

    I have loads I could tell, but maybe when I find the time I can put this all down in book form!!

    By Christine James (05/10/2009)
  • i have just been informed of these pictures that were painted by my Step Grandad or Hairy Grandad as we called him because of his white prikly beard. So i thought that i should also add some of my memories with him, all good i have to say, he always had time for us and would happily sit and talk to us in his back room where he used to paint and do his pencil drawings.
    When ever we visited there would be a chocolate biscuit or a few pennies waiting.
    When i had my own daughter i was lucky enough that he did an oil painting of her which i treasure. Also when he passed away we were given a choice of a painting which hangs with pride in my home and a constant reminder of him. Its a shame i never picked up any artistic tips while being with him, im afraid my only talent is stick men but you never know!
    he also could tell you a great deal about the history of Benfleet and Canvey always very helpful when doing school projects.
    still very much missed.

    By caroline Nicholls (23/12/2009)
  • My name is Lynn Karen L’eglise née Prevett and my sister is Celia Fraces Lorenz we are Harry’s nieces our lovely mum was Iris Diana Russell. Uncle Harry was such a big part of our life when we were young as mum would take us down to Canvey when we were very young and we stayed at The Cabin in Benham Road at Uncle Harry’s which was a huge adventure for us as we always stayed there after that until the Cabin was sold even my two eldest son’s enjoyed the company of dear Harry it is a shame my youngest son never met him thankfully Jeremy and Peter still have photos of us in the garden at The Cabin with Harry Aunt Ethel Auntie Phyllis Uncle Peter and myself with my boys and they loved it on the beach. I have many old photos from our teenage years but this year we managed to get down to Canvey for two days to try and catch up with our cousin Lesley and her husband but they were away. But we did manage to go to The Heritage centre at St Catherine’s where our mum is buried she died suddenly at the age of sixty four in nineteen eighty and I wrote about her in the Canvey magazine as she loved the Island. I have not seen Simon or Peter or Christine for years so I hope that they read this as I send them all my love and hope that they are all well Thank God my
    Peter found Uncle Harry’s website as it has brought me many lovely memories.

    By Lynn Karen L'eglise (30/08/2021)

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