painter and graphic artist, was born in Sydney on 18 January 1909, third daughter of Francis Alfred Alison Russell, a barrister, and Lillian, née Salter, who had studied art with Mary Stoddard . Elsa gained her intermediate certificate at Abbotsleigh School. She studied drawing for a year at East Sydney Technical College but was unable to continue for financial reasons. She attended Dattilo Rubbo 's painting and drawing classes on a casual basis in 1932-34; fellow students included Alison Rehfisch and Donald Friend . She recalls that Rubbo provided 'a welcome European influence in the Sydney art scene’.

World War II changed her life. As a member of the Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force in 1942-45, Russell worked as a driver at Uranquinty, a Service Flying Training School about twenty-four kilometres south of Wagga Wagga. In addition, she refuelled aircraft and issued petrol. She also made time to sketch fellow WAAAFs and draw caricatures of officers at the base. In 1946-47, under the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme, she returned to East Sydney Tech. and studied life drawing under Godfrey Miller.

Elsa always had the ability to capture movement and life. A chance meeting with Phillip Wirth of Wirth’s Circus in 1950 inspired her to sketch the performers and the horses going through their paces in the early morning. She spent the following year drawing and painting the Borovansky Ballet Company, also in Sydney. These works were shown in 1951 in the foyers of His Majesty’s Theatres in Sydney and Melbourne in an exhibition shared with Dora Jarret and Piers Bourke. Her first solo exhibition opened at David Jones Art Gallery in 1952; Character from a Ballet and The Fowlyard were selected by the Contemporary Art Society for their annual interstate exhibition. In 1955 she travelled overseas and made a series of paintings of the Cirque de Medrano, Paris, and the Mills of Olympia Circus, London. She survived by teaching English and by selling her art through Galerie Herve. These drawings are vital and brisk and the paintings employ bold colour.

Family commitments drew Russell back to Sydney in 1956. She attended a sketch club in Cremona Court, Phillip Street, where her sister Audrey, a watercolourist, and Sheila McDonald had studios. For a short time Elsa ran a taxi-truck service transporting art for friends. In 1960 she drew and painted the Luisillo Spanish Dance Troupe in Sydney and made posters for them. She captured the excitement of the track in her painting At the Races that won the Tumut Art Prize in 1961. During the 1970s she exhibited with her sister Audrey at the Barefoot Gallery, Avalon. In 1986-87 she participated in the Australian Watercolour Institute’s annual exhibition; the Woolloomooloo Gallery held a retrospective of her work in 1989 and Artarmon Galleries held what proved to be a “tribute” exhibition from her family and friends in December 1997.

Although art was central to Elsa Russell’s life, she had a passion for music and played the piano as a child. She made regular trips from her Turramurra home to sketch in the bush and some of her later work dealt with the protection of native fauna, on which topic she designed posters. Russell had laughing, brown eyes and even when her hair was white remained as lively and lucid as she must have been when young. Her Anglican faith remained strong until her death on 25 November 1997. Artarmon Galleries gave her a retrospective exhibition, held 11-20 December 1997.

Littley, Samantha Note: Heritage biography.
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