This painting depicts Lord William Russell, a partriot and martyr to the Whig cause, as he bids his family farewell prior to his execution in 1683. An active politician and opponent of the Catholic monarchy, Lord Russell was beheaded for his involvement in the Rye-House Plot to assissinate King Charles II and the Duke of York. At an earlier time, when introducing the Exclusion Bill in an attempt to ensure a Protestant succession, Lord Russell had prophetically declared, 'should I not have the liberty to live a Protestant, I am resolved to die one'.
The present painting is mentioned in two different letters written by the artist. In an undated letter to Henry Bone, Brown mentions that he has just completed the work. A second letter, dated 6 July 1830, reads, 'I have also painted the parting of Lord William Russell, with his family, but no relation of the family has purchased it, as I expected' (op. cit., p. 254). This comment refers to Brown's practice of executing portraits of well-known members of society without a commission as a means of adveritising his skill and gaining patronage. While an extremely successful tactic in first establishing his reputation, it proved to be rather costly during the last years of his career.