After his schooling at Eton he spent time visiting gardens in England and on the Continent, before going to Cambridge where he intended to read botany. Instead, at the outbreak of WWII he was commissioned into the Herefordshire Yeomanry. He was, however, invalided out in 1942. In 1939 his father, Major Herbert Russell, and cousin, Mr Hamilton-Smith had acquired Sunningdale Nurseries, Surrey, from Sir Hubert Longman. The nursery was renowned for its huge number of rhododenron species, but it had become derelict. It had begun as Standish and Noble, in 1846. James Russell resumed his career in plants and gardening and began to revive and reorganise the nursery in 1944 to its former glory as 'The most beautiful nursery in Britain'. Some of the rhododendrons at the nursery had been introduced by Joseph Hooker from an expedition to Sikkim. Also much of Robert Fortune's Japanese collections were to be found here. Descendants of these plants, through vegetative propagation were used in the recreation of Ray Wood at Castle Howard. He also bought much of the stock from Hillier's Nurseries, in Hampshire, who had the largest commercial stock of woody plants in Europe, when they decided to curtail their range, this too helped the beginning of the Arboretum at Castle Howard, created by James Russell and George Howard in 1979.
It was in 1950 he had his first commission to design a landscape for his old school friend, Lord Hastings at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland. This garden still exists today. (2009). James Russell was not a man to court publicity, so his commissions came more by word of mouth, or by viewing the gardens or the nursery first hand. Many of his clients were old school friends and he was much in demand. There is very little reference to fees charged to clients, as this was more by way of a gentleman's agreement, and often paid on an 'ad hoc' basis. Graham Stuart Thomas, aurhor and rosarian joined the nursery in 1956, on a part-time basis to run this side of things, for the next 15 years. James Russell, who had specialised in rhodoendron species and unusual shrubs, now with Graham Stuart Thomas also specialised in Old Roses.
In 1968, following a disagreement with his cousin, the business was sold to Waterers. It was after this he moved into The Old Dairies at Castle Howard, where he was to become the resident horticultural consultant, for George Howard, another great friend from his Eton days. It was at this time he brought his collections from the nursery north, to Castle Howard, which were to form the basis of the planting both in Ray Wood and The Arboretum. He also developed the Rose Garden, with one part old roses and another with modern varieties, within the Walled Garden at Castle Howard in 1975. It was at Castle Howard he furthered his interest in Exotic Plants which need protection, creating a tropical garden in a disused pump chamber and a large tomato house. Initially, clients invited him to make tropical gardens for them too, but then with the rise in the price of oil, many clients could no longer afford to commission such extravagances.
In 1985 he went on a plant hunting expedition to Guizhou, a province of Western China which had previously been closed. John Simmons, the then curator of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and friend of James Russell led the expedition. On his retirement from Kew Simmons became the first curator of The Arboretum Trust at Castle Howard in 1997.
As well as over 200 designs for various clients, James Russell was commissioned to design of the roof garden of the Wiggins Teape office block in Basingstoke. In 1987 he had been invited to plant rhododendrons in the Akagi Nature Park, Japan, by Hideo Suzuki, who was the Honarary Advisor for the Park.
James Russell was much in demand amongst his wide circle of friends, not only for his gardening expertise but also for his company.
Source of information: Legg, Katrina, The Archive of James Russell , Garden Designer, (The Borthwick Institute, University of York, 2003)