Hidden Aeons: Searching for a Literary Relic

Dictionary of Religion

“Ce qu’on aime le mieux dans Yeats, ce sont ses vers. Mais le chef-d’œuvre d’A.E., qui est un grand artiste, c’est encore lui-même.” – Simone Téry

The poet, painter, political philosopher, and mystic George William Russell (1867-1935)—better known as “A.E.”—was no stranger to divine visions and secret wisdom. Often he oracled out of his shadow these revelations to friends and fellow writers: how he bore witness to a “dazzling processions of figures, most ancient, ancient places and peoples, and landscapes lovely as the lost Eden”; or how in his youth the “rock and clay were made transparent so that I saw lovelier and lordlier beings than I had known before and was made partner in memory of mighty things, happenings in ages long sunken behind me”. Even Russell’s pen-name—“A.E.”, an esoteric sigil imbued with cosmic mystery as much as it is a nom de plume—came to him in a moment of transcendental significance.

In his Memoir of A.E. (1937), John Eglinton—pen-name of William Kirkpatrick Magee, who worked for the National Library of Ireland from 1904-1921—recounts the origin of A.E.’s pseudonym:

He began to paint his visions, and had been attempting an ambitious series of pictures on the history of man, in one of which he “tried to imagine the apparition in the Divine Mind of the idea of the Heavenly Man”, when, as he lay awake considering what legend he should write under the picture, something whispered to him “call it the Birth of Aeon”. Next day the entire myth “incarnated in me as I walked along the roads near Armagh”.

George_William_Russell_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19028A.E. continues his story of self-genesis in his chapter on “Imagination” in The Candle of Vision (1918), describing the effects of this epiphany:

The word “Aeon” thrilled me, for it seemed to evoke by association of ideas, moods and memories most ancient, out of some ancestral life where they lay hidden; and I think it was the following day that, still meditative and clinging to the word as a lover clings to the name of the beloved, a myth incarnated in me.

That day an awareness embedded itself in the fervent mind of the adolescent. Not long after, Russell experienced another event that would transform the young man from Lurgan into Ireland’s visionary poet of the Celtic Revival:

I returned to Dublin after a fortnight and it was a day or two after that I went into the Library at Leinster House and asked for an art journal. I stood by a table while the attendant searched for the volume. There was a book lying open there. My eye rested on it. It was a dictionary of religions, I think, for the first word my eye cause was “Aeon” and it was explained as a word used by the Gnostics to designate the first created beings. I trembled through my body.

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Unfortunately neither Eglinton’s account, nor A.E.’s are given dates. However, that Russell initially requested an art journal is not surprising. From October 1883 until the summer of 1885, he was enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in Kildare Street; and from 1885 until 1887, he attended evening sessions affiliated to the Royal Hibernian Academy. The building that housed the Metropolitan School of Art, now non-extant, at the time stood across the road from the library. The National Library of Ireland currently (and appropriately) houses a substantial archive of A.E.’s manuscripts, letters, and artworks—all accessible to the public. Go see A.E.’s papers if you have the opportunity.

At the time of A.E.’s now mythic revelation, the National Library was located in Leinster House, presently occupied by the Houses of the Oireachtas. In September 1890, the collection was relocated to the north wing of Leinster House, an extension added to the central structure in the late-nineteenth century, where it remains to this day. This is where I found myself one afternoon doing research for Swan River Press’s anniversary edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems.

While the old catalogue remains available—tall, tattered books with pleasantly loose hinges lining the shelves just inside the reading room—the modern catalogue can be accessed online or via the computer terminals adjacent their analogue ancestors. That afternoon I had a revelation of my own. It seemed a reasonable assumption that not only would A.E.’s “dictionary of religion” still be in the library’s collection, but I should also be able to call it up from the stacks.

I conducted a search for book titles containing the words “dictionary of religion” published between the years 1780 and 1890. Among the results I found two possibilities.

The first was A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion (Trübner, 1879) by John Dowson. Given A.E.’s life-long reverence for the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Theosophy, and the eastern religions, this book seemed a sound likelihood, and so I put in a request to see it. There is, however, no entry for “Æon” to be found in this volume.

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Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The other option was the aptly titled Dictionary of Religion (Cassell, 1887) edited by the Rev. William Benham, B.D., F.S.A., Canon of Canterbury; and Rev. J.H. Blunt (the latter editor indicated only in the preface and by an emendation lightly pencilled in on the title page). This book is described in the library’s catalogue as “An Encyclopaedia of Christian and other Religious Doctrines, Denominations, Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Terms, History, Biography, etc. etc.” I scribbled the call number (203 b1) onto the slip and waited for the book to arrive. I took a desk in the reading room and switched on the green-shaded Emeralite lamp.

What the porter brought out was a thick octavo, cleanly bound in black leather with gold lettering on the spine. I thumbed through the leaves until I reached page sixteen. The first bolded-black word that my eye rested on was at the very top of the page. I trembled through my body:

Æon.—An “eternal being”; the name given to the “emanations” from the Supreme Being in the Gnostic system.

Could this be not only the book that Russell chanced upon, but even the actual copy? The entry for “Æon” was there, the definition similar to what he later recalled, and it was published in the late-1880s while Russell was still an art student—this all seemed to fit my theory. But what other information could I find?

The National Library’s copy of The Dictionary of Religion bears three purple stamps, two of which are topped by a royal crown. The first bears the date “26 AUG 87”, an accession stamp indicating the library acquired the volume on 26 August 1887. The preface by Benham is dated March 1887, and so the book was probably published during late spring or early summer of that year.

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Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The second stamp, also under a crown, reads “BOUND 22 APR 92”; while in the downward horseshoe design of the third stamp is printed “BOUND 25 JUN. 1900”. A duty librarian confirmed that these latter two stamps indicate the book was twice rebound.

I left the library that afternoon pleased that I had found and held in my hands a unique volume, one that rested inconspicuously in the stacks of the National Library for well over a century. A book which I hoped might be removed from the general collection and re-catalogued with the A.E. manuscripts in special collections. A book that seemed to me most definitely a literary relic. Alas, this elation would last only until I got home to my own library, and from these otherwise faithful volumes a single uncertainty emerged . . .

A.E.’s own recollection in The Candle of Vision wasn’t published until 1918, but that evening I found a reference to a more contemporary account of the burgeoning artist’s chance discovery in a letter to fellow esoteric explorer Carrie Rea:

I was thinking of what would be the sound for the most primeval thought I could think and the word “aön” passed into my head. I was afterwards surprised at finding out that the Gnostics of the Christian Era called the first created being “Æons” and that the Indian word for the commencement of all things is Aom.

This extract is from a letter dated December 1886, and appears as a footnote on page fourteen in Henry Summerfield’s highly-recommended biography of A.E., That Myriad Minded Man (1975). If the date on this letter is correct, then it predates the publication of Benham’s Dictionary of Religion by some five or six months. Although A.E. does not mention a “dictionary of religion” in this extract, or even the arcane happenstance in the National Library, he does imply that he was already familiar with the definition of the word “Æon”.

wby017What to make of this?

My wholly unsubstantiated intuition tells me that A.E. did in fact consult Benham’s Dictionary of Religion, and that later recollections were an intentional conflation of events for the purpose of self-mythologising—something of which his kindred soul W.B. Yeats was also guilty. It is also perhaps significant that A.E. became acquainted with Yeats in mid-1884 while attending the Metropolitan School of Art. The two became deeply imbued with esoteric thinking—cf. Summerfield, “The two young men would discuss such subjects as the nature of the cosmic sounds that stimulated the growth of mushrooms.” Such an embellishment of one’s own origin of character, as detailed by A.E., must have seemed natural and indeed even appealing.

But as evidenced in the letter to Rea, A.E. must have come across the word “Æon” much earlier than he would lead us to believe thirty years later in The Candle of Vision. His happening upon Benham’s Dictionary of Religion in the National Library, while still possibly by chance, might nevertheless have led to an intentional, if idle, looking-up of “Æon” while waiting for that art journal.

I hasten to add, if I am correct, that this does not dismiss in any way the epiphany or inspired choice to focus on “Æon” as his true name. After all, Æon seems to have been embedded in his psyche much earlier, and should not diminish A.E.’s National Library experience in any way.

So perhaps the recounting in The Candle of Vision was a conscious attempt at streamlining or telescoping a personal mythology? I have not yet been able to locate the original manuscript of the Rea letter—but I wouldn’t mind verifying the date and reading the rest of it just to be sure.

Curiously this letter to Rea is not included in Letters from A.E. (1961) edited by the meticulous scholar Alan Denson. The earliest missive collected in Denson’s book signed as “AE” (instead of “Geo. W. Russell”) was written to Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, which A.E. later formally joined. Though dated 6 November 1888, it appeared in the December 1888 issue of Lucifer, the society’s monthly journal edited by Blavatsky, and is generally considered the first time Russell used his new identity in print.

A second letter to Blavatsky signed “A.E.”, apparently written in December 1888, appeared in the January 1889 issue. But Summerfield notes that it wasn’t until February 1893, following his admission to the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric Section, that Russell started using his pen-name regularly, perhaps then recognising fully the power and significance of his two chosen letters.

Although Russell initially preferred the diphthong—“Æ”—typesetters persistently divided the letters—“A.E.” Ultimately Russell accepted this easier transcription. He both signed himself with the letters separated, and published the majority of his books using the latter rendering.

Russell’s first volume of poetry, Homeward, Songs by the Way, appeared in 1894 under the name A.E. So too did his second collection of verse, The Earth Breath (1897), his social commentary The Dublin Strike (1913), his political volume The National Being (1916), and so on. A.E. continued to use this sacred identity, his “true face”, not only to sign his poetry, but also his paintings, books, political pamphlets, letters to newspaper editors and friends alike, etc. etc. Whatever may or may not have occurred in the National Library in the 1880s, one thing is for certain: George William Russell had become A.E.

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By 1925, the prescient French journalist Simone Téry observed:

Have you doubts regarding Providence, the origin of the universe and its end? Go see A.E.—Are you seeking information on Gaelic literature, the Celtic soul, Irish history? Go see A.E.—Are you interested in painting? Go see A.E.—Do you want to know the exports of eggs . . . or how best to cultivate bees? Go see A.E.—Do you find society badly run, and want to better it? Run to A.E.’s . . . You doubt yourself? Find life insipid? A.E. will give you confidence, will comfort you.—Do you need a friend? A.E. is always there. (L’Île des bardes, trans. R.M. Kain)

But by the close of the twentieth century, A.E. had been reduced in popular memory to little more than a footnote in Ulysses. In episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis”, Joyce refers to Russell as “A.E.I.O.U.”, a playful allusion to the bearded sage of Dublin as much as to Joyce’s debt to A.E. for publishing his first stories in The Irish Homestead, stories which were later collected in Dubliners.

Yet despite all this, the name A.E. is still imbued with a certain magic, a presence that gathers around it the like-minded, drawing with a natural magnetism, ears straining to hear old traces of the new songs of Ireland. And just as they did during his lifetime, readers, historians, writers, mystics, activists, poets, students, journalists, organisers, politicians, artists, and the open-minded are still discovering kinship in A.E. and his works.

As for me, I still have one lingering question: Did I find the right book in the National Library? I have further theories, and you’re more than welcome to ask me about them some day. But if you’re looking for an answer now . . . Go see A.E.

This article originally appeared on the Irish Times website on 10 April 2017.


Selected PoemsSwan River Press’s deluxe hardback edition of Selected Poems, in celebration of A.E.’s 150th birth anniversary, is now available on our website www.swanriverpress.ie.

If you’d like to read more about A.E., please see our previous post here.

You might also be interested in A.E.’s short essay, “The Making of Poetry”, which you can read here.

And don’t forget to check out our journal The Green Book (Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature), past issues of which have featured A.E. and his work.


Hidden Aeons: Searching for a Literary Relic

A.E.—An Appreciation and a Remembrance

16110271661_2The following article by Fred Henderson was first published in the Eastern Daily Press (Norwich) on 19 July 1935, just two days after A.E.’s death. We reprint it here on the cusp of A.E.’s 150th birth anniversary.


Most of the papers to-day, in announcing the death of the famous Irish poet, George Russell—better known to the lovers of beauty in literature all the world over as “A.E.”—make some appraisement of his work, and most of them might easily convey to the reader an impression which is quite inaccurate. It is probably not intended, but when we are told that “fairyland was Russell’s spiritual home, and in his edition of collected poems there is reflected a spirit of calm, perfect in its serenity,” the ordinary reader might very easily take “fairyland” to indicate the ineffectual dreamer in literature. And nothing could be further from the truth about Russell than that. Of the calm serenity of his outlook on the future of humanity there is no question. I have never met any man more serenely confident about the assured triumph of beauty in human life and human associations, or less perturbed by all the evidence to the contrary which our present squalors and the ugliness of a world spending its resources on providing itself with teeth and claws for its barbarian quarrels presents to us. But his serenity was not the vague hope of a poetic dreamer. It was based on a profound philosophy and knowledge of the deeper things stirring in the world’s life “under the measureless grossness and the slag.” Russell was a practical man, if ever there was one; practical as only the man with a great vision and purpose can be. His work with Horace Plunkett in the building up of the co-operative movement in Irish agriculture should be sufficient evidence of that.

I had the great privilege recently of spending a fortnight in seclusion with him on his return home from America. I missed him by only a few days at Washington where he had been visiting the Agricultural Department of the Federal Government and studying the projects which were being worked out there under the Roosevelt administration; and I had no idea when I went on board the Aurania homeward bound that he was returning by the same boat. But we came across one another before we got out of New York Harbour, and my remembrance of the rest of the voyage is mainly a remembrance of George Russell. It was a voyage of incessant storm, thirteen days out from New York before we landed in London. There were few passengers on board; and for the three most violent days of storm we had the deck pretty much to ourselves, watching the magnificence of the great seas, and talking together over the whole range of human interests and world affairs. The charm of the man; his soft musical Irish voice; his genius for discerning the tidal movements in human affairs under the foam and uproar of the surface—I treasure the remembrance of those days, and more than ever now that one knows that it was the last period of spiritual expansion in the setting of the elemental natural movement of the wild sea and sky which he loved that life was to give him. I wonder whether if now he knows the word which we spend an hour trying to discover one afternoon when a great sunburst, with a hundred shafts of light moving with the movement of the scattering clouds, turned the welter of the mountainous seas into a wild glory, and we flung line after attempted line at one another in the effort to picture it and express its movement, and found it inexpressible.

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Courtesy of Martin Hayes

I am happy in having not only the memory of that fortnight of a great companionship, but a tangible evidence of Russell’s infinite variety in pursuit of the beauty which he loved. On the morning of our landing at London he brought me a copy of one of his books. “Let me,” he said, “inscribe it in my own way as a remembrance of the time we’ve had together”; and thereupon sat down in a deck chair, took a box of coloured crayons from his pocket, and in about ten minutes sketched in on the title page a drawing of a piece of mountainous sea coast, “The coast at my home in Donegal.” His last piece of work, I imagine, as an artist in colours as well as in words.

It was easy to understand, on such an intimacy with him, the deep and almost devotional affection in which people of all parties in Ireland regarded George Russell. It was not only what he wrote or what he painted, nor even what he did in the active movements of Irish life; the man himself was an inspiration.


IMG_1604Swan River Press’s deluxe hardback edition of Selected Poems, in celebration of A.E.’s 150th birth anniversary, is now available on our website www.swanriverpress.ie.

If you’d like to read more about A.E., please see our previous post here.

You might also be interested in A.E.’s short essay, “The Making of Poetry”, which you can read here.

And don’t forget to check out our journal The Green Book (Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature), past issues of which have featured A.E. and his work.

A.E.—An Appreciation and a Remembrance

George William Russell, AE (1867-1935)

2031_o_george_william_russellOn Friday I decided to go to Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross, just one neighbourhood over from Rathmines, to pay respect to George William Russell (1867-1935), better known by his spiritual name “AE” (short for Aeon; simultaneously the mortal incarnation of the Logos and the representation of the immortal self). AE was a great man of a great many talents: poet, painter, novelist, economist, editor, critic, mystic, pacifist, patriot, literary facilitator, visionary—he was once (and rightfully) called “That myriad-minded man” by Archbishop Gregg (also the title of Henry Summerfield’s excellent biography). AE is largely overlooked today, perhaps because he was never recognised as a master of just one discipline. But, as AE might have joyfully observed, employing his favourite line from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I contain multitudes.”

The occasion of my visit to the cemetery on 10 April was in celebration of AE’s birth in 1867. Though buried in Dublin, AE was an Ulsterman born in Lurgan, a small town in County Armagh. His family moved to Dublin in 1878, and in 1880 he attended the Metropolitan School of Art on Kildare Street where he met his lifelong friend (and occasional antagonist) W.B. Yeats. In their early days both AE and Yeats were explorers of the esoteric, but where Yeats gravitated towards the occult and the totalitarian, AE’s interests lay in the theosophic teachings of Madame Blavatsky, not to mention he was of a considerably more democratic mindset. AE originally dedicated his novel The Avatars (1933) “To W.B. Yeats, my oldest friend and enemy”, but shortly before publication shortened it: “To W.B. Yeats”.

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As a young man in the 1890s, AE lived in the Theosophical Society Lodge at 3 Ely Place (just a block off St. Stephen’s Green) where his mystical murals still adorn the walls. Not far from Ely Place is 84 Merrion Square, where a memorial plaque for AE can be found. It was in the upper offices of this Georgian house that AE edited the Irish Homestead (and later the Irish Statesman), the journal for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society founded by Sir Horace Plunkett (uncle of Lord Dunsany—another of AE’s many friends). For a time Yeats lived at 82 Merrion Square, and the above cartoon entitled “Chin-angles: Or, How the Poets Passed Each Other” illustrates the anecdote of how Yeats and AE both went to visit the other, only to find they’d passed each other on the street without notice. A bust of AE can be found nearby in Merrion Square Park, head tilted as in the cartoon.

10631134_10203627790752954_1851163487122397552_oAs I left my own house that morning, chin tucked against my chest, I noticed on the floor a large envelope that had been pushed through the mail slot. It contained a wonderfully synchronistic gift from that gentleman-publisher Colin Smythe: a hand-bound letterpress chapbook entitled Memories of AE by Dorothy Moulton-Mayer. I had often wondered how AE might take to certain people, and long ago concluded that he and Algernon Blackwood might have got on quite well. It was with great delight that, according to Moulton-Mayer, AE had indeed read Blackwood—she had spied a copy of The Centaur on his table during a visit. I should have known! Though had AE not read Blackwood, this is the novel I would first have lent him. Moulton-Mayer also apparently knew Arthur Machen, though I don’t suppose we’ll ever know now if she discussed the Welshman with AE. But something tells me the latter had read him nevertheless.

With this illuminating Blackwood connection in mind, I set off west towards Mount Jerome. Around the corner from my own residence once stood AE’s home on Mountpleasant Avenue, where he started writing The House of the Titans (a long poem he wouldn’t finish until late in life). While this house on Mountpleasant is no longer standing, his first home at 6 Castlewood Terrace is, and I passed by it just a few minutes later. However, AE’s house at 17 Rathgar10624061_10203778411878388_7237812060711842277_o Avenue, which is perhaps the home for which he is most remembered, still stands and boasts a worthy memorial plaque. During the early 20th century, this house became a Mecca for poets, politicians, novelists, artists, and various other thinkers, all seeking AE’s conversation, advice, and ever-genial hospitality: Padraic Colum, Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, Frank O’Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Susan Mitchell, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Jack Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, Lord Dunsany, Sean O’Casey, L.A.G. Strong, Katherine Tynan, George Moore, J.M. Synge, Countess Markievicz, Francis Ledwige, Hugh Lane . . . the list is as ridiculously noteworthy as it is long. And to the twenty-year-old James Joyce, who arrived unannounced one midnight in 1902 clutching a fresh manuscript, AE said, “Young man, there is not enough chaos in your mind to create a world.” Afterwards he wrote to Lady Gregory about the visit, ” . . . [Joyce] sat with me up to 4 a.m. telling me of the true inwardness of things from his point of view.” AE eventually published three of Joyce’s stories that would later be collected in Dubliners, while Joyce went on to portray AE in Ulysses (“A.E.I.O.U.”).

Continuing across Rathmines I cut through Leinster Square and passed the former home of James Stephens (AE’s friend and protégé, and a man who definitely associated with Machen). “He inclined to sit on the top of the morning all day,” wrote Stephens of his friend’s demenour. The arrival of the chapbook earlier in the morning wouldn’t be the only fortuitous moment that day. Towards the end of Leinster cidImage_FOT876ARoad I decided to take a shortcut down a particularly rundown alleyway where I came across some graffiti that I think I will allow to speak for itself.

Finally Mount Jerome, with its familiar flower vendors and the red-faced man in top hat and walking stick greeting visitors at the gate. I bought a bouquet for a fiver. It was the least I could do. Naturally along the way I also stopped to visit an old friend, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I pulled the spring weeds from his recently restored vault and admired the memorial plaque his friends and family erected in his honour last summer.

IMG_0004At last I arrived at the modest grave of the man born George William Russell. In 1933, after the deaths of his wife Violet and his lifelong friend Horace Plunkett, and the recent formation of Éamon de Valera’ s government (“I curse that man as generations of Irishmen to come will curse him—the man who destroyed our country”), AE sold his house in Rathgar, left Ireland, and eventually settled in England after a lengthy lecturing tour of America.

“Dublin’s Glittering Guy” (as O’Casey once described AE) breathed his last on 10 July 1935 in a nursing home in Bournemouth. Though Yeats had not come (and only telegraphed after a long silence), Gogarty was at his bedside, as was P.L. Travers, AE’s nurse and secretary in his final days. His body was laid out at the offices in 84 Merrion Square, and a procession more than a mile long passed through Rathmines before arriving at Mount Jerome.

Here at the graveside, where I now stood, once were assembled, beside many others, AE’s son Diarmuid, his political foe President de Valera, ex-President W.T. Cosgrave, W.B. Yeats, and Frank O’Connor, who delivered the oration. The most extravagant offering of flowers came from a woman who was once a servant in the Russell household. On being questioned on the costliness of her gift, she declared “I would have died for him.”

I’d brought along my copy of AE’s Selected Poems, published shortly before his death in 1935. In the brief preface, the poet wrote, “If I should be remembered I would like it to be for the verses in this book. They are my choice out of the poetry I have written.” And from this selection I read:

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Should you ever come to Ireland, there are many places you can visit to celebrate AE’s life and works, a good few of which I’ve already listed. The Hugh Lane Gallery often has one of his paintings on display, and a trip to Lissadell House in County Sligo is a must: they have the largest collection of AE’s paintings in the world. In the Armagh County Museum is another exhibition on the life and works of AE, including a number of paintings.

tumblr_mopw1cD0zU1rt17mio1_1280 First editions of AE’s work can be easily procured online, and they are worth the effort. Among the prizes in my own collection are a signed copy of Enchantment and Other Poems (1930) and AE’s novel The Interpreters (1922) inscribed to Gogarty. John Eglinton’s A Memoir of AE (1937) is worth a read, as is the essay collection The Living Torch (1937) edited by Monk Gibbon. Those of a more mystical mindset might like The Candle of Vision (1919; my copy once belonged to Gibbon) or Song and Its Fountains (1932).

IMG_0011My sincere hope is that in the lead-up to the 150th anniversary of AE’s birth, more people will discover and appreciate his contributions to Irish art, literature, and culture.

George William Russell, AE (1867-1935)