by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Portrait Gallery, London
Self-Portrait by Joshua Reynolds before his departure for Italy, c.1747-49

The Making of a Celebrity Portraitist

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 3 January 2023


Joshua Reynolds set out to be not just an artist but a famous artist. He devoted his skills to the portrait, realizing, like fashion photographers today, that by making images of celebrities he could become a celebrity himself. He was pretty well unknown when he set up his first studio in London in 1753, but within the decade he was the most sought-after portraitist of the aristocracy, military, wealthy business classes, intellectual elite, stars of the stage and influential courtesans.

He was the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts, founded in 1768, guaranteeing that his name would live on even if his art went out of fashion. When he threatened to resign on George III's refusal to sit for him, he had to be coaxed into remaining with the offer of a knighthood. Reynolds' lectures to the students, the 'Discourses on Art', delivered between 1769 and 1790, were published, widely read beyond the Academy and translated into French, German and Italian. Eloquent and wide-ranging, the 'Discourses' constituted the first important critical work on art to be produced by a British author.

Reynolds was born on 16 July 1723 in Devon at Plympton St Maurice, a village now part of Plymouth. This port city, which has the largest public collection of Reynolds' work outside London, will be marking the tercentenary of the artist's birth with 'Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration', an exhibition at The Box gallery featuring some 30 paintings, along with drawings, sketchbooks, brushes, a palette and other studio memorabilia from the city's own permanent holdings, with additional loans from other galleries and private collections.

Reynolds' father was an Oxford graduate, vicar and master of the local grammar school, which Joshua attended. Despite his artistic aspirations, he thought of becoming a pharmacist, saying he would rather be 'an apothecary than an ordinary painter'.

Nevertheless in 1740 he apprenticed himself for four years to fellow Devonian portrait painter Thomas Hudson in London. But in 1743 he cancelled his indentures and set up his own studio at Plymouth Dock, now Devonport. After another spell in London, on the death of his father in 1745 he returned to Plymouth Dock. By the end of the year he had completed nearly twenty portraits.

His early commissions were mostly for portraits of naval officers and local gentry. Among his clients were two influential West Country families, the Edgcumbes and the Eliots (for whom he did an early group portrait.) Later commissions included a strikingly posed portrait of Lady Anne Bonfoy (née Eliot) in around 1754. A prophetic self-portrait of 1747 shows Reynolds shading his eyes as though gazing at a vision of the sun-lit future that lay before him.

His connection with the Edgcumbes led to an introduction in 1749 to the 24-year-old war hero Commodore Augustus, 1st Viscount Keppel, who, having put into Plymouth for repairs to his ship, the Centurion, en route to take command of the Mediterranean Fleet, visited his old friends, the Edgcumbes. Reynolds was, as Samuel Johnson put it, 'clubbable.' He was considerably better educated than the average professional artist and could hold his own in 'society'. He knew that a visit to Italy, beyond the means of most English artists, was essential to his artistic and social advancement. Keppel, who was interested in paintings, offered him free passage on his ship to get there.

After two years in Rome, Reynolds went on to Naples, Florence, Bologna, Parma, Mantua, Ferrara, Padua and Venice, returning via Paris, in the company of the young Giuseppe Marchi, who was to become his principal assistant and remain with him for most of the rest of the artist's life.

While in Italy, Reynolds wrote to Edgcumbe: 'I am now (thanks to your Lordship) at the height of my wishes, in the midst of the greatest works of art the world has produced.'

On his return, to thank Keppel, the artist did a stirring portrait of him standing on a rugged seashore, fearless, assured, a source of light against a background of crashing waves and glowering storm clouds, the pose artfully imitating ancient statues of Apollo, the palette and brushwork a tribute to Titian and Tintoretto. The picture, his early biographer Joseph Farington recorded, 'completely established the reputation of the Artist'. It will be on loan to the Plymouth exhibition from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Typically Reynolds painted seven hours a day, seven days a week, producing an average of a hundred portraits a year, totalling more than 2,000 by the end of his career. He led a hectic social life, frequenting clubs, receptions, balls and gambling tables. He often entertained the in-crowd at his studio-home. An upper-crust friend complained that he spoiled his dinner parties by inviting too many guests to fit comfortably round the table. He was, according to gossip, 'romantically linked' to some of the beautiful women whose favours were otherwise set at a high price and whose portraits adorned his studio.

Reynolds tended to extol the Grand Manner, or 'Grand Style' as he called it, of Michelangelo and Raphael but, never an expert draughtsman, he actually painted more in the traditional Venetian manner, doing little preliminary drawing and building the image directly by applying colours onto the canvas. As Reynold's artistic talents became more fully manifest some of his admirers deplored the fact that he did not devote them to more elevated themes than mere portraiture. History painting was then esteemed the highest endeavour. Reynolds did not dissent from this belief and urged his students to aspire to the genre, although, as Farington shrewdly observed, 'he wrote from his head, but he painted from his heart.' Reynolds said of himself (in concluding the last of his Discourses): 'I have taken another course, one more suited to my abilities, and to the taste of the times in which I live.'

Such self-deprecation could not hide the unsurpassed range of the styles and settings he brought to his portraiture, which bridged the eras of classicism and romanticism and elevated the genre to new heights. As Thomas Gainsborough, one of the few rivals seriously to challenge Reynolds' supremacy in the field remarked: 'Damn the man, how various he is.'

In his appreciation of other artists Reynolds was often markedly ahead of his contemporaries. He praised such early masters as Masaccio, Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna and Giulio Romano long before less acute connoisseurs valued them. His travels in Italy, France and the Netherlands equipped him to become the greatest and most discriminating English collector of the century. When he offered his collection to the Royal Academy at a very modest price on condition they created a proper home for it, they foolishly declined. It contained no fewer than eight paintings by Rembrandt, his principal influence outside Italy.

Much as he revelled in moving in the best circles, Reynolds did not underestimate the significance of popular journalism and prints, both of which were enjoying an unprecedented boom. The permission of sitters was required for their portraits to be marketed as engravings, but many were not averse to the broader circulation of their images.

More than 400 of Reynolds' works were distributed as engravings, reaching a mass audience hungry for celebrity pictures. Generally preferring the company of writers, thinkers, actors and naval officers to that of other artists, Reynolds became friends with the literary grandees of the age. He founded the Club, whose original members included Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke.

An unspoken lesson that Reynolds learned in Italy was the prestige that artists once - and, to some extent, still - commanded there. This was the land where popes and princes had vied for the services of the great masters. Some noblemen who encountered the English painter complained of his lack of deference, and this attitude almost certainly contributed to his initial failure to win royal patronage from George III.

Even when Reynolds' work attracted critical comments in the press, any publicity tended to be good publicity for the painter, who was unquestionably the most written-about artist of the age. On George III's refusal properly to reward Reynolds' achievements, Johnson commented that public acclaim was more advantageous than royal patronage and that the court's reluctance to employ him reflected badly on the king. Reynolds did eventually become the Principal Painter to George in 1784 and also had the satisfaction of being able to do an informal portrait of the Prince of Wales, a notorious bon viveur.

When he died in 1792, Reynolds' body lay in state at the Royal Academy before being conveyed for burial in St. Paul's Cathedral, followed by a cortège of more than 90 carriages. Among his pallbearers were some of the most senior peers of the realm. He had immeasurably raised the status of art and artists in Britain, and to a remarkable degree what had been good for Reynolds had also been good for the nation.

Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration; The Box, Plymouth, 24 June - 29 October 2023

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024