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Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1723 – 1792, English Painter

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a portrait of Sir Percivall Pott the eminent Surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital which is still displayed at the hospital. In this blog Anne Marie Mcharg, Rare Books and Special Collections Assistant, will explore the life of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Portrait of Percivall Pott

Percivall Pott (1714–1788), 1784, Joshua Reynolds [Ref. SBHX7/16]. Photograph courtesy of Barts Health NHS Trust Archives and Museums. Reynolds was commissioned to paint Pott the eminent Surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Literary societies can be divided up into three main categories:

  • Academy - established as an arbiter of literary taste and linguistic correctness;
  • Club - a fellowship of authors or patrons to further induvial or collective creative work;
  • Learned Societies of Letters - organisations devoted to literary criticism and scholarship.

The Club or, The Literary Club, was founded in February 1764 by the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, who we will look at in more depth now, and the essayist Samuel Johnson with Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish Philosopher-Politician. In Soho, the members of the club would gather one evening at The Turks Head tavern. When Parliament was sitting, the meetings were moved to St James Street every two weeks for the duration. The Club became known as the Literary Club and eminent literary figures, including Oliver Goldsmith, Joseph and Thomas Wharton, Edward Gibbon and James Boswell were members.

Similarly informal groups of writers with common interests would gather, such as those known as the Fireside Poets, who made a name for themselves. They were a group of American Poets who produced copious amount of poetry in the nineteenth century. The poems written were on household themes and encouraged families on chilly winter nights to sit around cozy fireside and read and recite poetry. They were a group of poets, but we will look at two more closely in future articles, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Sir Joshua Reynolds is one of our greatest painters and aestheticians. He dominated the middle to late eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, and moved in the circles of John and William Hunter, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson and David Garrick.

Early years

He was born at Plympton, Devon on 16 July 1723.  He was the third son of Reverend Samuel Reynolds who was once a fellow at Balliol College Oxford. His formal education was at the Plympton Grammar School. From an early age Joshua Reynolds was encouraged to read the great classical writers of antiquity and this enhanced his interest in literature. He would later surround himself with the great writers of the day.

His inspiration to become a painter was the essays of Jonathan Richardson. In 1740 he moved to London to become an apprentice to Thomas Hudson for four years. Three years later in 1743 he returned to Devon to paint portraits at Plymouth dock. It soon became clear to him he was inexperienced and needed more tutoring in the fine details. He returned to London for two more years in 1744 and gained more knowledge about the style of the old masters. During this period Reynolds painted the Honourable John Hamilton, which shows his bolder style combined with a considered use of impasto.

In 1746 he was commissioned to paint a large group of the Eliot family. He may have got this idea of a family portrait from visiting Wilton House in Wiltshire and seeing a vast picture by Van Dyck.

The Grand Tour

With his good friend Augustus Keppel, he sailed to Spain to Minorca in 1749. He stayed for five months due to a fall from a horse which left him with a permanently scarred lip that became a prominent feature in all his self-portraits. After his recovery from his accident, he travelled to Rome where he stayed for two years. In Rome, he could now devote himself to his great passion, studying the masterpieces of ancient Greco-Roman sculptures and Italian paintings and writing about them.

He now felt he could achieve his ambitions by combining his scholarship and painting skill to raise his status professionally back home in England. After leaving Rome Reynolds travelled through Florence, Bologna, Palma and Venice where he absorbed and noted the colour and composition of the great works of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. It was the Venetian use of strong vibrant colours and light and shade that he fell in love with.


In 1753 Reynolds had settled in London in St Martins Lane and then moved around the corner to Leicester Fields, now known as Leicester Square, in 1760. He was to remain here for the rest of his life with his sister, who looked after him as housekeeper.

Slowly his reputation grew. His first great work from this period is “Commodore Keppel". The pose is not original, being a reversal of that of the “Apollo Belvedere” statue in the Vatican. This painting introduced a new kind of vigour into the tradition of English portraiture by depicting the English naval officer striding on horseback. Reynolds was equally adept at painting domestic portraits. Two outstanding examples are those of “Georgina, Countess of Spencer and Her Daughter” and “Nelly O’Brien”, which both show tenderness and careful observation. He was also very good at painting children and “The Age of Innocence” is his best-known character study of a child.

As time went by Joshua Reynolds' style changed and fell under the influence of the Baroque painters of the Bolognese School of the seventeenth century. The clothes and fashion began to change and sitting for one's portrait took on a rigidity with a classical style far removed from his earlier portraits.

The Club

We know that from a very early age Reynolds enjoyed the intellectual pursuits which later in life he continued in the company of his London friends and the intelligentsia. He showed his gregarious side when he was with Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, James Boswell and the artist Angelica Kauffman to name but a few. It was Samuel Johnson who said of Joshua Reynolds in 1776 “Reynolds is too much under Fox and Burke at present. He is under the Fox star and the Irish constellation. He is always under some planet.”. He was referring to two of Reynolds' friends, Charles Fox and James Burke.

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a portrait of Richard Sheridan [create link] at the peak of his political career after giving his legendary speeches condemning British abuse of power in India. In May 1788 Sheridan gave another long speech after which he dramatically collapsed as he finished. Reynolds started the portrait soon after and was completed in the early spring of 1789. Everyone admired it but Sheridan took a dislike to it because it exposed his ruddy completion. 

Royal Academy

One of Joshua Reynolds’ ambitions was to gather a group of artists to hold an exhibition of their work to show the public. So, in 1760 the Society of Artists was founded, and the first exhibition was held which was a great success. By 1768, under the patronage of King George III, it became established as the Royal Academy. Reynolds may not have found favour within the royal courts, but he was the obvious choice for the first presidency and the king confirmed his election and knighted him. Reynolds guided The Royal Academy and laid down the rules with such skill that his patten is still in force to this day with very little change. In his Discourses Reynolds gives wise words of guidance, from an old master to the young up and coming artists of the day. This received a mixed reception especially from William Blake, who published the vitriolic Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds Discourses in 1808.

From 1769 he was prolific in his painting and many of his masterpieces were on show. Some of his paintings were historical pieces such as “Ugolino” at Knole House in Kent. His most outstanding and ambitious commission was that of the Duke of Marlborough and his family. This was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1778.

Second Grand Tour

Four years after his commission from the Duke of Marlborough Reynolds travelled to Flanders and on to Holland. Here he studied the paintings of Rubens, which changed his own style of painting. Reynolds realized if he followed Rubens' style of his paintings, his picture surface would be richer in colour and texture. This is shown in a portrait of the “Duchess of Devonshire and Her Daughter” at Chatsworth House.

Later Life

Towards the end of his life, he had a stroke, and he was saddened by the continuous petty squabbling within the Royal Academy. His eyesight began to deteriorate, and he gave his last Discourse at the academy in 1790. He died on February 23, 1792, and was buried at St Paul's Cathedral.

What was his Legacy?

Looking at his legacy, his portraits of royalty were never considered masterpieces and he very seldom painted them, even though the Prince of Wales patronized him. He painted portraits of friends which included ladies with questionable backgrounds and way of life. Later it was discovered that the techniques he used were flawed, for example he used transparent glazes over monochrome underpainting to try to depict pale faces, but the pigment he used for skin colouring was not permanent and even in his lifetime this began to fade. He also used bitumen which was detrimental to the paint surface. But despite these issues his portraits hang in galleries around the world. You could never say that Reynolds was a mere society painter or a flatterer. Through his experience he varied his poses and style on a whim. It was Thomas Gainsborough who remarked, “Damn him, how various he is!”.

A blog by Anne Marie Mcharg Rare Books and Special Collections Assistant.



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