It is very fitting that Plymouth should mark, with an exhibition at The Box entitled ‘Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration’, the 300th anniversary of the birth of Sir Joshua Reynolds, born close by at Plympton St Maurice, 16 July 1723. This modest exhibition is based on a group of works selected from the permanent collection reinforced by a generous loan from Woburn Abbey, which is currently closed for refurbishment, and additional loans from other UK collections including nearby Saltram House. Displayed in two galleries, the exhibition sets out to examine his career through his variety of portraits, highlighting their themes and exploring their relevance today.
On entering the exhibition, one encounters the full-length portrait of Therese Parker, 1772 (Saltram House), gazing pensively in profile, elegantly dressed and enveloped in a pale blue silk shawl shot with pink highlights. She rests her arm on a plinth supporting a classical urn and all set in a landscape. Typical of Reynolds’s ‘Grand Portrait’ style, it was painted for the saloon of Saltram House and is displayed here for the first time since its recent cleaning and restoration. Reynolds enjoyed a long connection with the Parker family and many of his portraits painted for them are on view at Saltram which is working in partnership with The Box and the celebration of Reynolds’s 300th birthday.
His father, the Reverend Samuel Reynolds, was the Master of the Plympton Grammar School and was able in 1740 to secure an apprenticeship for his son, bent on becoming an artist, with the most successful face painter of the day, Thomas Hudson, also a Devon man. Having learnt the trade in London, Reynolds left after three years, returning to paint portraits in Plymouth Dock where, following the death of his father in 1745, the family moved. Reynolds established his studio there and lived with his sisters who opened a shop selling hats and fabrics. The early part of his career is represented in the exhibition by a portrait of his father The Reverend Samuel Reynolds, 1746 (The Box), half- length in profile and possibly a posthumous portrait. Nearby hangs an arresting portrait of a purposeful looking Young Man, 1746 (Barber Institute, Birmingham), set behind a parapet against a dark background who gazes out at one with half his face in shadow, showing hints of Renaissance portraiture and Rembrandt. In this early group is also The Reverend William Beele, 1748 (Barber Institute, Birmingham), who was the naval chaplain in Plymouth Dock. A man full of character resplendent in his wig he looks straight at one and the background scene is set by the inclusion of a painting of the West Prospect of His Majesties Dock yard, c1736, by Thomas Rennell. Reynolds was well supported by his sisters and the importance of the women in his family is emphasised by his portraits of them including Frances Reynolds, 1746 (The Box), his youngest surviving sister who was also a painter and later became his housekeeper, and Mary Palmer, 1746, who independently developed her own artistic career and helped finance his training and time in Italy.
Reynolds was increasingly in demand for portraits of naval sitters and of local families becoming friends with the Eliots who had been amongst his first clients after his return to Plymouth. Likewise, George Edgcumbe who introduced Reynolds to Augustus Keppel, an experienced naval officer who was promoted to Commodore in 1749 and sent to the Mediterranean to negotiate with Barbary Corsairs. Reynolds, determined to visit Italy, travelled with him as far as Menorca where he was delayed due to an accident before reaching Italy in January 1750. He remained there for just over two years travelling from Rome to Florence, Bologna and Venice. His aim was to acquire first-hand knowledge of the great Renaissance and later painters and to study Classical civilisation with a long-term ambition to raise the status of the painter in England. On view in the exhibition is one of his sketch books (The Box) which can be explored in a digital interactive. It shows many sketches of paintings, often of details, demonstrating a professional interest in lighting as well as making notes on colour, especially of the Venetians, all of which was to lay the foundation both for his future success as a painter and his influential Discourses delivered at the Royal Academy.
Reynolds remained friends with Keppel and painted him seven times. His most well-known portrait is that of Augustus, 1st Viscount Keppel, (National Maritime Museum) probably painted soon after his return from Italy as a sort of thank you to Keppel and with which he made his reputation. This full-length portrait shows Keppel as a man of authority, with an outstretched right arm and his other clutching his sword, striding alongside a stormy sea with wreckage in the background. This alludes to the incident, when chasing a French privateer along the Brittany coast, his ship The Maidstone struck a rock and was wrecked. The pose also suggests the famous antique statue, the Apollo Belvedere, which he would have studied in Rome. It was a new approach to English portraiture and one which was to prove highly successful. He kept it in his house for some time as a model or advertisement
Hanging next to Keppel is the portrait of his sister Lady Elizabeth Keppel as a Bridesmaid, 1762 (Woburn Abbey Collection). She was one of ten Bridesmaids to Queen Charlotte and is shown wearing an incredibly elaborate silvery dress that shines out from the dark drapery behind. She is depicted adorning the statue of Hymen with a garland of flowers and twists round towards her attractively dressed black maidservant who feeds the rope of flowers up to her mistress. Their relationship is one of many feminist questions drawn to the visitor’s attention in that she does not feature in the painting’s title. By her marriage to Francis Russell, Elizabeth became the Marchioness of Tavistock so it is very appropriate to include loans from this Devon family. Opposite hangs the flamboyant portrait of Lord Peter Ludlow, 1755 (Woburn Abbey Collection), dressed as a Hungarian Hussar and accompanied by a large dog. The painterly splendour of his costume clearly owes its inspiration to Van Dyck.
On his return from Italy Reynolds soon moved to London and with his ever-growing financial success purchased a house in Leicester Fields where he set up his studio with his assistants and was able to display his own collections. Reynolds kept sitters books which provide accurate records of the dates and times of all the people who came to sit for him. That on display is his earliest and belongs to The Box. The page is open at February 1755, Saturday, “dog Mr Ludlow”. Also included in the exhibition are Reynolds’s paints, palette, mahl stick and brushes. He continuously experimented with colours, varnishes and waxes. Displayed in the exhibition are a number of portraits of female sitters where one can admire the beauty and colours of their dresses and learn about their lives. Amongst them is Lady Ann Bonfoy, c1754 (The Box), a member of the Eliot family who married a naval captain. In her three-quarter length portrait, she stands against a dark tree with a view of the blue sea beyond with her hand on her hip which is an unusual pose for a woman. The painting of her blue dress whose folds are picked out with pale highlights and trimmed with pink ribbon, is exquisite. However, her face is rather colourless and this is due to Reynolds’s use of the pigment carmine for flesh painting which is prone to fade.
Throughout his life Reynolds painted many self-portraits and in the second gallery four examples are hung together. A label describes them as 300-year-old ‘selfies’ pointing out that the same concerns on how to present oneself apply today. Included is one of Reynolds most original conceptions Self-Portrait as a Deaf Man, c1775 (Tate Gallery), showing him quizzically looking at the observer cupping his hand to his ear. He had suffered hearing loss in his twenties and was known to use an ear trumpet. Also displayed is his early Self-Portrait, 1746 (The Box), in which he turns to look out with piercing eyes and ruddy cheeks, his face alive and framed by his brown hair. He wears a dark jacket enlivened by the white of his collar set against a dark background. Hanging next to it is one of the three abstract paintings by Rana Begum, RA commissioned to accompany the exhibition and in which her simple geometric compositions are inspired by the colours and tones of Reynolds’s portraits.
A section of the exhibition is devoted the organisation of his studio drawing attention to how the household contributed by making copies and hiring drapery and landscape painters. Peter Toms, for example, assisted with the draperies of Elizabeth Keppel’s ornate dress. A close friend of Reynolds was Francesco Bartolozzi, 1773 (Saltram House) who was a leading engraver reproducing Reynolds’ portraits in mezzotint which were widely collected. Prints are the subject of the double portrait of the writers George Huddesfield and John Bamfylde, 1778 (Tate Gallery), showing George Huddesfield proffering his companion an engraving. Bamfylde takes the print with his left hand clutching the neck of his violin with his right. The print reproduces a portrait of Joseph Warton, Master of Winchester College, by Reynolds. It emphasises their friendship as both were educated at Winchester. John Bamfylde’s father was Sir Richard Warwick Bamfylde, 4th Barone, of Poltimore, and a major Devon Landowner.
This ambitious exhibition rightly emphasises Reynolds’s roots in Devon to which he remained attached, becoming Mayor of Plympton in 1773. It explores many aspects of his career and is packed with interesting information. The viewer is stimulated to look at the variety of portraits with fresh eyes guided by fulsome informative labels. Unfortunately, there is no accompanying publication or list of exhibits to take away despite the inclusion of an excellent and helpful time line. It nonetheless is a stimulating exhibition and leaves one with the regret that this anniversary was not seized upon for a major show of Britain’s leading and most successful 18th-century portrait painter.