Image: “Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino” (the yet unexcavated Roman Forum, still called the Campo Vaccino meaning “Cow Pasture”), exhibited 1839, J. M. W. Turner.
“Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA FRS FRSA (16 July 1723 – 23 February 1792) was an English painter, specialising in portraits. John Russell said he was one of the major European painters of the 18th century. He promoted the “Grand Style” in painting which depended on idealization of the imperfect. He was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, and was knighted by George III in 1769.
As a boy, he came under the influence of Zachariah Mudge, whose Platonistic philosophy stayed with him all his life. Reynolds made extracts in his commonplace book from Theophrastus, Plutarch, Seneca, Marcus Antonius, Ovid, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Aphra Behn, and passages on art theory by Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, and André Félibien. The work that came to have the most influential impact on Reynolds was Jonathan Richardson’s An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715). Reynolds’ annotated copy was lost for nearly two hundred years until it appeared in a Cambridge bookshop, inscribed with the signature ‘J. Reynolds Pictor’, and is now in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
In 1749, Reynolds met Commodore Augustus Keppel, who invited him to join HMS Centurion, of which he had command, on a voyage to the Mediterranean. Following his arrival in England in October 1752, Reynolds spent three months in Devon, before establishing himself in London, where he remained for the rest of his life. He took rooms in St Martin’s Lane, before moving to Great Newport Street; his sister Frances acted as his housekeeper. He achieved success rapidly, and was extremely prolific.
Reynolds worked long hours in his studio, rarely taking a holiday. He was gregarious and keenly intellectual, with many friends from London’s intelligentsia, numbered amongst whom were Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Giuseppe Baretti, Henry Thrale, David Garrick, and artist Angelica Kauffman. Johnson said in 1778: “Reynolds is too much under [Charles James] Fox and Burke at present. He is under the Fox star and the Irish constellation [meaning Burke]. He is always under some planet”.
Because of his popularity as a portrait painter, Reynolds enjoyed constant interaction with the wealthy and famous men and women of the day, and it was he who brought together the figures of “The” Club. It was founded in 1764 and met in a suite of rooms on the first floor of the Turks Head at 9 Gerrard Street, now marked by a plaque. Original members included Burke, Bennet Langton, Topham Beauclerk, Goldsmith, Anthony Chamier, Thomas Hawkins, and Nugent, to be joined by Garrick, Boswell, and Sheridan. In ten years the membership had risen to 35. The Club met every Monday evening for supper and conversation and continued into the early hours of Tuesday morning. In later years, it met fortnightly during Parliamentary sessions. When in 1783 the landlord of the Turks Head died and the property was sold, The Club moved to Sackville Street.
Reynolds was one of the earliest members of the Royal Society of Arts, helped found the Society of Artists of Great Britain, and in 1768 became the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, a position he was to hold until his death. In 1769, he was knighted by George III, only the second artist to be so honored.
Reynolds and the Royal Academy received a mixed reception. Critics included William Blake who published the vitriolic Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses in 1808. J. M. W. Turner and James Northcote were fervent acolytes: Turner requested he be laid to rest at Reynolds’ side, and Northcote, who spent four years as Reynolds’ pupil, wrote to his family “I know him thoroughly, and all his faults, I am sure, and yet almost worship him.”
On 10 August 1784 Allan Ramsay died and the office of Principal Painter in Ordinary to King George III became vacant. Gainsborough felt that he had a good chance of securing it, but Reynolds felt he deserved it and threatened to resign the presidency of the Royal Academy if he did not receive it. Reynolds noted in his pocket book: “Sept. 1, 2½, to attend at the Lord Chancellor’s Office to be sworn in painter to the King”. It did not make Reynolds happy, however, as he wrote to Boswell: “If I had known what a shabby miserable place it is, I would not have asked for it; besides as things have turned out I think a certain person is not worth speaking to, nor speaking of”, presumably meaning the king. Reynolds wrote to Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St Asaph, a few weeks later: “Your Lordship congratulation on my succeeding Mr. Ramsay I take very kindly, but it is a most miserable office, it is reduced from two hundred to thirty-eight pounds per annum, the Kings Rat catcher I believe is a better place, and I am to be paid only a fourth part of what I have from other people, so that the Portraits of their Majesties are not likely to be better done now, than they used to be, I should be ruined if I was to paint them myself”.
On 4 June 1791 at a dinner at the Freemasons’ Tavern to mark the king’s birthday, Reynolds drank to the toasts “GOD save the KING!” and “May our glorious Constitution under which the arts flourish, be immortal!”
Later that month Reynolds suffered from a swelling over his left eye and had to be purged by a surgeon. In October he was too ill to take the president’s chair and in November Fanny Burney recorded that
I had long languished to see that kindly zealous friend, but his ill health had intimidated me from making the attempt”: “He had a bandage over one eye, and the other shaded with a green half-bonnet. He seemed serious even to sadness, though extremely kind. ‘I am very glad,’ he said, in a meek voice and dejected accent, ‘to see you again, and I wish I could see you better! but I have only one eye now, and hardly that.’ I was really quite touched.
Reynolds died on 23 February 1792 at his house in Leicester Fields in London between eight and nine in the evening.
Reynolds was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1903, a statue, by Alfred Drury, was erected in his honour in Annenberg Courtyard of Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy. Around the statue are fountains and lights, installed in 2000, arranged in the pattern of a star chart at midnight on the night of Reynolds’ birth. The planets are marked by granite discs, and the Moon by a water recess.”