Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Early career, 1743-1749

Reynolds's apprenticeship with Hudson ended abruptly in the summer of 1743, occasioned apparently by a minor disagreement over Reynolds's refusal to carry out an errand. The quarrel was quickly patched up, and their relationship resumed on a more equal footing. By December 1744 Samuel Reynolds reported that ‘Joshua by his master's means is introduced into a club composed of the most famous men in their profession’ (Leslie and Taylor, 1.28). This club, composed of artists and connoisseurs with a common interest in old-master prints and drawings, probably met at Old Slaughter's Coffee House in St Martin's Lane, which the contemporary engraver and diarist George Vertue described as ‘a rendezvous of persons of all languages and nations, Gentry, artists and others’ (Vertue, Note books, 3.91).

By the autumn of 1743 Reynolds was dividing his portrait practice between London and Plymouth Dock. He made the most of the opportunities presented, his father reporting in January 1744 that he ‘has drawn twenty already, and has ten more bespoke’ (Cotton, Works, 58). In order to expedite the process, he briefly went into partnership with an unnamed artist who painted the bodies while Reynolds concentrated on the heads. On one occasion this resulted in the inadvertent production of a portrait of a man with two hats, one on his head and the other tucked under his arm (Whitley, 1.104). It was during this time, according to Reynolds, that he ‘became very careless about his profession, and lived … in a great deal of dissipation with but indifferent company’ (J. Prior, Life of Edmond Malone, 1860, 404–5). The few surviving portraits of this period, notably those of the Kendall family (Mannings, Reynolds, 1285–6), indicate that Reynolds was then working very much in the manner of Hudson, turning out competent, if unexceptional, works.

Reynolds's burgeoning talent emerges more clearly in the portraits of his immediate family, painted about 1745–6, notably those of his sister Frances (known as Fanny) Reynolds, his father (City Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth), and his own self-portrait (priv. coll.). The principal pictorial influence on all three portraits is Rembrandt, the artist who was to influence Reynolds more profoundly than any other, especially in his earlier career. During this period Reynolds also painted a number of self-portraits in the manner of Rembrandt, of which the most celebrated (c.1749; NPG) shows him peering out towards the viewer, shading his eyes with his hand.

After his father's death on Christmas day 1745 Reynolds's mother, Theophila, vacated the schoolhouse at Plympton and moved to Torrington, where she lived with her eldest daughter, Mary, until her own death in 1756. Reynolds, meanwhile, took a house in Plymouth Dock with two of his unmarried sisters, Fanny and Jane. Although he was active in London, his principal patrons were from the west country, notably Richard Eliot, MP for St Germans and Liskeard and auditor and receiver-general to Frederick, prince of Wales, in Cornwall. In addition to his various portraits of members of the Eliot family, Reynolds painted their friend Captain John Hamilton (priv. coll.). When he saw this portrait many years later, Reynolds was ‘surprised to find it so well done; and comparing it with his later works, with that modesty which always accompanies genius, lamented that in such a series of years he should not have made a greater progress in his art’ (Malone, 1.xi).

By 1747 Reynolds was spending extended periods in London, now maintaining a studio in apartments on the west side of St Martin's Lane. Little is known about his personal life at that time, although he appears to have been romantically attached to a Miss Weston of Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, who may have been related to Bishop Stephen Weston of Exeter. The tone and content of the letters he wrote to her on his way to Italy (including one signed ‘From your slave’) indicate that they were on intimate terms. Other friends included the painters Robert and Simon Pine and John Wilkes, the radical. In November 1748 the Universal Magazine included Reynolds's name in a list of fifty-seven ‘Painters of our own nation now living, many of whom have distinguished themselves by their performances, and who are justly deemed eminent masters’. Of those named only Thomas Gainsborough was younger. In 1748 Reynolds was also commissioned by the corporation of Plympton to paint portraits of Lieutenant Paul Henry Ourry (Saltram, Devon) and Commodore George Edgcumbe (NMM), younger brother of Reynolds's boyhood friend Richard Edgcumbe. Through Edgcumbe, Reynolds became acquainted with Augustus Keppel, a younger son of the second earl of Albemarle, who on 26 April 1749 made an unscheduled stop at Plymouth on board the Centurion. Two weeks later, on 11 May, Reynolds set sail with Keppel for the Mediterranean.

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