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

Education and apprenticeship, 1723-1743

On 9 December 1711 Samuel Reynolds, a former scholar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, had married at Monksleigh, near Torrington, Devon, having given up his fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford, earlier that year. Four years later, at the age of thirty-four, he was appointed master of the free grammar school, Plympton. It was here that Joshua Reynolds was educated by his father. Classes were small and the curriculum, in line with more advanced Lockean precepts, would have extended beyond the parameters of classical scholarship, to include geography, arithmetic, and drawing. In addition to his teaching Reynolds's father maintained regular correspondence with friends on topics ranging from medicine to metaphysics. He observed the stars through his telescope, cast horoscopes, and wrote treatises on subjects as diverse as theology and gout. Reynolds, too, conversed with his father's friends, notably the Revd Zachariah Mudge, whom Edmund Burke later described as ‘very learned & thinking & much inclined to Philosophy in the spirit of the Platonists’ (Hilles, Literary Career, 7). In addition to formal lessons, the young Reynolds was encouraged to read independently. Into his commonplace book (MS, Yale University) he copied passages from classical authors: Theophrastus, Plutarch, Seneca, Marcus Antonius, and Ovid, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Addison, Steele, and Aphra Behn. Significantly, the commonplace book also includes extracts from the writings on art theory by Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, and André Félibien. The most influential text studied by Reynolds, however, was Jonathan Richardson's An Essay on the Theory of Painting of 1715. Lost for nearly 200 years, Reynolds's own annotated copy of Richardson's Essay turned up in a Cambridge bookshop, bearing the signature ‘J. Reynolds Pictor’ (G. Watson, ‘Joshua Reynolds's copy of Richardson’, Review of English Studies, 14, 1991, 9–12).

Reynolds's parents encouraged all their children to take a practical interest in art, his elder sister, Elizabeth, recalling how they had been allowed to draw on the whitewashed walls of a long passage with burnt sticks. As James Boswell later noted, Reynolds's ‘two eldest sisters did little things … and he copied them. He used to copy all the frontispieces and plates in books’ (Hilles, Portraits, 20–21). Several of these copies have survived (J. Edgcumbe, ‘Reynolds's earliest drawings’, Burlington Magazine, 129, 1987, 724–6). They include a slight perspective drawing from The Practice of Perspective by Jean Dubreuil, a detail of a library from William Parson's English translation of Félibien, The Tent of Darius Explain'd, and a figure adapted from Jacob Cats's Spiegel of 1656.

Reynolds's first recorded portrait, made at the age of twelve, dates from 1735. The subject was a local clergyman named Thomas Smart, tutor to Reynolds's boyhood friend Richard Edgcumbe. The painting, apparently made at the behest of Lord Edgcumbe, was executed in a boathouse using shipwright's paint and a piece of sailcloth. In 1738, when Reynolds was fourteen, his father entered into correspondence with a neighbouring landowner, James Bulteel, concerning his son's career prospects. Bulteel suggested that Joshua should go to London, offering to introduce him personally to ‘those in artistic circles’ (Hudson, 14). It was also suggested that Reynolds might train under his father as an apothecary, Reynolds himself declaring that he would rather be an apothecary than ‘an ordinary painter’ (ibid., 15). However, in the spring of 1740 it was agreed that Reynolds should be bound to the Devonian artist Thomas Hudson for a period of four years, rather than a full seven-year term as stipulated by the artists' guild, the Painter–Stainers' Company.

Hudson lived and worked in Newman's Row, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, although he still spent a good deal of time catering to his native west country clientele. Reynolds's daily routine at this time involved running errands, preparing canvases, painting accessories in portraits, and perhaps even making replicas of Hudson's pictures. He also made drawings from casts of antique statuary, including one of the Laocoön. Even so, in later life Reynolds regretted that he had not received a proper academic training, lacking ‘the facility of drawing the naked figure, which an artist ought to have’ (Works, 1.xlix). In 1821 over fifty of his academic studies from both the male and the female figure were sold at auction. In terms of sheer numbers alone these drawings suggest that Reynolds had been in the habit of drawing from the living model, probably at the St Martin's Lane Academy.

In Hudson's studio Reynolds also made copies after pen-and-ink drawings by Guercino. They are uniformly of a very high quality, and Hudson retained several of them among his own old-master drawings collection. Reynolds's knowledge of old-master paintings also developed during this time, principally through attending auctions, Hudson being in the habit of allowing him to bid on his behalf. It was at one such auction, at the sale of the earl of Oxford in March 1742, that Reynolds managed covertly to shake the hand of one of his boyhood heroes, Alexander Pope.

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