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

The middle period, 1760-1768

In the summer of 1760 Reynolds purchased a lease on a house at 47 Leicester Square, then among the most fashionable residential areas of the capital. (It was subsequently converted into auction rooms and demolished in 1937.) Reynolds remained there for the rest of his life. He marked his arrival with a grand ball, and set about completely refurbishing the property, adding a series of studios and a picture gallery to the rear of the premises where he displayed his paintings alongside his growing collection of old-master paintings. He also acquired a secondhand coach in which he encouraged his sister to ride, to her considerable embarrassment. Reynolds's studio was a small octagonal room, lit by a single window situated high above the ground. Portrait sitters occupied an upholstered armchair (now in the RA), revolving on castors and raised about 18 inches from the floor on a dais. Reynolds stood, observing his sitters at eye level, looking directly at them or at their reflection in a mirror. According to one sitter he would ‘walk away several feet, then take a long look at me and the picture as we stood side by side, then rush up to the portrait and dash at it in a kind of fury. I sometimes thought he would make a mistake and paint on me instead of the picture’ (W. P. Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, 1888, 3.124).

In April 1760 Reynolds participated in the first annual exhibition of works held by the Society of Artists at the Society of Arts on the Strand. He exhibited five pictures including Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), the first in a long line of public female full-length portraits in the ‘grand manner’. Reynolds exhibited with the Society of Artists every year (except 1767) until 1768. Among the works he showed there were Laurence Sterne (1761; NPG), Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy (1762; priv. coll.),Nelly O'Brien (1763; Wallace Collection, London), Lady Sarah Bunbury (1765; Art Institute, Chicago), and Mrs Hale as ‘Euphrosyne’ (1766; priv. coll.). Of these Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy provides the clearest indication of Reynolds's ambition. On a formal level it displays Reynolds's knowledge of the tenets of Western post-Renaissance art theory, the figures of Comedy and Tragedy representing the choice to be made by the artist between the allure of colour and the strictures of line. It also reveals, through a parodic allusion to the classical theme of the Choice of Hercules, how Reynolds perceived that painting could aspire to the level of poetry and claim its rightful place among the liberal arts.

Like so many of Reynolds's paintings Garrick borrowed pictorial devices from a number of other artists (in this case Rubens, Guido Reni, and William Dobson). During his lifetime critics believed that these ‘borrowings’ indicated a lack of creativity. And it has since been suggested that Reynolds himself hoped that they would not be detected (E. Wind, ‘Borrowed attitudes in Reynolds and Hogarth’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 2, 1938–9, 182–5). Yet for Reynolds and his contemporaries, pictorial references to old-master paintings were visual counterparts to the Augustan literary cult of imitation. For Reynolds, as for Johnson, imitation was a ‘kind of middle composition between translation and original design, which pleases when the thoughts are unexpectedly applicable, and the parallels lucky’ (The Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. A. Murphy, 1792, 11.132). To Reynolds these borrowings constituted an intellectual and visual game, as he plundered his own sketchbooks, his portfolios of prints, and paintings in order to enrich the iconography of otherwise formulaic society portraits.

In 1759 Reynolds painted a portrait of George, prince of Wales (Royal Collection), presumably with the hope of securing further royal patronage. In the following year his hopes were dashed when the prime minister, Lord Bute, recommended Allan Ramsay to the post of principal painter to the king. From this moment there was increasing antipathy between Reynolds and the king. Professionally it did Reynolds no harm whatsoever for, as Johnson remarked, ‘it is no reflection on Mr. Reynolds not to be employed by them; but it will be a reflection on the Court not to have employed him’ (G. B. Hill, ed., Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1897, 2.401–2).

Johnson, whom Reynolds had met about 1756, was the single most important influence on Reynolds's life during the 1750s and 1760s. ‘For my own part I acknowledge the highest obligations to him. He may be said to have formed my mind and brushed off from it a great deal of rubbish’ (Hilles, Portraits, 66). Later, in August 1764, when Reynolds was struck with a serious illness, Johnson wrote to him, ‘if I should lose you, I should lose almost the only Man whom I call a Friend’ (Boswell, Life, 1.486). Reynolds painted Johnson on a number of occasions; the earliest (NPG) portrayed him, as Boswell recalled, ‘in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation’. Later, in a painting for the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale, Reynolds attempted to capture Johnson's short-sightedness, which resulted in the celebrated retort, ‘He may paint himself as deaf if he chuses … but I will not be blinking Sam’ (H. L. Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D, 1786, 248). In 1759 Johnson commissioned Reynolds to write three essays for The Idler, thus launching his literary career. The essays addressed the concepts of beauty, imitation, and nature, and prefigured arguments that were to underpin his Discourses on Art, begun some ten years later.

In the summer of 1762 Reynolds and Johnson made a six-week tour of the west country, which included visits to family and friends. Back in London, in February 1764, Reynolds formed a dining club for Johnson's immediate circle. The Literary Club, or the Club, as it became known, was originally restricted to nine members, including Reynolds, Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Oliver Goldsmith, who were then Reynolds's closest companions. Reynolds painted Goldsmith between 1766 and 1767, in a dignified profile (Knole, Kent), Reynolds's sister Fanny referring to it as ‘the most flattered picture she ever knew her brother to have painted’ (Northcote, Life, 1.326). At about the same time Reynolds also painted a half-length portrait of Burke (priv. coll.), and a double portrait of him in the role of private secretary to the earl of Rockingham (FM Cam.). The picture was never completed, possibly owing to the collapse of Rockingham's ministry in July 1766. Even so, it is of great value for the light it sheds on Reynolds's working practices, the slightly sketched outlines of the figures forming a marked contrast to the painstaking details of the Turkey rug and inkstand, produced by his pupils and drapery painters.

Aside from Marchi, Reynolds's first recorded pupil was Thomas Beach, who studied with him from about 1760 to 1762. Other pupils included John Berridge, Hugh Barron, William Parry, and, in the 1770s, James Northcote and William Doughty. These pupils were not formally indentured but exchanged their services in return for board, lodging, and, if they were lucky, a little ad hoc tuition. Reynolds's pupils remained surprisingly ignorant of his working methods and, as one remarked, he ‘never saw him unless he wanted to paint a hand or piece of drapery from them, and then they were dismissed as soon as he had done with them’ (Gwynn, 49). Of Reynolds's pupils, the most successful, if not the most gifted, was James Northcote, who studied under him from 1771 to 1776, and who was to be Reynolds's biographer. Northcote's admiration for Reynolds was tempered by jealousy, and an abiding resentment that he had not enjoyed the same intimacy as Reynolds reserved for his friends and patrons. He later recalled that if ‘Sir Joshua had come into the room where I was at work for him and had seen me hanging by the neck, it would not have troubled him’ (Leslie and Taylor, 2.601). Reynolds was generally kinder to those who did not work directly under him. He assisted the careers of several young foreign artists, notably the Americans Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, whose Boy with a Squirrel (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), he exhibited next to his own work at the Society of Artists in 1766. Reynolds's greatest personal encouragement was reserved for the young Irish artist James Barry, who was introduced to him by their mutual friend Edmund Burke in 1764.

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