Reynolds, London and the Hudson connection

Detail from Reynolds sketchbook © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

Laurie Thorne continues to look at Reynolds’ early life. Previously we learned that Reynolds’ wish was to train with a renowned artist, and Lawrie now looks at Reynolds’ life after he moves to London.

In October 1740 aged 17 years he arrived in London to begin a four year training in the studio of the Devon-born portrait painter Thomas Hudson. Hudson was based in London, with a West Country practice. In the West Country his work included painting a succession of Mayors of Barnstaple as well as the councillors and council officials. The below works are attributed to Hudson and are currently on display in our ‘In the Frame‘ exhibition.

In London his house and studio was located in Holborn Row, standing on the northern side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. This was an area long recognised as a centre of portraiture. Hudson occupied the premises of his own master and father-in-law Jonathan Richardson, the leading British born portraitist of the early 18th century. In fact one could walk from one leading artist’s studio to another.

By the 26th October of 1740 in a letter to Charles Cutcliffe, Samuel reports on his son’s safe arrival in London and at the end of December he had paid Hudson the substantial premium of £120, half of which was found by Samuel and half advanced by Reynolds’ eldest sister, Mary, the wife of John Palmer of Torrington.

By the 30th December Samuel wrote that his son:

“is very sensible of his happiness in being under such a master, in such a family, in such a city and in such an employment”.

Hudson, in addition to being a portrait painter, whose sitters included King George the Second and George Frederic Handel, was a gifted teacher and taught a whole generation of painters including Joseph Wright of Derby and Richard Cosway. Not only did he teach his pupils the skills of painting, but the pupils were fortunate enough to see and copy Hudson’s own art collection.

Another advantage was that Hudson had been taught by the influential painter Jonathan Richardson, often referred to as Jonathan Richardson the elder. His treatise ‘An essay of the Theory of Painting’ 1722 was compiled by using material gathered by his son whilst touring Italy in 1721. To give it its full title ‘An account of some of the Statues, Bas-Relief, Drawings and Pictures in Italy’. It was very probably used by young men as a basis for their Grand Tour, and became the basis for future purchases of art by wealthy collectors and therefore shaped English interest in foreign Old Masters. Of particular interest for us is the fact that it was said that the treatise inspired Reynolds to paint. Richardson’s very extensive art collection was available for students to study and copy.

It is important to emphasise the importance of this at a time when there were no public Art Galleries. The fortunate could take part in country house tourism, or visit the first collection of contemporary paintings in England accessible to the public which had been formed at the Foundling Museum, London. However, access to private collections remained the best means of seeing and studying large collections of works.  It is speculated that Reynolds saw a self-portrait of Sir Godfrey Kneller and that this strongly influenced his own early self-portrait.

The Hudson connection was extremely prestigious and Samuel Reynolds recorded that it was changing the way that people treated him.

 As if a piece of good fortune had already actually befallen my family, it seems to me I see the good effects of it already in some person’s behaviour.

It is difficult to visualise Hudson as there are no known self-portraits, so the nearest we can get is to look at a chalk drawing by Jonathan Richardson, the elder, his tutor, now in the British Museum. It states –Thomas Hudson, Painter when young, drawn by Jonathan Richardson his master and Father-in-law.

What kind of work by Hudson would Reynolds have seen in the studio? Certainly a wide range of portraits including naval personnel.

For Joshua this training was to last for just three years. There is no evidence of a heated quarrel and the severing of all links – more a parting of ways. In fact Hudson kept in touch with Reynolds’ progress after he left.  Reynolds’ short apprenticeship was crucial to his formation as an artist – he learnt in earnest about the theory and practice of painting and the business of British portraiture. In addition to this he would have learnt about the ways in which a portraitist’s success was highly dependent on the careful management of an artistic persona.

We continue our next post in the series as Reynolds returns to Devon.

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