Insight into Sir Joshua Reynolds’ sketchbook

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

By Paul Willis, Curator of Fine Art

The following article is based on an Art Bite talk given at the Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery on Wednesday 3 September 2014

The Sir Joshua Reynolds sketchbook recently acquired by Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery (PCM&AG), dates from his travels in Italy in the early 1750s. The funding to purchase the sketchbook and the Reynolds 1746 self-portrait was generously provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England / V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Art Fund, and the Friends of the Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery.

The PCM&AG sketchbook is a very rare survival of Reynolds’s period in Italy. Ten sketchbooks went to auction at Mary Palmer, Marchioness of Thomond, [Reynolds’ favourite niece] posthumous sale in 1821 – nine are now in public collections including the Sir John Soane’s Museum, British Museum (x2), Metropolitan Museum (New York), and Fogg Art Museum (Massachusetts). The PCM&AG sketchbook was one of the last two remaining in private hands. The sketchbook is therefore significant for its rarity and for the opportunity it represents to bring fresh insight into Reynolds time in Italy.

The PCM&AG sketchbook was created between 1751 and 1752, and contains 121 sides of drawings by Reynolds in pencil, pen & ink and black chalk. It is bound in its original vellum binding and cover. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts Reynolds 1986 exhibition as catalogue number 159, where Dr Nicholas Penny recognised one of the
drawings as a study of Correggio’s Madonna di San Girolamo (Madonna of St Jerome) now in the Galleria Nazionale di Parma. It therefore seems likely that the sketchbook contains drawings from Reynolds time in Rome (1751) and the early part of his journey to Venice, particularly Parma and Florence (1752).

 

Sketch of the Madonna di San Girolamo, Reynolds
Sketch of the Madonna di San Girolamo, Reynolds © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

You will notice from the sketch of the Madonna di San Girolamo how Reynolds focused on a particular element of a work of art, what we presume for him was the most interesting or useful aspect of it, in this case, the character, composition of the angel holding the Bible before the Christ Child. It is interesting to note that in 17th Century, this work was famed as the most beautiful painting ever produced. Vasari admired its wondrous colour and he said that the smile of the angel could cheer up even the most melancholy of observers.

Academic investigation of the other sketchbooks has shown that Reynolds would not copy exactly what he saw before him, but rather sketch those particular parts of the work of art that interested him, and sometimes even combine them with others to make a hybrid. In his Second Discourse, Reynolds stated:

Instead of copying the touches of those great masters, copy only their conceptions; instead of treading in their footsteps, endeavour only to keep the same road. Labour to invent on their general principles and way of thinking. Possess yourself with their spirit.

It was said in the early 18th Century that a successful portrait painter must have the name of having travelled to Rome. However, Reynolds did not go there to learn technique. He felt he had already acquired this from his apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson, one of the leading portrait painters in England at the time. Reynolds plan was similar to that of other scholars of the period who read and reread Greek and Latin in order to stock their minds with quotations from Homer or Virgil. By spending hours in palaces and churches where classical statues and paintings by the Old Masters were on display, Reynolds planned to memorise compositions, faces, expressions, gestures, the arrangement of points of interest, and the uses of light and shade to enhance the effect of the works. Reynolds plan was simple – he was to cram his mind with images from Italy’s glorious tradition of art which he could use in his own art on his return to England.

The sketchbook is a visual record of Reynolds’ artistic eye, his thought processes and his personal interests – a rare private and personal insight into an artist whose work and life were to become so public in future years. The sketches also inform us of what he possibly sought out on his tour of the churches, palaces, and private collections to which he could gain access. It is thought that he made the sketches in situ, i.e. in front of the actual work, sometimes making notes as to the use of colour and tone, and often noting the artist’s name although on some occasions he was mistaken). We also see flashes of his skill in drawing from life. The sketches range from coarse, sketchy line drawings, some with colour coding, to more built up, shaded, developed pictures. It is also interesting to observe his interest and analysis of ‘chiaroscuro’. Many years later Reynolds wrote:

When I observed an extraordinary effect of light and shade in any picture, I took a leaf of my pocket-book, and darkened every part of it in the same gradation of light and shade as the picture, leaving the white paper untouched to represent the light, and this without any attention to the subject or to the drawing of the figures. A few trials of this kind will be sufficient to give the method of their conduct in the management of their lights.

Reynolds’s sketches also possess a remarkable talent for summarising and reproducing what is essential in a pose or in a composition. However, he did not imitate the style of the paintings he was copying: all his drawings are in his own particular style. This is of course precisely what often makes the identification of the sources of his sketches difficult. On stylistic grounds alone it is difficult, but by including his method of working, it becomes problematic to gauge whether a drawing is a representation of a particular work of art or a construction of his imagination.

Work has been underway to identify the original works from the sketchbook, which I will share with you in the next update!

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