Reynolds: Dock, Devon and London

The following post is based on an Art Bite talk given at the Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery. It was given by Lawrie Thorne, who has carried out research into Reynolds’ early years up until the 1750s. We pick up the story in Plymouth, as Reynolds is establishing himself as a portrait painter.

As Richardson noted in ‘An essay of the Theory of Painting’, aspiring portraitists needed to cultivate an appropriately genteel appearance and manner in the presence of their clients and to become confident in the art of polite conversation. These attributes needed to be complemented by an appropriate setting and ambitious portraitists rented houses in which they could receive their sitters and showcase their work.

So it is with this knowledge and experience that by the Summer of 1743 Reynolds had returned to Plympton, was dividing his time between Devon and London, and was quickly established as a portrait painter. See Celia Bean’s post for further details of his commissions around this time.

His father died on Christmas Day in 1745.  Maybe their home was a house for duty – it went with the job and the whole family had to leave. Reynolds’ mother went to live with her married daughter Mary in Torrington and Reynolds took responsibility for his sisters Elizabeth and Frances.

It was with a typically shrewd decision that Reynolds decided to open a studio in Dock the area we know as Devonport in 1746 and until 1749 he was head of his own household with responsibility for his two unmarried sisters (who as mentioned in Celia Bean’s post opened a millinery shop in Fore Street).  Here in Dock – this early self-portrait was displayed. A study of Reynolds’ self-portraits reveals that many of them were painted for a purpose to mark a specific event or turning point in his life and there is little doubt that it was used as an example of his work – for any prospective client wondering if he could do a likeness here was the sitter and the painter.

So was the move a good idea, was the self-portrait a significant part of a successful career?

It was quickly followed in 1747-49 by a self-portrait, again oil on canvas, and now in the National Portrait Gallery. It is useful to pause for a moment to compare the form and purpose of these portraits. It contrasts well with the earlier work we are discussing. This is the only work to show him as a painter or with the implements of a painter. He is 24 years old. He stands before a blank canvas, confidently holding a mahlstick, brushes and his trade mark palette with a handle, in his right hand. He turns sharply to his left to look far away. His left hand is shielding his eyes from the light streaming in. This is one of Reynolds’ rare portraits with prominent hand gestures, the only one to show him painting. It was of such importance that it was later the subject of an engraving thus making it available at a reasonable price to a wide public. So we can detect a change of circumstances, a significant development in its purpose and composition.

To Return to Dock

When Reynolds moved to Dock, the Naval Dockyard was a major centre of government investment and employment and received a steady traffic of visiting political grandees. It was populated by London educated government employees. News about great European events was received in Plymouth Dock even before reaching the capital. See Celia’s post for more details on what Dock was like, and Reynolds’ astute location there.

View of Plymouth Dock, attributed to Thomas Rennell © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)
View of Plymouth Dock, attributed to Thomas Rennell © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

Reynolds worked in Dock in partnership with another painter, probably the Chudleigh born pupil of Hudson, Thomas Rennell (1716-88). Rennell gained a reputation for idleness and died in poverty.

At this time Hudson was well established in London and there is no doubt that Reynolds inherited some of Hudson’s West Country business and that Hudson continued to mentor him informally. The portraits Reynolds painted whilst in Dock are like a window onto mid-eighteenth-century Plymouth. He painted members of Plympton Corporation who employed him in 1748, a local surgeon, clergy, members of his own family, and most importantly he painted naval personnel and then local landowning and political dynasties.

Most important of these was Richard Edgcumbe, 1st Lord Edgcumbe of Mount Edgcumbe who was instrumental in forwarding his career. Connections were made with the Eliot family at Port Eliot and included in the In the Frame exhibition is a group portrait of the family and two of their friends dated c.1746.

So Reynolds was by this time established, and with aristocratic friends – what he needed now was to broaden his horizons and experience. Reynolds seems to have been most fortunate in this respect – the right person and opportunity coming at the right time.

In our next post in this series, Laurie picks up the next stage in Reynolds’ life as he begins the ‘Grand Tour’.


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