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 follow as Reynolds is about to begin the Grand Tour.
In 1749 Commodore Keppel in the command of The Centurian put into Plymouth for repairs and met Reynolds at Lord Edgcumbe’s home and offered him a passage. At this stage in his life this was very significant. The Grand Tour was a requirement for aristocratic young men who visited the major European cities to study the classical and current art and culture.
For an ambitious artist it meant the opportunity to study and copy at first hand the work of the Old Masters.
They sailed for Lisbon on the 11th May and visited Cadiz, Gibraltar, Algiers and Minorca. Kepple treated Reynolds as an intimate friend and allowed him the use of his cabin and books and took him on shore with him whenever he could. On the island of Minorca Reynolds painted portraits of almost all of the officers of the garrison. It was at Minorca that his horse fell down a precipice causing an injury to his lip which can be seen in subsequent self-portraits.
Reynolds then went on to Leghorn, Florence and Rome where he spent two years in what he described as, ‘with measureless content’. He arrived in Italy in April 1750 and in May in a letter to Lord Edgcumbe wrote that he was:
“ at the height of my wishes, in the midst of the greatest works of art that the world has produced”.
For this stay his sisters Mary (Mrs Palmer), and Elizabeth (Mrs Johnson) advanced him the money for his expenses. He made copies from Italian and Dutch masters, Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, and as we know filled several note or sketchbooks – these are sketches and notes intended for later use. In this country two are in the British Museum, two in the Soane Museum and one we now know, is now in Plymouth Museum & Art Gallery. Reynolds also met several future friends and patrons.
He arrived back in London on the 16th October 1752, well developed as a man and as an artist, but with two physical defects one we have mentioned, the other was deafness contracted from the cold of the Vatican while copying Raphael.
In his fame Reynolds said that he always considered the disagreement with Hudson as a very fortunate circumstance, since by this means he was led to deviate from the tameness and insipidity of his master, and to form a manner of his own. Perhaps it was a matter of two strong or contrasting personalities. In his biography of Reynolds, Joseph Farrington wrote that when Reynolds returned from Rome, in order to recover his practice, he began a portrait of Giuseppe Marchi his friend who had returned to England with him. Hudson repeatedly visited to view ‘this first specimen of his improved art’. When it was completed and Hudson viewed it he said:
‘Reynolds, you do not paint so well now as you did before you went to Italy’.
After a brief stay in Devon he came to London first taking apartments where his sister Frances kept home for him for many years, and then a house in Great Newport Street where he lived til 1760.
Reynolds insisted that genius on its own was insufficient to make an artist; the art he advocated combined natural talent with training, learning, and constant observation.
He was probably the most prolific portrait painter of all time.
In the final post of this series, we shall see just what Reynolds’ achievements were.