Reynolds, his achievements and legacy

In the final post of this series, Lawrie looks at Reynolds in the height of fame, his achievements and his legacy. She will also look at the self-portrait by James Northcote, who was both a pupil of Reynolds and the writer of a biography of Reynolds. Finally, some information about Plymouth’s acquisition of the early self-portrait.

Reynolds worked seven days a week for 9 months of the year and in total painted over 2000 portraits, nearly 30 are self- portraits, three quarters of these made after 1766 when honours started to pour in.

By 1758 Reynolds had 150 sitters a year. In 1764 he was earning the then enormous sum of £6,000 a year. In his business-like Journal for 1765 (now in the R.A. library), he records the standard price for portraits, ranging from 150 guineas for a full length, 70 guineas for a half-length, to 30 guineas for a head.

His work ethic was such that on the day he was knighted (21st April 1769), at St James’s Palace he also fitted in two sittings with clients.

Reynolds’ characteristics as a man of reason, calculation and evenness of temper, were admired by Gainsborough who often wondered at Reynolds’ equal application.

By contrast if we imagine commissioning a portrait by Gainsborough we would have found a different set of circumstances. Gainsborough once wrote to a patron who was ‘damnably out of humour about his Pictures not being finished’:

“I wish you would recollect that Painting & Punctuality mix like Oil and Vinegar, and that Genius & regularity are utter Enemies, and must be to the end of Time”.

Meanwhile for Reynolds:-

  • In 1768 he was elected as the first President of the R.A.
  • In 1769 A knighthood followed
  • In 1772 he was made an Alderman of the Borough of Plympton
  • In 1773 He became Mayor of Plympton and he received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Civil Law by the University of Oxford.
  • In 1776 A degree of Doctor of Laws followed from Trinity College, Dublin and
  • In 1784 he received the official title of Court Painter.

These honours are but a reflection of the work that Reynolds did to raise the status of art and the artist. He left a legacy of paintings, discourses, and the Royal Academy Schools.

We just need to stray from the Reynolds time scale to mention the self-portrait here of James Northcote, datable c.1784 (aged 38 years) a pupil of Reynolds, his assistant and biographer.

© Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)
James Northcote, self-portrait © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

It raises the question of what it was like to work in Reynolds’ studio, and why we do not know more about the later success of his pupils.  In 1819 the artist, Joseph Farrington published his own biography of Reynolds, ‘Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds’. In this he gives us some idea when he writes:

The School of Sir Joshua resembled a manufactory, in which the young men who were sent to him for tuition were chiefly occupied in copying portraits, or assisting in draperies and preparing the backgrounds. The great pressure of his business required not only his own unceasing diligence, but that every hand he could command should be employed, to enable him to execute the numberless commissions that poured in upon him. The consequence was that his pupils had very little time for deliberate study; and that which was left them after the application they had given in the day was usually spent in relaxation after labour.

I think we can conclude that the early self-portrait and the years spent in Dock form a very significant period in Reynolds’ life and career. It gave him contacts of inestimable value, the opportunity to go to Italy and experiences that led to the formation of a work ethic that lasted throughout his life.

The purchases

The opportunity to purchase this work came when a direct descendent of Reynolds decided to sell it together with one note or sketch book. The funding came from many sources including Art Fund, the National Lottery, the Art Council, the V&A and the Friends of Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery.

Both purchases required conservation and this was undertaken by experts.

One of the aims of this continuing project is to make the life and works of Reynolds more widely known. Please keep in touch with forthcoming events via the Museum’s web-site and the blog. At the reception desk you will find lists of forthcoming Art-Bites and lectures.

One of the many tributes and epitaphs published after the death of Reynolds reads:

‘Reynolds dead!’ cries busy Fame;

A Bard replies, ‘that cannot be;

Reynolds and nature are the same,

Both born to immortality’.

Perhaps this project will in some small way contribute to the immortality by continuing to make the life and work of Reynolds well known in this area.

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