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.


Reynolds on the Grand Tour

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.

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’.

Reynolds, London and the Hudson connection

Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives

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…

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Reynolds’ early years in Plympton

By Lawrie Thorne – project volunteer

Lawrie has carried out research into Reynolds’ early years up until the 1750s. This is the first in a series of posts looking at the significance of the recently acquired self-portrait, in the life and times of Reynolds. It is based on an Art Bite talk given in December 2014.

Joshua Reynolds was born on the 16th July 1723, the seventh of eleven children of The Reverend Samuel Reynolds and his wife Theophila. Five of the children died in infancy. His father was Master of Plympton Grammar School where Joshua was to be a pupil. Samuel had graduated from Corpus Christi College in 1702, and was elected fellow of Balliol College, Oxford in 1705. On both sides the family was clerical and scholarly.

Plympton itself was an important area with its ancient Priory granted a Charter by Henry III in 1253, its status as a Stannary town, and its ability to return two members of Parliament.

Plympton Grammar School was one of private foundation. From the part of the estate of Elize Hele of Cornwood, left for charitable purposes, the trustees in 1658 allocated £1,800 for building a school house, maintaining a Master, and providing him with a dwelling. Begun in 1663 the school was completed in eight years with Richard Taprell, appointed in 1671 as the first Head Master. A dwelling- house already on site served, with additions, as a Masters house until its demolition in 1869.

Plympton Grammar School, by Samuel Prout (1783-1852)
Plympton Grammar School, as painted by Samuel Prout  © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

The school was described as a Gothic structure of the most picturesque design and arrangement. Samuel Reynolds was appointed Head Master 1715 and was in post until his death in 1746. With few exceptions all the Heads were in Holy Orders.

Like Plymouth Grammar School under Bidlake, the Plympton School was famous for its artist-pupils. James Northcote was one, and both Charles Eastlake and Benjamin Robert Haydon finished their education there.

Samuel Reynolds had a wide ranging academic curiosity. He read political tracts, and had a small collection of anatomical and other prints, which Joshua copied. On his shelves were many of the era’s key texts, including essays by Jonathan Richardson – of whom more later, and perhaps most important of all he seems to have been a very sociable man with educated friends with whom he loved to discuss and debate issues. The group included James Bulteel of Flete, and two 2 lawyer friends, John Cranch of Plympton and Charles Cutcliffe of Bideford. One issue that occupied them was the future of Joshua.

Samuel’s first inclination was to bring up his son up as an apothecary – however, by 1740, Joshua’s interest in art was such that his father could write of his “very great genius for drawing and lately on his own head (he) has begun even painting”.

At this stage Joshua’s talent was sufficiently well known for a John Warwell to offer to train him free of charge as an apprentice. Under the general term of house painter, this would have involved coach and heraldic work, shop signs, chimney boards, over mantels and over door panels all of which needed skill and artistic imagination in the use of paint – a wide diversity of skills being deployed and developed.

For such an apprentice the seven years of servitude began at the age of 14 years, which contrasts with the four years pupillage later offered to Reynolds. Several of the founding members of the R.A. were to start in apprenticeships. Reynolds with ideas of his own stated that he would rather be an apothecary than an ordinary painter, and that he wanted to be bound to an eminent master.

Keep an eye out for the next post in this series, when Reynolds begins his training.

The early times of Reynolds at Plymouth Dock

By Celia Bean, project volunteer

Before he was 20 Joshua Reynolds had declared that if he did not prove himself to be the best painter of the age by the time he reached 30 he never would.  So we can assume that when he returned to Plympton St Maurice in 1743 after prematurely finishing his apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson in London he would have had this ambition in mind.  His decision to work in the up and coming area of Plymouth Dock (later Devonport) was the first step in this plan.

My involvement with the research for PCMAG’s planned exhibition is to research Reynold’s time at Plymouth Dock between 1743 and 1749, so I am looking at what the area was like at that time, who Joshua painted whilst he was there and the influences that he had.

On 3 January 1744, Joshua’s father, Samuel, wrote to his friend Charles Cutcliffe who had been instrumental in arranging Joshua’s apprenticeship to Thomas Hudson, saying that his son had started painting in Plymouth Dock and had painted 20 portraits, including that of ‘the greatest man in the place, the commissioner of the dockyard’ and that he had 10 more commissions lined up.  The commissioner at that time was Philip Vanbrugh, younger brother of Sir John Vanbrugh (d 1726) who designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

The Town Clerk of Plymouth Walter Kendall, an important member of local society not only wanted his portrait painted, but also that of his wife and five of his family.  The Kendall’s family home was at Pelyn, Cornwall where they would have mixed with the local gentry and they were in a position to spread the word about the young painter.

Later that year Joshua returned to London as he and Thomas Hudson had patched up their quarrel and were on good terms.  Joshua’s father wrote that ‘Joshua by his master’s means is introduced into a club composed of the most famous men in their profession’.  This club met at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane and the clientele comprised mainly artists and connoisseurs who had an interest in old-master prints and drawings. An ideal place for an ambitious young painter not only to learn from the company of like-minded people, but also to do some valuable networking.

Reynolds returned home around the time of his father’s death on Christmas day 1745.  His mother Theophila moved to Torrington, where she lived with her eldest daughter, Mary, until her own death and Reynolds and his two unmarried sisters, Fanny and Elizabeth took a house in Fore Street, Plymouth Dock. The sisters opened a millinery shop on the ground floor and Joshua had a studio on the floor above.

Around this time Reynolds painted portraits of his sister Frances (known as Fanny) Reynolds and a posthumous portrait of his father Rev Samuel Reynolds, as well as his own self-portrait (recently acquired by PCMAG).  Perhaps he displayed these in the shop window to advertise his skill.

Plymouth Dock was the site of the most modern and technologically advanced Naval port in Europe and a new modern town grew up around it.  It was an area of well-planned streets that were wide and imposing and paved with what appeared to be marble. It was probably limestone from the local quarries, which with its veined appearance would shine like marble when wet or worn. This town was still very small when Reynolds and his sisters arrived, consisting of about seven streets concentrated around the dockyard entrance.  The main one was Fore Street where Joshua and his sisters had settled and it was along this street that all those having business in the dockyard, be they naval or civilian, had to pass.  An astute location for an ambitious young man, as this was an area on the up and a useful place for Joshua to do some networking amongst the naval officers, who at that time were either aristocrats or gentry – the very people who would consider having their portrait painted.

He was fortunate that through his father Samuel he was acquainted with some of the local aristocracy such as the Parkers of Borringdon (later of Saltram) and the Edgcumbe family of Mount Edgcumbe and it is perhaps in these residences that he was able to examine paintings of merit.  He was particularly taken with the works of a Devon artist William Gandy of Exeter (d 1729) and in his early works Reynolds copied some of Gandy’s method, especially in regard to painting the head.  Reynolds also took note of Gandy’s observation that “a picture ought to have a richness in its texture, as if the colours had been composed of cream or cheese, and the reverse to a hard and husky or dry manner.”

Although he continued to travel to London, his principal patrons at that time were from the West Country, not only The Parkers and the Edgcumbes, but notably Richard Eliot, MP for St Germans and Liskeard.

With the contacts and commissions he was starting to get whilst living in Plymouth Dock, Reynolds was beginning to hone his skills towards becoming the best painter of the age.


Leslie, C.R. and Taylor, Tom, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1865

Northcote, James. The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1818

Cotton, William. Sir Joshua Reynolds and his Works, Gleanings from his diary, unpublished manuscripts, and from other sources  (ed. J. Burnet), London 1856

Robinson, Chris, A History of Devonport, Plymouth, 2010

Sir Joshua’s family tree

By Nicci Wakeham, project volunteer

Having seen the call for volunteer community researchers into the life and times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, I was eager to become involved.

This would involve research using books, journals, the resources of the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, information held at the museum itself and any other suitable resources available.

Our task was to investigate Reynolds’ early life (c. 1720-1750), the period he was growing up, his school life, apprenticeship and first studio.

My first mission was to explore his family and produce a family tree.  William Cotton’s book, Sir Joshua Reynolds and His Works: Gleanings from his Diary, Unpublished Manuscripts & from Other Sources,[1]  was a mine of information.  This, together with further material gleaned from the Johnson Family Tree [2], of which I found an existing copy at the museum, helped to build a partial picture of the Reynolds’ family. With additional facts found in the trove Pedigrees of Five Devonshire Families: Colby, Coplestone, Reynolds, Palmer and Johnson, compiled by Frederick Thomas Colby, DD FSA, in 1884, I have now amassed a tree with 130 individuals.

I fed all this fascinating material into a computer programme, My Heritage Family Tree Builder; I have enclosed a photograph of how huge the resulting paper chart has become – filing both kitchen and dining room floors; dimensions 525 cm x 120 cm!

The Reynolds family tree stretches rather a long way.... (photo courtesy of Nicci Wakeham)
The Reynolds family tree stretches rather a long way…. (photo courtesy of Nicci Wakeham)

A well-educated and pious family, many of the Reynolds men attended universities.  Sir Joshua’s father, Samuel was educated Oxford, as were two of his uncles and his great-grandfather (maternal).  His grandfather, Rev. John Reynolds was a Cambridge man (paternal), as was his nephew, Rev. John Palmer.  Four of Joshua’s great-nephews were educated at Cambridge and one at Oxford.

Joshua’s father’s family herald from Exeter and are probably related to the Pinhoe Reynolds’, who include Dr. John Reynolds (or Rainolds) (1549-1607), a scholar and President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford (1598-1607).  It was Dr. Reynolds who suggested to King James I that a new translation of the bible was required and was himself one of the translators.  He is said to have died of overwork at 58, leaving behind him a great reputation for scholarship and high character.[3]

Joshua’s Mother’s family are from the Great Torrington area, his two oldest brothers were born and baptised there.  His sister, Mary, although born in Plympton St Maurice, spent most of her years in Great Torrington, dying here aged 78.  In fact, Joshua’s brother-in-law, William Johnson (1728-1795), husband of his sister Elizabeth, was the Mayor of Torrington three times; 1757, 1764, 1771. FInd out more on his sister Frances (known as Fanny) in this Appendix.

This has proven to be both a rewarding and frustrating task; sometimes dates don’t match, nicknames are used, children are ignored if they didn’t live through childhood, the sharing of family names (out of 130 people, we have 11 x Marys, 10 x Williams, 9 x Elizabeths and 8 Johns). Some of the children’s names, from large families, are not recorded at all, i.e. Joshua’s nephew, Joseph Palmer (1749-1829) and his wife Eliza had 22 children; I have only found names for 14.

I shall continue to add to the family tree, making note of any anecdotes that I come across, but my next assignment will be to look at Sir Joshua’s early artistic interest, his schooling and the other artists from Plympton that followed in his wake.


[1] Cotton, William, Sir Joshua Reynolds and His Works: Gleanings from his Diary, Unpublished Manuscripts & from Other Sources, London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1856.

[1] Johnson family tree – Joshua’s sister Elizabeth (1721-1800) married William Johnson (1728-1795) in Great Torrington, Devon, in 1753.  The marriage produced seven children

[3] Hall, Isaac, ed., The Revised New Testament and History of Revision, Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers; Atlanta: C.R. Blackall & Co.; New York: A.L. Bancroft & Co., 1881.