Painters of society

Sir Joshua Reynolds - The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough - The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds
May 4, 2001

Tom Rosenthal weighs up the merits of two 18th-century sparring partners.

It is a happy coincidence that these three books have been published within a few months of each other. Thomas Gainsborough (17-88) and Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) are two of the giants of English 18th-century art, two of the most important portraitists in Europe and, while always rivals, as almost exact contemporaries jointly dominated England's artistic landscape for decades.

Gainsborough was the more private man and, by some distance, the greater artist. Reynolds was the archetypal man of parts. The son of a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, Reynolds was the first president of the Royal Academy (of which he was a founder member), who somehow always found the energy to be a clubman, a fixer who knew - and corresponded with - all those who mattered, who had the time to write his celebrated Discourses and who even managed to serve as mayor of his native Plympton. John Edgcumbe, the co-editor of the new edition of his letters, a retired haematologist, is a descendant of Reynolds. Gainsborough was also, not surprisingly, a founder member of the RA in 1768, though he finally broke with it in 1784 over the hanging of some of his royal portraits. Despite their rivalry, Reynolds wrote movingly a few months after Gainsborough's death in his Discourse of December 10 1788: "If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honourable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of Art, among the very first of that rising name." It is a sentence at once orotund and ungainly, but it is a genuine and generous valedictory tribute from Gainsborough's most distinguished contemporary and most significant rival.

Reynolds also once observed of Gainsborough that "he occasionally made copies from Rubens, Teniers and van Dyck, which it would be no disgrace to the most accurate connoisseur to mistake, at the first sight, for the works of those masters".

While Gainsborough certainly had his share of royal portraits and - essential to make a good living - was on the right terms with the aristocracy, he was never in the same Establishment favour as Reynolds, who was clearly the dominant "official" painter of his era. When Allan Ramsay died in 1784, Reynolds was appointed "principal painter" to George III who, despite knighting him, "could not endure the presence of him". Still, it is pleasant to think of an age in which the monarch actually had a "principal painter", and it is sad to think of the royal family's spectacular collection of paintings and drawings at Buckingham Palace and, particularly, Windsor Castle, with its exiguous and, on the whole, undistinguished additions during the 20th century - as if art had ceased to matter as a vital, living component of the realm.

John Hayes's edition of Gainsborough's letters is the first since Mary Woodall's pioneering collection of 1961, which was de facto a private press edition. Hayes adds some 13 letters plus several interesting financial documents (instructions to his bankers, receipts for payments from clients and so on), and there are good black-and-white illustrations of portraits, by diverse hands, of his correspondents. Hayes considers Gainsborough to be a literary original, as well as a great painter, comparing him to the creator of Tristram Shandy. For example, he wrote to his great friend the composer William Jackson, whom he admonished for an excess of social ambition: "'tis mighty pretty to be sure to stand and admire another man hop upon one leg, and forget the use of two damned long ones ... you underthimble me".

On the whole, Gainsborough's correspondents, with the exception of the actor David Garrick, were not well-known people. But unlike Reynolds, Gainsborough seems to have been incapable of obsequiousness or even excessive tact. In a letter to Garrick, he wrote: "I know your great Stomach and that you hate to be cram'd, but by G - you shall swallow this one bait, and when you speak of me don't let it be like a Goose but remember you are a fat Turkey."

Later he advised the actor, whom he had painted so brilliantly (a portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery), on the hanging of the painting: "a Word to the Wise; if you let your Portrait hang up so high, only to consult your Room, and to insinnuate somthing over the other Door; it never can look without a hardness of Countenance and the Painting flat: it was calculated for breast high & will never have its Effect or likeness otherwise".

Among the most interesting of Gainsborough's letters are those to one of his aristocratic clients, William, second earl of Dartmouth, to whom he wrote most frankly about his art: "I should fancy myself a great blockhead if I was capable of painting such a Likeness as I did of your Lordship, and not have sense enough to see why I did not give the same satisfaction in Lady Dartmouth's Picture: & I believe your Lordship will agree with me in this point, that next to being able to paint a tollerable Picture, is having judgment enough to see what is the matter with a bad one."

Subsequently, writing to Dartmouth, he made a dig at the then-prevailing encouragement of classical and mythological subject matter as a source for painting, particularly by the recently knighted Reynolds. "Nothing can be more absurd than the foolish custom of Painters dressing people like scaramouches, and expecting the likeness to appear... I believe I shall remain an Ignorant fellow to the end of my days, because I never could have patience to read Poetical impossibilities, the very food of a painter: especially if he intends to be Knighted... in this Land of Roast Beef. So well do Serious People love froth - ". According to Hayes, Reynolds was nearly always paid much more than Gainsborough. He commanded 200 guineas for a full-length portrait in 1782, compared with Gainsborough's receipt of only half that sum for an equivalent work that posterity would judge the finer. When they died, Gainsborough's funeral (at his own request) was private, while Reynolds's was a state occasion at St Paul's Cathedral.

The Reynolds editors start by stating: "We read Reynolds's letters not for their literary style, but for the additional light they shed on his remarkable career." While he is indeed a clumsy writer, his personality always shines through the sometimes clotted prose and it is impressive to see some of his correspondence in French and Italian, in which he wrote at least as serviceably as in English. This is an invaluable addition to Reynolds literature in that it contains nearly twice as many letters as its predecessor, F. W. Hilles's The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1929). Given his relentless social as well as professional activity, the range of his correspondents is not only wide but deep within 18th-century intellectual society.

Thus we find him writing to Sir William Hamilton on March 28 1769: "I hope you have been able to pick up some Capital Pictures as well as Etruscan Vases." - and going on to describe to Hamilton the setting up of the RA. "I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the Arts flourish here with great vigour, we have as good Artists in every branch of the Art as any other nation can boast. and the King has very seriously taken them under his protection; he has established an Academy which opend the first of January... It is composed of forty and cannot exceed that number, out of which are chosen all the Officers, to the surprise of every body I have the honour of being President, and it is only honour for there is no salary annex'd to this dignity."

Boswell was a favourite correspondent, to whom in October 1782 Reynolds confessed: "if I felt the same reluctance in taking a Pencil in my hand as I do a pen I should be as bad a Painter as I am a correspondent". After saying how much Edmund Burke likes him, he goes on to express the hope that Boswell should live among them in London and wonders whether if "we send you a round Robin, such as we sent to Dr. Johnson, to invite you, will that be an inducement". This refers to the Round Robin (of which there is a marvellous facsimile in Volume III of the 1887 Birkbeck Hill edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson ), bearing the signatures of, inter alia , Joshua Reynolds, Burke and Sheridan, in an effort to persuade Johnson to alter his epitaph for Oliver Goldsmith.

Reynolds was often up to something in his letters. In writing to Garrick to try to persuade him to show an interest in the tragedy Zaphira written by his nephew, Joseph Palmer, he seasoned his nepotistic zeal by remarking that: "I should not take this liberty if I was not in some measure authorised by the approbation of Edd Burk and Johnson The latter contrary to his custom read it quite through."

Reynolds was, of course, a great traveller and one who certainly broadened his artistic mind in the process, particularly with the help of Giulio Romano, whose elaborate poses he borrowed for what he called the Great Style. There is an instructive letter from Rotterdam written in August 1781 to Edmund Burke: "it has raised my Idea of Rubens upon the whole. I shall have materials to form a more correct judment of the rank he ought to hold when I have seen Dusseldorp where we intend going... The Country is not calculated for a Landskip painter, tho I am no great Enemy to strait lines yet here is a little too much of it, their dykes a mile long without the least curviture but it is still very striking and their patience and perseverance to throw up such a quantity of earth, or cut such canals must raise the admiration of every traveller." (The rather endearing spelling, "Landskip", was also used by Gainsborough.) Both these volumes of letters are not only scrupulously edited but also copiously and entertainingly annotated with - oh rare joy today - the notes on the same page on which the letter appears.

The Reynolds catalogue raisonné weighs, on my bathroom scales, an entire stone, and one cannot avoid the word monumental. Apart from the massive text (at least half a million words), there are 136 excellent colour plates and 1,748 black-and-white illustrations. Of course, mere statistics do not make a great book. For that, one needs good typography to make the closely set catalogue entries easily readable (the test is passed). One also needs sound scholarship that other students of Reynolds can rely on. Here the authors have that rare ability to combine erudition with a civilised style, so that one can read entry after entry for both instruction and enjoyment, rather than merely look up a single picture, find the required information and replace the book on the shelf.

The wonderful 1756-57 portrait of Dr Johnson at the National Portrait Gallery is perfectly handled. Thus the provenance is in the terse, almost staccato prose characteristic of the cataloguer's craft: "Given by Reynolds to James Boswell c. 1791; passed to his son James, at whose sale, 3 June 1825 (3293) bt. by John Grave, 'a hop merchant of Southwark' ( Gentlemens Magazine xcv, i, 607) who sold it to James Morrison; Charles Morrison, 93 Harley Street; given to NPG, anonymously, Mar. 1911, by Walter Morrison." How one relishes the history of this great painting, with its unflattering, jowly, pasty-complexioned, rather coarse-featured face, with head tilted quizzically to one side, as if contemplating the world's folly. It is redolent of all the almost quixotic humanity of the man around whom Reynolds later instigated the Literary Club in 1764.

Of course, the entry in the catalogue consists of far more than just the provenance, fascinating as that is. (One wonders at what point, and by whom, Walter Morrison's anonymity was deemed to be waived so that we could know who our wise benefactor was.) It is in effect a miniature essay on the painting and on Johnson that is a model of its kind, matched recently only by Alastair Smart's Allan Ramsay and Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray's John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits . We learn that Boswell, on first meeting, noticed "a man of most dreadful appearance... very big... troubled with sore eyes, the palsy and the King's evil. He is very slovenly in his dress." Dr Campbell, meeting Johnson at the Thrale house, felt that he had the aspect of an idiot, "with the most awkward garb & unpowdered grey wig on one side only of his head,... forever dancing the Devil's jig".

The description of the over-painting and the radical changes in the appearance of the picture after a two-year cleaning and restoration process is both revelatory and fascinating and is typical of the elaborate care devoted to their task by the authors.

The entry on the Marlborough family is again impeccable. The group portrait of the fourth duke, his duchess, six children and three of his dogs was painted in 1777-79 and, in Ellis Waterhouse's words, is "the most monumental achievement of British portraiture". There exists a charming sketch for this vast painting at the Tate Gallery, which shows interesting changes in composition, postures of the sitters and so on. But the final version at Blenheim Palace is as fine an English family group portrait as conceivable, despite the limits imposed by the essential artificiality of the venture - a topic not avoided by the author: "The costumes are a mixture of ceremonial, fashionable and imaginary. The duke in his Garter robes, the duchess in a typical Reynolds 'classical' white cross-over gown and a blue ermine-lined mantle, and the children in contemporary dress." The duke, clearly seeking further merit by association, is holding a cameo portrait head of the Emperor Augustus. While all this is indubitably artificial, formal, flattering and in many ways inimical to contemporary taste, the painting is a prime example of Reynolds's instinctively sure grasp of his aristocratic patrons and a masterpiece of bravura design and virtuoso academic painting.

One of the volume's few faults, and inevitably a matter of personal opinion, is that one of Reynolds's most celebrated paintings, The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents , is represented by a small black-and-white illustration, rather than by one of the 136 large colour plates it surely deserves - if only because of what the picture meant to Reynolds himself. Given that the Hermitage in St Petersburg, which owns the picture, is practising a charm offensive in the West, it presumably would not have been difficult to get a decent colour transparency of this huge work, executed (clearly with some problems for the artist) in 1785-89 for the Empress Catherine the Great. (There is an interesting missive from Reynolds to Prince Potemkin about the commission in the Letters, in which he seeks permission to dedicate the second volume of his Discourses to the empress.) But the catalogue entry for the painting is unmissable. Reynolds did not even receive his fee during his lifetime - although Catherine sent him a gold snuff box with her portrait medallion set in diamonds - and his executors had to agitate for payment of £1,500, at least £75,000 in today's terms. Not everyone liked it. Horace Walpole wrote: "I did not at all admire it: the principal babe put me in mind of what I have read so often, but have not seen, the monstrous craws: Master Hercules's knees are as large as, I presume, the late Lady Guildford's. Blind Tiresias is staring with horror at the spectacle." By the 1820s, the painting was in store, but the English artist George Dawe, when working for Czar Nicholas I, offered to trade it for the portrait he was painting of the Grand Duchess Marie. Happily for the present-day Hermitage, his offer was refused. Details such as these bring to life potentially musty catalogues raisonnés . The authors state that their catalogue is "intended to replace that published by Algernon Graves and William Vine Cronin in four volumes between 1899-1901". This it obviously does, and one can only note an excessive modesty in the prefatory note to the effect that: "This is not the last word on Reynolds. It is better regarded as a progress report and, it is hoped, a springboard for future research." I think I detect a slight case of meiosis since, by any normal art-historical standards, this is a mighty project mightily realised.

All three of these books are well up to the standards of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, to whom all students of that subject will be forever indebted, and their publishers, Yale University Press. There can be no other single American Anglophile who has done so much for British culture - and, considering the large number of the authors employed, for academe - as the late Paul Mellon.

Tom Rosenthal, former chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, is art critic, New Statesman , and the author of a forthcoming study of Sidney Nolan.

Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings

Editor - David Mannings
ISBN - 0 300 08533 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £150.00 boxed set
Pages - 612/692

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