Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint

An artist often portrayed as an orthodox portraitist is depicted as having an ‘unquenchable thirst’ for innovation and experiment, finds Shahidha Bari

March 19, 2015

Source: Alamy

Unspoken mischief: ‘if the colours have faded, Reynolds’ remarkable sense of composition remains’, as seen in Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue

Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint

The Wallace Collection, London
Until 7 June 2015

In Reynolds’ expert hands, portraiture runs that much closer to performance, has light and shade, humour and seduction, all at once

“Villainy!”, “Lie!” and “Slang!” were just some of the more economical epithets hurled at the grand society portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds by the poet William Blake in his copy of Reynolds’ Discourses on Art.

A series of lectures given by the stately painter, the Discourses inspired such rage in the renegade poet that he furiously annotated his edition with an array of elegant aspersions. “Readers must expect”, Blake warned, “in all my Remarks on these Books Nothing but Indignation and Resentment.” Luckily for the Wallace Collection, visitors to this latest exhibition of Reynolds’ work are unlikely to respond as violently as Blake to this small, sedate and thoughtful assembly of 12 canvases.

The quietness of the work sits in contrast to the energetic ways in which the curators of the show have set out to provide a fresh new perspective on this “towering figure of British painting”: X‑ray scanning canvases, painstakingly scraping away layers of varnish and microscopically scrutinising pigment compositions. It is a similar spirit of enquiring industriousness, though, that they seek to ascribe to Reynolds. The new, apparently more complex and adventurous, Reynolds revealed here is a painter with an “unquenchable thirst” for innovation and experiment, expressed in his tirelessly exploratory use of materials and radical compositions. If that thesis is not always persuasive, there is certainly inquisitiveness and boldness to the exhibition’s super-powered meeting of art history with forensic chemistry. This is only amplified when set against the conventional understanding of Reynolds as a painter representative of the stodgier aesthetic orthodoxies of British art in the 18th century.

At the helm of British portraiture for much of his life, Reynolds had an influence that extended well beyond the parameters of his canvases. He was fundamental in the founding of the Royal Academy and committed to the idea of a schooling through which painters might acquire professional status. Through the Academy and its exhibitions, he sought to establish standards of excellence and a canon of good taste from which might emerge a British school of art to rival those venerable Flemish and Venetian traditions. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that an artist such as Blake, with his idiosyncratic style and intensely private methods of production, should have taken umbrage at the declarative directives issued by Reynolds in his annual addresses. The series of 15 lectures, written by Reynolds and delivered to an audience of colleagues and students over a period of 20 years, were published as the Discourses in 1797, sealing his position as the judicious voice of British art in the 18th century. Yet, despite his protestations, even the disgruntled Blake owed to Reynolds a not insignificant debt, having trained at the Academy in 1779 and submitting several works for exhibition there throughout his career.

In the present day, Reynolds’ legacy remains visible not only in the panoply of his paintings, liberally scattered throughout the major British galleries, but also in his sculptural omnipresence, memorialised as he is in almost every corner of the city of London. At St Paul’s Cathedral, John Flaxman’s marble Reynolds is robed and severe, a figure of austere neoclassicism; in the courtyard of Burlington House, Alfred Drury’s Reynolds is fey and spry, darting forward with brush in hand. The whistle-stop #JoshuaReynolds Twitter tour, playfully orchestrated by the Wallace Collection to accompany this exhibition, makes much of this, posting snapshots of his work and plotting their placement across London. Organised in coordination with the full gamut of the city’s major galleries (each of which can make its own competing claim to Reynolds), the tour includes a stop at the Royal Academy for a close-up of Reynolds’ wiry old spectacles, meticulously preserved like a holy relic. It makes for a delightful, quirky touch, but there is something more substantial in the idea of Reynolds’ particular vision: not only of a distinct tradition of portraiture but of a national school of art and a broader culture of good taste within which such things could flourish.

Of the paintings in the Wallace Collection, the 1759 portrait of the Fourth Duke of Queensberry is perhaps most indicative of the paradoxes of Reynolds as a painter who could be as archly establishment as he was ardently innovative. The side-on angle captures the duke in profile, serene and masterful, partly turned from the shadows, draped in robes of crimson silk velvet and a white ermine trim, dotted with rows of black sealskin spots indicative of his rank. Reynolds, though, had mixed an unstable red lake pigment with white to imbue his sitter with a rosy complexion, which, over years of exposure, has deteriorated to a ghostly pallor. The exhibition makes much of Reynolds’ various trial-and-error use of materials, and its reclamation of the artist as a technical innovator is, in part, reverse-engineered from the problems of conservation raised by his famously volatile canvases. The question of how to preserve portraits such as that of the Duke of Queensberry leads back to their inventive origins. Indeed, the exhibition begins with a canvas of miscellaneous daubs – dark greens, vivid blues and indistinct ochres, smeared thumbprints and blotches of faded brightness, evidently being tested for colour, texture and durability, some cracked and discoloured, many with Reynolds’ working notes still visibly scrawled alongside them.

If the colours have faded, though (and many of them did so even within the lifetimes of the sitters), Reynolds’ remarkable sense of composition remains. In the 1771 portrait of Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue, she leans forward, almost through the canvas, her grey‑eyed gaze attentive, intent and alluring, her chest pressed against the back splat of a Chippendale chair, arms slung over the top rail, hand resting on hand, a thumb just brushing against her lips. Dressed in character for William Congreve’s Restoration comedy Love for Love, there is some unspoken mischief both in her artful artlessness and in the fiction depicted inside the fiction of Reynolds’ own composition. A ruffled lapdog peeks out glumly from the amassed folds of her skirt. In Reynolds’ expert hands, portraiture runs that much closer to performance, has light and shade, humour and seduction, all at once.

This theatrical sensibility is visible, differently, in the powerful and sensitive 1783 portrait of his great friend, the poet Mary Robinson. There is something like sympathy, kindness, even sorrow in his handling of Robinson’s form, expressed in the subtle angle at which he places her chin, a face tilted away from the viewer and set against a turbulent sky. The drama (a tragic love affair with a soldier by the suitably caddish name of Banastre Tarleton, and life-changing illness) is there in the details of a flushed cheek and a sea palpably still in motion, just beneath the dipped gaze of downcast eyes.

The merit of this exhibition is that it reminds us of the intelligence of a portraitist conventionally relegated to outmoded orthodoxy and who suffers by comparison to the pyrotechnics of his contemporary, Thomas Gainsborough, and the razzmatazz of his successors, J. M. W. Turner and John Singer Sargent. If the exhibition is sometimes over-emphatic in the case it makes for Reynolds’ radicalism, the portraits speak nonetheless of an idea of painting as a profoundly enquiring kind of activity. In the 1747 self-portrait, he is a still vigorous young man, brush in hand. Turned away from his canvas, a hand raised to shield his eyes and under a faintly furrowed brow, he peers out to his viewers, full of question and thought.

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