Food, Days Out and Travel stories from Brighton, London and the Rest of the World


Days out in London - Joshua Reynolds and the Wallace Collection

I remember reading an account of Sir Joshua Reynolds that left a lasting impression on me. From memory it had something to do with him as an older gent using an ear trumpet and appearing full of good humour.

The account was by the diary writer Frances Burney, famous for many things including her inside-court account of the madness of King George.

The Wallace Collection, London

Initially she had met Sir Joshua Reynolds through her father, who soon became one of her greatest supporters when her debut novel became an overnight success. Pre-dating Jane Austen by about thirty years, she became famous in her twenties with her first novel, Evelina, which is still brilliant today (I'm a fan). Not only that but her second novel contains the phrase Pride and Prejudice and has other indications that Austen may have been influenced by this earlier writer's work. 

Anyway enough of this meandering, I could talk about Burney for a very long time, back to her observations on Reynolds.

By the time she was in her mid 30s she had accepted an appointment in the court of Queen Charlotte, which had resulted in a lack of freedom. On a rare trip out to witness the celebrated trial of Hastings she recorded being spotted in the gallery by Reynolds.

I perceived Sir Joshua Reynolds in the midst of the Committee! - he, at the same moment, saw me, also, and not only Bowed, but smiled and nodded, with his usual good-humour and intimacy: making at the same time, a sign to his Ear, by which I understood he had no Trumpet: whether he had forgotten, or lost it, I know not.

Sir Joshua Reynolds from the mid to late eighteenth century was a hugely celebrated and prolific painter. In the 1750s he was churning out over a hundred paintings a year. He painted the rich and famous and became the first elected President of the Royal Academy. 

The Wallace Collection, London

Despite all of this his work is not currently that popular and his name is no longer familiar to many. 

The Wallace Colllection have plans to challenge this with a new exhibition highlighting his work. 

Already a specialist centre for eighteenth century art and culture, the Wallace collection holds an impressive number of Reynolds portraits in their permanent collection. 

This was the starting point for a research and conservation project that lasted for fours years designed to restore a few of Reynolds works of art to their original form.

The Wallace Collection, London

On show are twenty portraits collected together in two rooms so they can be viewed alongside each other and tell the story of the painter and his techniques. Beside each picture is a corresponding X-ray taken during the conservation project in order to unveil hidden layers. 

Our guide for the night was Alex Gent, Conservationist on the project. She explained how she had scraped back the layers of paint and by doing so reveal information that would refresh our view and understanding of Reynolds at the same time.

Of the twenty in the exhibition an impressive twelve are permanent fixtures at the Wallace Collection. Eight have been added to this from other collections around the world and will remain on show together for the next couple of months. 

Altogether they give a window into the ideas he was drawn towards. Interestingly the exhibition includes a high proportion of female portraits. Mostly they were celebrities of their age, some look outwards at the viewer with a very direct gaze, which was a radical move at the time.

The Wallace Collection, Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibition 2015, Miss Nelly O'Brien
Miss Nelly O'Brien by Sir Joshua Reynolds

As a young man Sir Joshua had gone to Italy for a few years and while he was there he was much taken with the look of the aged paintings he saw. 

He was keen to reproduce this and attempted various ways of gaining the same effect with his own newly-finished paintings. The research project revealed one of his attempts at this with bees wax used, in between layers of paint. 

The Wallace Collection, Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibition 2015 Mrs Mary Robinson
Mrs Mary Robinson by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Back in the 1700s when some paintings has first been acquired his efforts had proved successful as an observation by Frances Burney makes clear. She noted after a visit to Knole House in Kent, where the Duke of Dorset had acquired some Reynolds.

  There are several Pictures of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and, though mixed in with those of the best old Painters, they are so bewitching, and finished in a style of Taste, Colouring, and expression so like their Companions, that it is not, at first view, easy to distinguish the new from the Old......the Duke himself, by Sir Joshua, among the Portraits of his own family, in a state room, is, I think, by no means a likeness to flatter his Grace's vanity. One room is appropriated to Artists, and among them are 3 by Sir Joshua, - Dr Johnson, Dr Goldsmith and Sacchini: - all charmingly done, and the 2 I know, extremely like.

The Wallace Collection, Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibition 2015

One wall within the exhibition covered a type of stylised painting popular in the eighteenth century that were known as fancies or rather fantasies.

One of them, a girl with big doe eyes, holding a puppy close to her reminded me of the Pears soap adverts.

Another is of a girl with strawberries. You can't see the strawberries as they are hidden in her apron and her body language is timid and retreating from the gaze of the viewer. I hadn't noticed this fully until Alex Gent explained the context of the picture. Girls would sell strawberries and other services at London's Pleasure Gardens. Here the girl is noticeably very young, which makes the portrait uncomfortable viewing.

The Wallace Collection, Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibition 2015, The Strawberry Girl
The Strawberry Girl by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Perhaps this was Reynolds purpose?

The exhibition, is only on for a few months so make sure you don't miss it.

Please click on the link for more details:
Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint
Thursday 12th March, 2015 - Sunday 7th June, 2015.  Admission: Free

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