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Jan 26 / Simon

Classical Innovator

Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint, Wallace Collection, 12 March 2015-7 June 2015
Simon Tait
The London Magazine, June-July 2015
The most important image in this little exhibition has no title or date, in fact it isn’t really a painting at all. Its label describes it simply as “Experimental Canvas”, and it is a laboratory and archive for probably the most inventive English painter of them all, the painter that lifted the status of portraiture beyond society vanity. “The problem with Reynolds” his bitter rival Gainsborough is supposed to have complained “is that he is so various!”

On this medium-size scrap of canvas, one of several he would have had in his studio over a long career and preserved in the Royal Academy, Reynolds would try out pigments and media; the daubs are sometimes let to run, the thing has been turned round to find a new space or place a smudge nearer to his painting, and is laced with his notes – one can be made out as “Orp. White Y with the Varn” which can be translated as “orpiment, white, yellow with the varnish”. Orpiment is a mineral that makes a deep orange colour.

Joshua Reynolds was an Enlightenment man whose friends in his younger life included the likes of Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Edmund Burke, chums who are said to have persuaded him against his own judgement to agree to be the first president of the Royal Academy. The RA was the medium by which generations of young artists learned the practice and thoughts of the extraordinary.

He experimented all his life, and was notorious for it even in his own lifetime – it was known that the colours might well fade or the pigment break up. His biographer Joseph Farington wrote that each picture “was an experiment in some project of improvement suggested by his incessant endeavours to reach something unattained either by himself or others”. But others were not always intended to benefit the most, because was also a notoriously secretive man, using his own shorthand for notes and keeping his chemical ploys to himself to the frustration of conservators ever since.

When an Oxfordshire landowner, Oldfield Bowles, was deciding whether Reynolds or George Romney should be commissioned to paint his daughter he was warned against Reynolds’s use of pigments that tended to fade, but plumped for him when the collector (and inspiration of the National Gallery) George Beaumont told him that “even a faded picture from Reynolds will be the finest thing you have”. The result was Miss Jane Bowles of about 1770.

These days the Wallace Collection is known more for its rococo and French Romantic painters, its Bouchers, its Fragonards, its Greuzes. But the head of the Seymour-Conway family that built Hertford House which houses the museum, the first Marquess of Hertford, was a patron of Reynolds and, almost certainly on the advice of Horace Walpole, portraits of most of his family were commissioned form Reynolds. Most of these have been dispersed among the marquess’s large family, but four generations of successors bought his work, so that there are 12 in the collection now.

Through the last century conservators have steered clear of Reynolds’s pictures because of their unpredictability and without guidance because of his refusal to reveal his methods, but with support form the Yale Center for British Art and the Paul Mellon Centre a team of conservators and researchers was got together to examine them as well as restore them as near as possible to the way Reynolds saw them. It’s been a six year odyssey.

First of all, it works. The purpose of a review is to assess the value of a curated essay of an artist’s work and of the painting. In this case, the standard of the work is not in doubt, but because of the volatility of Reynolds’s work it has never before been possible to have such a good examination of how he did it. So this small exhibition of 20 pictures curated by Lucy Davis and Mark Hallett is not merely good, it is necessary.

Some of them, like John the Baptist in the Wilderness of 1770s, are too dangerously unstable to work on more than superficially because of 19th century amateurish attempts to deal with the flaking, but the use of radiography has helped the team look at Reynolds’s technique.

Colours, for instance, have faded often because of Reynolds’s use of red lake, a powdered pigment made, the Reynolds Research Project has discovered, from a cochineal dye which it turns out, is inclined to fade when mixed with other pigments like lead white, as in the face of the Duke of Queensberry of 1759. He used different oils, walnut for the blue sky in The Strawberry Girl of after 1773 and linseed for the dark background. He would mix resin and varnish with the pigment to get a gloss.

Reynolds was a devotee of the Old Masters and collected as many as he could so that at his death in 1792 his collection was worth a fortune, and he travelled in Europe to find out more. He plumbed their wisdom and techniques, but rather than copy them he used them so that his works can be seen as both classical and innovative, because he would also experiment with his construction.

X-rays of his is own early self-portrait of around 1748 when he was 25, experimental in that he is seen looking obliquely across the painting into light, his eyes shielded by his hand, show that his playing with light and shadow didn’t come off at first and he turned the whole canvas up-side-down to start again.

And it seems that his changing of mind in mid-making was often in collaboration with his sitters. He painted many of the great beauties of the day including the ac tress and writer Mary Robinson, often called “Perdita” because of her famous portrayal in The Winter’s Tale. Robinson’s affair with a cavalry officer, Banastre Tarleton, ended with his running away from gambling debts to Europe and Robinson pursued him as far as Dover when she seems to have had some kind of stroke and possibility a miscarriage after which she said she lost her looks. This unfinished portrait, Mrs Mary Robinson of 1783-4, does not hint at a faded beauty but at a forlorn one, her face turned to the sea with a “lost profile”. The radiography shows that at first she had her chin leaning on her hand in the more traditional “penseroso” pose of longing and loss; with her arm down and resting on a balustrade we suddenly have a more self-assured woman who will overcome her great adversity.

He would change things for effects, so that for the courtesan Nelly O’Brien of 1762-3 he has lowered the top of her dress, not to give a better glimpse of her décolletage but to reflect more light up to her face.

Perhaps the most stunningly successful change of mind is in his portrait here of Mrs Abington as Miss Prue of about 1771-2. Frances Abington was a former East End maidservant who became one of Garrick’s great comic actresses, and Miss Prue is an awkward but coquettish country girl in Congreve’s play Love for Love. But instead of presenting Abington in the role complete with mobcap and unruly curls as the painting began, we see her as a fine lady of fashion, sitting unconventially backwards on a dining chair and gazing intently straight at the viewer with her laughing, lustrous grey eyes. Because this, as far as Reynolds and his sitter were concerned, was the truth.