Lady Anne Luttrell, The Duchess of Cumberland (1743-1809)
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Joshua Reynolds digital trail

This trail marks the 250th anniversary of the founding in 1768 of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, of which Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was the first president. Reynolds transformed British painting with portraits and subject pictures that engaged their audience’s knowledge, imagination, memory and emotions. As an eloquent teacher and art theorist, he used his role at the head of the Royal Academy to raise the status of art and artists in Britain.

Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, the son of a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford and Master of Plympton Grammar School. He began an apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) in London (two portraits by Hudson are on display in the Bachelors’ Wing), but left early to set himself up independently. He achieved fame as a portraitist at the heart of London’s artistic, literary, theatrical and scientific circles. He travelled in France, Italy and the Netherlands and amassed a large collection of works by other artists.

Waddesdon has an exceptional collection of paintings by Reynolds. There are portraits created to impress the viewer with the sitter’s presence, authority and importance, portraits commissioned as part of the self-promotion of aristocrats, performers and scandalous beauties in an age that initiated the modern cult of celebrity and portraits that celebrate friendship, kinship or rites of passage. There are paintings that compete with historical, mythological and allegorical works by the most revered artists of the past and paintings that demonstrate Reynolds’s technical experimentation and interaction with his contemporaries. The collection at Waddesdon demonstrates the range of Reynolds’s achievement, which prompted Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) to declare: ‘Damn the man, how various he is!’

Most of the paintings in this trail were first exhibited at the Royal Academy (then housed in Somerset House), where they competed for the attention of the public and were talked about in the press. Reproductions by printmakers made them even more widely known in black and white.

Reynolds and his contemporaries were intensely aware of the dangers inherent in his experimental approach to pigments and technique – some reds and pinks in particular have faded and differences in drying times between layers have disfigured some paint surfaces – although most of the paintings at Waddesdon have fared well. They bear witness to Reynolds’s mastery of colour, the range and vigour of his brushwork and the wit and inventiveness of his mind.