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Miss Theophila Gwatkin, Joshua Reynolds

Theophila Gwatkin was the granddaughter of Reynolds’s sister, Mary, and the painting was a gift for the sitter’s father. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789 with the title ‘Miss Gwatkin’ and Francesco Bartolozzi (1725-1815) engraved it the same year with the title ‘Simplicity,’ which gave the composition a sentimental appeal beyond the specificity of portraiture.

Reynolds did not originally paint flowers in Theophila’s hands. An early anecdote relates that, when the portrait came back from the engraver, her mother commented that the little girl’s ‘rose-tipped fingers intertwined and lying on her lap’ looked like a ‘dish of prawns.’ Reynolds apparently ‘agreed to the aptness of the comparison, and filled the chubby little hands with flowers […].’

Reynolds’s Miss Theophila Gwatkin (1782 -1844) transforming into Francesco Bartolozzi's engraving of the subject, after Reynolds's painting (1789)
Reynolds’s Miss Theophila Gwatkin (1782 -1844) transforming into Francesco Bartolozzi's engraving of the subject, after Reynolds's painting (1789) © National Trust/ Waddesdon Manor & © Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

As the natural dignity of this portrait suggests, Reynolds was good with children and put them at their ease. The politician Sir Charles Bunbury (1740-1821) recalled how he would fix their attention with fairy stories. Reynolds’s biographer and pupil, James Northcote (1746-1831) described ‘the grand rackets there used to be at Sir Joshua’s when the children were with him! He used to romp and play with them, and talk to them in their own way; and whilst all this was going on, he actually snatched those exquisite touches of expression which make his portraits of children so captivating.’

Reynolds’s ‘Miss Gwatkin’ - exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789
Reynolds’s ‘Miss Gwatkin’ - exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789 © National Trust / Waddesdon Manor