Faded Master Of Experimentation
An innovator known for his "fugitive colours": Joshua Reynolds in an early self-portrait, c. 1747-9 (National Portrait Gallery London)
Sir Joshua Reynolds's reputation has had its ups and downs. When in 1768 he became the first president of the Royal Academy he found himself the ruler of the official art world in Great Britain and thus, as the embodiment of the establishment, a bête noire for a succession of radical artists. William Blake reviled him ("This Man was Hired to Depress Art") and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood derided him as "Sir Sloshua". Although Reynolds was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to George III, the royal family's continued preference was for Gainsborough. He had his supporters too: Turner, for example, admired him so much that he requested that he be buried next to Reynolds in St Paul's Cathedral.
Reynolds's public role has often tended to obscure an objective view of his merits as a painter; not least the fact that he was one of the most innovative technicians of the age. His incessant experimentation was far from universally successful; he became known in his lifetime for his "fugitive colours", referring to his pigments, especially the red lake used in flesh tones, that would rapidly lose their hue. At his death in 1792 one obituary bemoaned the "chemic experiments, which, whatever brilliancy they may lend his colours for the present day, certainly will add to the fading powers of time upon the finest tints." The writer was prescient and Reynolds is still frequently dismissed as a painter of time-aged brown portraits rather than as an innovator. It is this latter aspect of his work that is the subject of the Wallace Collection's new exhibition, Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint (from March 12).
According to one of his pupils, James Northcote, "Every picture of Sir Joshua's was an experiment in art made by an ingenious man." By this he meant not only his attempts to emulate the Old Masters in style but also in tinkering with technique in an attempt to match their effects. As well as painting on canvas he painted, some 50 times, on wooden panels—a support long out of fashion—and on metal too (the large copper sheet he used for a portrait of Samuel Whitbread was probably supplied by the brewer himself). And while he used the regular pigments that could be bought ready-made from professional colourmen Reynolds would also mix non-standard ingredients with his paint—beeswax, spermaceti wax (from sperm whale oil) and various resins among them—with the result that his paint surfaces could often become unstable, cracking or deliquescing.
There is indeed a story of the wife of a merchant with interests in the West Indies who had his portrait painted by Reynolds before he set sail to visit his plantations. A matter of weeks later the paint began to slide off the canvas which the wife took as a portent that her husband was in danger of being lost at sea. She demanded that Reynolds rush round to touch up her husband's face and thus ensure his safe return. The precaution apparently worked.