Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (1723-1792) specialty was painting, which was lucky for 18th century Londoners. This was a man who liked to experiment and if his interests had tended towards the medical he’d have been at the forefront of the take-two-leeches-twice-a-day approach to medicine.
Instead he restricted his innovations to the artistic realm. Over his successful career as a portraitist he constantly altered his working process in an attempt to make life difficult for conservators of the future, I mean, to ape the finish of Old Masters that he had seen in Italy. The easiest way to achieve this effect would have been to leave his paintings hanging for a couple of centuries in a Florentine palazzo, but understandably Josh was far too impatient for that.
an early selfie by Joshua Reynolds (detail)
Instead he tried different materials, pigments, varnishes and methods, and the new free show Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint at the Wallace Collection includes paintings, X-rays and displays to help explain these techniques and the subsequent issues with his works. (These issues were very subsequent…even when he was alive there were problems with fading – one potential patron had to be assured by a friend that ‘even a faded picture from Reynolds will be the finest thing you have’).
The result of a four year research project into the Wallace Collection’s own Sir Joshua paintings, the conservator-led approach makes a fascinating exhibition. The paintings have not merely been hung and paired with a quickly dashed off label. Instead there is an in-depth explanation of technique and materials – or at least as in-depth as things can be when, as is the style nowadays, almost everything is written on the wall. (Off-topic: when did writing on the wall become de rigueur in art exhibitions?) If you want more detail I recommend the lunchtime lecture on Thursday 16th April which will be given by co-curator Alexandra Gent.
X-rays show the development of the images, revealing where the artist has painted out a bonnet or changed a pose. Sometimes the hairdo worn by the sitter at the start of the portrait had fallen out of fashion by the time Reynolds has finished the painting and he has had to photoshop in a new one. He not only revised compositions during painting – he wasn’t averse to whipping out a paint brush when visiting his collectors and adding to a painting already on the wall.
Amongst the more polished portraits a highlight is a small, freely rendered oil sketch of Miss Kitty Fisher. From the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, it is rarely seen and enticing, if a little dark. No doubt Reynolds was experimenting with some new method of creating the exact effect he wanted (which of course isn’t necessarily, owing to the instability of his methods, the effect we see today). He was not an economical fellow and ultramarine, that most expensive of pigments, has been found mixed in to his brown shadows.
Over 100 paintings a year were coming out of his studio, and no two are created in the exact same manner. Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint is only a small two-room show, but it is an informative exhibition that explains, amongst other things, the well-known pale faces of Reynolds’ sitters and the reason conservators shudder on hearing his name.