Not long after I was appointed Director of the National Portrait Gallery, I was asked by Stuart Proffitt, the assiduous, ginger-headed publisher who fell out with Rupert Murdoch, if I would consider writing a life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who, he felt, was richly deserving of a proper modern biography that would study not only his art but also his character, connections and friendships. I would have loved to, given the extent to which Reynolds’s portraits, so strikingly diverse in composition, had imprinted themselves on the -public consciousness of the third quarter of the eighteenth century: his heroic naval portraits (like his early, great portrait of Augustus Keppel in the National Maritime Museum). the earnest literary portraits bet hose of Johnson’, Goldsmith and Sterne in the National Portrait Gallery), and Reynolds: keen to some of his portraits of women (including the wonderful portrait of the Countess of Albemarle in the National Gallery), which convey a sense of character and self-confidence.
However, knowing the huge wealth of manuscript documentation and the extent to which Reynolds’s life intersects with those of some of the key individuals of his period, including Johnson, Garrick, Goldsmith and Burke, I concluded, with regret, that I would not have the time to undertake the task.
Proffitt must subsequently have made the same proposition to Ian McIntyre, a professional biographer, who has previously written about Burns and Lord Reith. McIntyre has obviously done an immense amount of work, studying all aspects of Reynolds’s career in the rich secondary literature and making strenuous efforts to give it shape. It begins with his childhood in Devon, fiom where he was able to travel to Italy by virtue of his family connections, before returning to London to establish himself as the most successful portrait painter of the 1750s, working hard seven days a week at his house in Great Newport Street until he was able to move, in 1760, to the south-west side of the more fashionable Leicester Fields.
Early in his career Reynolds seems to have been a bit of a bore: always desperate to catch the attention of the King, rather mean, slightly too keen to ingratiate hlmself with his clients, spending all his spare money on pictures (which he would sometimes strip down to discover how they were painted), and going off to the fishmonger’s every morning to select an appropriate piece of fish, which he would then send his long-suffering younger sister, Fanny, to buy. But in the 1760s he relaxed, holding memorable &nner parties at which there was never quite enough cutlery to go round, establishing The Club (whlch consisted of his literary friends), and talung a week off to go down to Devon with his friend, Johnson, who had a gargantuan appetite for cider and tea. And he gave up the effort of trying to ingratiate himself with the Royal Family, being more Whiggish than Tory – and in fact, later in I I life, placing bets that the British would not hold on to their American colonies.
By the 1770s, Reynolds was the major figure in British art, having been invited to be President of the Royal Academy not by the King, but by his fellow artists, who presumably recognised his appropriateiess for ;he task – his air of authority, his ability to get on with people, his connections with influential men, as well as the qualities of his painting. He devoted a great deal of time and energy to the position, delivering each year a discourse in which he tried to distil his views on painting for the benefit of students. They were hard to hear, as he spoke softly and retained a Devon burr, but they were thoughtful and derived from his long experience as a painter. At the same time, he was not half as pleased to be President of the Royal Academy as he was to have been elected Mayor of Plympton, writing proudly of the fact in Latin on the back of the self-portrait that he sent off to the Uffizi.
Towards the end of his life, Reynolds was overtaken by younger, more naturally talented artists, including Gainsborough, who painted with much more ease and fluency of expression than he did, and Romney, who was in vogue as a portrait painter amongst the fashionable set; and these younger artists became critical of Reynolds’s tireless study of the Old Masters, as is evident in Nathaniel Hone’s satirical painting, The Conjuror. But Reynolds was stlll able to surprise visitors to the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy with his compositional slulls, great works like his Portrait of Omai (recently sold by Castle Howard and now to be acquired by the Tate Gallery), and with his fancy pictures. In fact, he continued to devote a great deal of care and professional attention to his art, always conscious that his talent lay not in extraordinary natural gifts, but in thoughtfulness and imaginative invention – that his was an intellectual art, more than a painterly one.
McIntyre gives a good impression of Reynolds’s life, peppering his narrative with lively anecdotes from the Dictionary of National Biography and including a certain amount of unfamiliar material, owned by Reynolds’s descendants. He manages to make a life of which most was occupied by the day-to-day routine of the studio reasonably interesting. But, perhaps not surprisingly, he is much less good on Reynolds’s art, being far too inclined always to quote the verdict of authorities (particularly Ellis Waterhouse) when it comes to judgements of his paintings. He has obviously had the benefit of David Manning’s magisterial two-volume catalogue of Reynolds’s paintings and a certain amount of his information about particular pictures derives from the small print of the catalogue. But others of his sources are unexpectedly old-fashioned: he refers, for example, to Martin Davies’s postwar catalogue of the National Gallery’s British paintings, rather than the much more recent and encyclopaedic one by Judy Egerton.
In fact, the whole tone of his book is rather old fashioned, like a nineteenth-century antiquarian biography. It is written as if the history of art had not really progressed beyond the culling of eighteenth-century sources by W T Whitley.