• 26 May 2015

A collaborative event organized by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Wallace Collection, Friday 15th May 2015 at The Wallace Collection, Goodison Lecture Theatre

The first conference I attended devoted to Joshua Reynolds was nearly thirty years ago, in 1986, at the Royal Academy, on the occasion of the major monographic exhibition held there. What I remember most about the day, aside from the sheer terror at having to speak in front of several hundred people, was how bad tempered and confrontational it was, as the ‘big guns’ from the established realm of connoisseurship and the young champions of the ‘new art history’ slugged it out in front of an increasingly bewildered audience. We’ve come along way since then, as the conference earlier this month at the Wallace Collection proved. Here, the atmosphere was collegiate, the methodological approaches were varied, and the papers kept to time; which is an achievement in itself.

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  • Woman with ornate hat in black dress
  • At the heart of the conference was Reynolds’s challenging painting technique: a challenge for those who invested money in them as patrons, and a challenge since for conservators and viewers alike. What became increasingly clear in the course of the day was just how much conservation activity has been generated by Reynolds’s paintings in recent years. Aside from the recent conservation-led project at the Wallace, the results of which were visible in the nearby exhibition, we witnessed the transformation of Macbeth and the Witches at Petworth from a murky brew into a spectacular blaze of colour. We also listened to an account of recent research at the Hermitage into Reynolds’s most ambitious history painting, The Infant Hercules strangling the Serpents. Reynolds himself had remarked that there were ‘ten pictures under it, some better, some worse’. That did not prepare us, however, for a cross-section showing no less than twenty-five layers of pigment and varnish. Among the works at Tate to have received a face-lift is the large equestrian portrait of Lord Ligonier. It turns out to be a copy from Reynolds’s studio, untouched by the master himself, although probably an important work in his unsuccessful strategy to gain royal patronage. What lies beneath the surface of many of the paintings at the Yale Center for British Art was also revealed – more paintings. More often than not, it seems, Reynolds’s final compositions were painted over one or even two earlier paintings - and not all by his own hand. Intriguing stuff.

    The key to so much new research into Reynolds has been collaboration between conservators, curators, university academics and independent scholars. A few years ago at Tate Britain I attended an excellent conference dedicated to painting conservation. Like the Wallace conference, it was a packed house. But when I looked around the room I realized that the audience as well as the speakers was made up almost entirely of professional conservators. When I looked around at the Wallace what impressed me was the ‘mixed multitude of people’ (to borrow Reynolds’s phrase), engaging freely and openly in discussion and debate, often on topics that a few years ago would have been regarded as quite arcane. Whether we should regard Reynolds’s experimental technique as the result of carefully calculated experimentation or sheer chutzpah, ‘Challenging Materials’ certainly proved a catalyst for further investigation and lively discourse. We look forward to the next chapter in this compelling challenge.

    About the author

    • Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre