Upcoming Conference: Joshua Reynolds and Artistic Experiment in the Eighteenth Century

by Ella Fleming

  • 16 April 2015

Conference Date: Friday 15th May, 2015
Venue: The Wallace Collection, Goodison Lecture Theatre
Tickets on sale here – limited availability!

Next month we’re hosting a collaborative one-day conference with The Wallace Collection entitled Challenging Material: Joshua Reynolds and Artistic Experiment in the Eighteenth Century. This conference accompanies the extremely well received exhibition Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint, which is currently on at The Wallace Collection until 7th June 2015. Exhibition information here

Paint swabs in various colours

Sir Joshua Reynolds RA, Studio Experiments in Colour and Media, circa 1770s – 1780, oil on canvas

Digital image courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London.

We want to give those of you who have already purchased tickets, together with those who are interested in attending, a glimpse of the kind of topics that will be discussed on the day. We hope that releasing the abstracts submitted by each of the speakers will provoke questions and ideas ahead of the conference, encouraging lively discussion at the event itself.

Abstracts are listed in the order that papers will be presented at the conference:

Marcia Pointon - Professor Emeritus in History of Art,The University of Manchester, Research Fellow,The Courtauld Institute of Art

Finish and Unfinish: Reynolds's portrait of Marie Countess of Schaumburg-Lippe?

My paper will explore a portrait by Reynolds tentatively dated ca. 1759 of an unknown sitter variously identified as Countess Spencer and as Marie Countess of Schaumberg-Lippe. The portrait has an unusual provenance, having been owned by John Ruskin and by Sir Kenneth Clark. While the face of the subject is highly finished on a brown ground, the manner of paintwork in the only other area of the picture that would qualify as finished, a diamond breast jewel, is very different. Elsewhere, small areas of the canvas contain pigment without indicating what these marks signify. Questions raised by this partially finished canvas include what it means to speak of 'finish', what sections might be in Reynolds's own hand, why should the jewel have been highly wrought at this apparently early stage in the painting's production, what can we infer of the production process from an examination of this canvas, and why should it have interested two discerning collectors.

Helen Brett, Painting Conservator, Tate and Martin Postle, Deputy Director, The Paul Mellon Centre

‘New Light on an old Warhorse’: Joshua Reynolds’s portraits of Lord Ligonier

This paper, jointly presented by Helen Brett (Tate) and Martin Postle (Paul Mellon Centre), will consider Joshua Reynolds’s several versions of the portrait of Lord Ligonier in the light of conservation and research into the large replica equestrian portrait belonging to Tate, in the context of Reynolds’s studio practice and the political circumstances surrounding its production. In addition to an account of her conservation treatment of the Tate painting, Helen Brett will explore its relation to three other portraits of Ligonier by Reynolds, which she has studied closely at first hand, including the original oil sketch she discovered on the island of Orkney. Martin Postle will discuss the relationship between the Tate portrait and Reynolds’s commission from George Stubbs in 1760 of a lost painting known as ‘The Warhorse’, and its possible use as the basis of the horse in Reynolds’s own composition. Postle will also consider the relationship of the equestrian portrait of Lord Ligonier to Stubbs’s large horse portraits, Whistlejacket and Scrub. Finally, he will put forward an explanation for the production of the Tate painting in the context of the relationship between the King and Lord Ligonier and the political fortunes of the Rockingham Whigs in the early 1760s.

John Chu, Research Cataloguer, Tate Britain

Experiment, Excess, Patronage: Joshua Reynolds and the 3rd Duke of Dorset

What happened to Reynolds’s experiments in paint once they had left the studio? This paper offers one answer to this question by telling the story of their rich ‘after life’ in the late eighteenth-century market in luxury goods. The special distinction attached to the purchase of Reynolds’s innovations in historical composition and fancy painting is examined through a case study of one of the artist’s most important patrons – John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset. The element of chance and overproduction involved in the creation of these uncommissioned pieces is beginning to be understood in its full complexity yet it has passed without comment that the lavish acquisitiveness of patrons like the Duke of Dorset was no less characterised by riskiness and excess. Correspondence, financial documents, and hanging schemes at the Sackville family seat at Knole reveal that these qualities permeated each stage of the paintings’ passage from commodities to collector’s pieces, from initial exchange to final display. Having focused upon some of the details of these practices – which could usefully be viewed as an experiment in modern patronage – the paper then speculates more broadly on how the phenomenon might be furnished with a social history. Specifically, it seeks to ascertain the value of risk and excessiveness in the wider context of the ‘beau monde’ culture that existed at the highest echelons of British society. Whom were such extravagant acquisitive practices designed to impress? What did they say about the collector himself? And how could rewarding artistic experimentation advance the interests of those most blessed in fortune and influence?

Iris Wien, Marie Curie/IPODI Fellow, Technical University Berlin

‘Character as experiment: Reynolds’s A Strawberry Girl and his Boy Holding a Bunch of Grapes

The ambiguity of Reynolds’s fancy pictures is carefully staged. The elusiveness of these paintings, which avoid a straightforward narrative, contrasts with their pictorial structure, which directly addresses the beholder. A close reading of A Strawberry Girl and Boy holding a Bunch of Grapes within the context of the culture of sensibility and in particular in comparison with Sterne’s literary strategies suggests that Reynolds’s single figure fancies can be understood as moral experiments: They are not only artistic experiments exploring painterly materials and playing with the conventions of pictorial genres, but they also put the beholder’s character to the test. Hovering between innocence and sexual innuendo on the one hand, and sentiment and satire on the other hand, the contradictory feelings and readings, which these paintings provoke, reveal more about the (male) recipient than the works themselves. Thus, they come close to Sterne’s famous dictum that a true feeler is “reading himself and not the book” when confronted with sentimental literature. In contrast to Angelica Kauffman’s fictive portraits of historical or mythical female protagonists Reynolds’s sentimental strategies take on a parodistic aspect. It seems to be this distancing moment, which stimulates the beholder to examine his own moral character. That Reynolds’s fancies may have been understood as a “modern”, more “natural” kind of allegory is suggested by newspaper reviews and by Alexander Bicknell’s curious pamplet Painting Personified; or, the Caricature and Sentimental Pictures, of the Principal Artists of the Present Times, Fancifully explained, published in 1790.

Rica Jones, Conservator of Paintings, formerly at Tate Gallery

‘I can vouch for them to be authentick and just, either from my own experiments and observations, the information of persons of undoubted veracity who have practised them, or clear deductions from unquestionable principles’: an appraisal of Robert Dossie’s ‘Handmaid to the Arts’ and the climate in which it was produced in the 1750s

As he makes clear in his introduction, Robert Dossie’s two-volume Handmaid to the Arts of 1758 was in some ways a breakthrough in manuals of painting, principally in that its author eschewed the plagiarising of earlier writers. This trained apothecary and Member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce set out to give an accurate account of the materials used in several branches of the arts, including oil painting. As he says in the quotation given above, he talked to reputable practitioners. Although it is sad for us that he divulges no names, his book nevertheless is a rare insight into materials that were available in the period and which it would appear were acceptable potential ingredients of oil painting.

In this paper we will examine the chapter that he devoted to binding media (that is to say, the oils and other substances that are mixed with pigments to make paint) and set it into the context of painting in London in the 1740s and 1750s. The following factors will be taken into consideration: the governance of the profession; the activities of the Society of the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce; writings on technical matters by Reynolds and his contemporaries; the results of scientific analysis of contemporary paintings; the differences between Dossie’s first edition and his second of 1764.

Sophie Reddington, Paintings Conservator, Private Studio and Andrew Loukes, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections, Petworth House, National Trust

Toil and Trouble: The history, materials and restoration of Reynolds's largest work

Measuring 8 feet by 12, Reynolds’ Macbeth and the Witches remained unfinished in the artist’s studio at his death. The painting was sold by his executors to Alderman John Boydell, who commissioned it in 1786 for his Shakespeare Gallery. Here it hung until that venture’s demise in 1805. After subsequently changing hands twice the painting was acquired by the 3rd Earl of Egremont for Petworth House, West Sussex by 1813. A subject wholly consistent with the 3rd Earl’s taste for histrionic and macabre passages from English literature, now newly conserved it emerges as one of the most telling examples of Reynolds’ painterly experimentation, reflecting – perhaps even consciously or subconsciously – the grisly spell it depicts.

The subject was engraved in 1802 by Robert Thew, for Boydell’s scheme. The painting subsequently appears – richly coloured – in one of the gouache drawings of Petworth interiors made by JMW Turner in 1827, while in 1854 GF Waagen felt its colouring in particular ‘has much merit’. Yet in the years since the National Trust opened Petworth one hundred years later, Macbeth and the Witches has gradually gained notoriety as a badly deteriorated and sizeable black-hole on the walls of the ‘house of art’.

Conventional opinion suggested that bitumen damage was largely responsible but a recent conservation rethink prompted major analysis and treatments to begin in 2014. Records show that the painting had also been restored in the mid-19th century and re-varnished in the 1950s and 1970s. Given the often extreme fragility of Reynolds’ paintings, the varnish layers could only be partially removed. The work was found to be completely disrupted by a variety of drying cracks. It has, however, been possible to clean the painting to a greater degree than originally anticipated and many details from the witches’ famous spell have now reappeared, while cracks and losses have been retouched, and a technically challenging varnish reapplication has added greatly to the re-readability of Reynolds’ most ambitious subject picture.

Mark Aronson, Chief Conservator, Yale Center for British Art

Canvas, a Time Based Media: Joshua Reynolds’s portraits revealed through X-radiography

While superficial examination of Joshua Reynolds paintings gives an immediate sense of the painter’s notorious experiments with oil, resin and pigment, deeper looking through x-radiography shows the artist’s constant habit of working and reworking his canvases. Pentimenti are seen not just as subtle adjustments to the position of a limb or a digit, but as complete changes, wrought by someone seeking to crystallize a relationship to both his sitter and his, not necessarily blank, canvas. Underlying previous portraits, backgrounds and costume reveal Reynolds was not only experimenting with mediums in the hopes of achieving painterly affect, but that his concept and purpose was often in flux throughout the entire portrait process. This paper will review several extraordinary discoveries, some amusing while others are more serious, revealed through an x-radiographic survey of Reynolds portraits in the somewhat random accumulation of his pictures at Yale University. The unfinished Study of Mrs. Mary Robinson, Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue, the Equestrian Portrait of Sir Jeffrey Archer, and several other works will be highlighted. In addition to adding to the wealth of information on Reynolds, I will argue the view beneath the surface confirms painting has long been and continues to be a time based medium.

Elizaveta Renne, Keeper of British and Scandinavian Paintings (16th – 17th century) at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg

The painting which 'might be called great if it were more correct: it might perhaps have been correct had it not attempted to be great"

The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents» by Joshua Reynolds is his most ambitious, prominent and laborious artwork. Despite deep craquelure and tears in the paint layer and darkening of the colors, the conception strikes with its grandeur, the composition with its complexity, and the expressive manner with its power. Reynolds created this artwork towards the end of his days, and it turned out to be a unique chance for the artist to practically apply his theoretical declarations and all his technical experience.

The picture is interesting for at least three important reasons. First of all is the historical aspect. The large canvas was commissioned from the artist by Catherine the Great, who asked to paint ‘a historical picture, on any subject that may best please his own fancy’. This commission became an important event in itself. Diaries and Reynolds’s correspondence, letters of his contemporaries, newspaper articles and testimonials provide good insights into the implementation of the project, the progress and changes in the composition, and the multiple reworkings.

Second, “The infant Hercules” facilitates studies of the techniques and the technology of Reynolds’s painting. In 2008-9 the painting was examined in the scientific laboratories at the State Hermitage Museum. The data obtained as a result of this examination can be juxtaposed with the numerous testimonials that enabled us to follow the steps of the artist during the creation of the painting. Put together, these sources give a more complete idea about the method that Reynolds used in his work as well as explain the reasons that led to the current poor condition of the painting.

Third, Reynolds created probably the last artwork in Europe that was infused by the eminent independent spirit characteristic of the Old masters. As no other artwork does, it opens up avenues for reflections on the theoretical views of the artist and on how the heated debates concerning the painting itself and its merits and weaknesses affected the views on art and on the purpose of art in England in the second half of the XVIII century.

Matthew C. Hunter, Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director, Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University

“ ‘The Unique Art of Hightening and Preserving the Beauty of Tints to Futurity without a Possibility of Changing’: William Birch’s Chemical Gambits”

Recent scholarship has done much to foreground Joshua Reynolds’s complex, evolving relationships with mezzotint engravers and printmakers. Yet, Reynolds’s vigorous experiments with paint media (now highlighted by the Wallace Collection’s exhibition) acted to place a particular premium on reproductive techniques capable of yielding images in their fugitive, chromatic plenitude. Commentator J.T. Smith framed the problem starkly. Since the appeal of Reynolds’s pictures decreased “annually … by the fading of his colours,” Smith observed, the images best equipped for “handing down to posterity that great Artist’s fascinating style of colouring, [are] the correct copies … made of them in enamel.” This paper focuses on the innovations of William Russell Birch (1755-1834), British-born painter and theorist who brought the “immortal” medium of enamel to the United States in the 1790s. Awarded a prize for his work in 1784 by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Birch staged a strange temporality in his innovative enamels. Durable and light-fast as they were, his enamels also celebrated oil painting’s chemical instability through a technique that added the appearance of patina to new pictures. Opening consideration of the supplementary reciprocity between unstable, grand-manner oil painting in the Reynoldsian mode and emergent techniques including pure aquatint (introduced into Britain in the early 1770s), “pollaplasiasmos” (invented in the 1780s) and lithography (invented in 1796), the paper uses Birch to rethink the work of art in what we might call an age of chemical reproduction.

Cora Gilroy-Ware, from September 2015, Huntington Library/California Institute of Technology

“Her swelling breast palpitates’: life and death in the works of William Hilton

By the post-Napoleonic-War period, artists, critics and members of the exhibition-going public were well aware of the catastrophic consequences of Reynolds’s experimentation with materials. Faded, cracked and discoloured works by the late painter had come to figure prominently in his legacy, the process of decay having begun during his lifetime.

While Reynolds continued to be lauded as the nation’s saviour of art and refined taste, the “impurity” of his practice was discussed frequently and at length in journals and biographies. Yet despite the fact that the painter’s perceived material transgressions were relatively common knowledge, certain younger artists persisted to use liberal amounts of the same substances that had destroyed his works, including bitumen (asphaltum), wax and megilp (a variable blend of boiled linseed oil, lead acetate and mastic varnish). One such artist was William Hilton (1786-1834), a painter just fourteen years old when he first exhibited at the Royal Academy. At a time in which the dangers of attempting to forge a career as a historical painter in Britain were all too apparent, Hilton dedicated his practice to grand-scale compositions rendered in an eclectic ideal style. Underresearched, his works are cited in technical art historical literature as particularly dramatic case studies of deterioration resulting from the incorporation of “nostrums”. In light of the example left by Reynolds’s works, Hilton’s practice was marked by a precariousness at odds with historical painting’s traditional will to monumental permanence. His regard for posthumous fame was subordinate to the vibrant appearance of his works at the time of their completion. This paper will look at the relationship between Hilton’s works and Reynolds’s legacy, arguing that historical painting in the first half of the nineteenth century was couched in a violence articulated through the younger artist’s investment in a temporary form of beauty.

Martin Myrone, Lead Curator for Pre-1800 British Art, Tate Britain

Painting after Reynolds (After 1813)

Students passing through the Royal Academy Schools in the two decades after Reynolds's death encountered a range of new opportunities which both extended and challenged his legacy as painter and theorist. This included the opening of the British Museum's antiques room to students, the chance to see and to copy Old Masters at the British Institution and Dulwich Picture Gallery, programmatic reform in the schools themselves, and crucially, the momentous retrospective of Reynolds's work in 1813 which both installed a British Old Master and allowed a generation of young painters to see his work in depth and at first hand. The practical impact of these changes remains under-examined. The question of how to paint was given renewed urgency, with the examples of the art of the past and, above all, Reynolds, more immediately and literally in view than ever before.

This paper will explore these questions through a close examination of the work of Henry Perronet Briggs (1792-1844). Briggs was a student at the Academy from 1811 and developed into a strenuously academic artist. He was a dedicated copyist of a range of Old Masters in paint and on paper; a witness to the 1813 exhibition, he was, above all, a copyist of Reynolds (at least a dozen finished copies were on show in his gallery, and he was still copying Reynolds as late as 1833 when he was a full Academician). Crucially, Brigg's approach to technique was recorded in two vivid first-hand commentaries; these help illuminate Briggs's methodical manner, what was referred to contemporaneously as his 'plain-dealing', involving a rejection of glazes and the exposure of areas of underpainting, and help open up the question of what a younger generation of academic artists actually took from the example of Reynolds. This will, in turn, suggest how established distinctions between 'romantic' and 'academic' art, the experimental and the conservative, might be challenged through a carefully historicized consideration of the practice of painting.

About the author

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    Events Lead at the Paul Mellon Centre