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Reynolds Redux

3 August 2014

9780300196979Mark Hallett’s superb new book on Reynolds arrived late on Friday, and I have hardly put it down since (my apologies if in my haste I’ve missed something). If you think your Reynolds shelf is already groaning under the weight of Mannings, Penny etc. you perhaps don’t think you need to add another 3 kg to it: but you do. Quite apart from the text – consistently intelligent and fascinating – the illustrations are superb, and Yale should be congratulated on being able to issue this for £50 (£37 from Amazon if you need to be even more frugal).

You may still wonder how it fits in: it’s neither a catalogue raisonné, nor an exhibition catalogue, nor a biography, nor a compilation of  the artist’s writings or correspondence – for all of which we are already well served. And we are now so used to art books having to fall into one of those categories that we are surprised to find there is room for one that instead stands on their shoulders.

Subtitled “Portraiture in action”, Hallett’s monograph does just that: he dives in with a series of discussions about particular portraits, explaining why they work, what ingredients they draw upon and in what milieu they were received. Much of this is familiar territory, but the book’s strength is when he gets to grips with a portrait – the Marlborough family is a good example – and discusses it in unprecedented depth. He has an entirely proper interest in the sitters and their contribution to the joint enterprise. Hallett’s accounts of the various Royal Academy exhibitions, enlivened with crisp reproductions of Burney and Martini’s panoramas, are particularly enlightening.

Refreshingly he goes about this without unnecessary paraphernalia that duplicate the material already on our shelves. There is no introduction, no summary, minimal critical apparatus and, perhaps most surprisingly, no overall assessment. Thankfully there are few children – there is far less to say about them than of their parents, unless you stray into the theoretical nonsense from which Hallett is commendably free.

This is a rich field, in which everyone will immediately wish to pitch in new thoughts. I got to page 1, line 13 before my pencil went wild, wanting to add a virtual footnote to explain that Thomas Jervais’s stained glass exhibition took place beside Bateman’s wine-vaults in Cockspur Street, and that Lucas Bateman was the entrepreneur who not only owned Jervais’s glass and presented the exhibition around the UK, but went on to promote de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon: yet he is omitted from Hallett (and from the recent Loutherbourg monograph). But this sort of tangent must be resisted.

A few lines later (still on p. 1), however, I felt that the eleven year old prodigy “Miss Beaton” [sic] needed more than typographical correction: an explanation (she was Helena Beatson, later Lady Oakley) would have helpfully led to rather more about Katherine Read than appears in the book. Read (in the eccentric spelling of whose Christian name Hallett follows the DNB) is mentioned later, in connection with a Yale painting, British connoisseurs in Rome, of which Hallett merely states that it has been recently attributed to her, but he does not say by whom, nor could I find any reference (in notes or bibliography) to Marjory Morgan’s 2006 article in the British art journal. That seems doubly unfair. Read of course was never a great artist, but together with Daniel Gardner and John Russell (to whom one critic’s snide reference does appear, but these artists are otherwise omitted) she is representative of the successful practitioners in pastel who most strongly reveal their debt to Reynolds. His influence is however comprehensively ignored.

More troubling for me was the incomplete picture of the influences on Reynolds. Hallett is sound and observant on older sources – Van Dyck and even his engravers (fig. 139) are brilliantly referenced, but I think (I am not a Reynolds specialist) there is a fertile stream to be explored of more recent French painting which does not seem to interest Hallett. We know from the sales of Reynolds’s own collection that he owned large numbers of portrait engravings including the brilliant Drevet prints after Rigaud, so for me it would be interesting to explore whether there are more examples than just Amherst’s helmet which seems to come from the print of Louis, duc de Bourgogne.

As I happen to own Reynolds’s copy of the famous Bossuet print, I can’t help feeling that the sight of this recent interpretation of the Apollo Belvedere encouraged Reynolds to essay the Keppel pose Hallett analyses in some depth. But why does he not return to this (for me) obvious source when he discusses the Arundel Prince of Wales with a black servant (fig. 353)? And I wasn’t fully carried by the suggestion that Reynolds’s anti-slavery sentiment accounted for the curious prominence of the servant or the choice of his race. For me there is a simpler explanation (although one I offer with some trepidation, given its political incorrectness): Reynolds simply needed a visual solution to a geometric problem, and for purely optical reasons the black servant was less intrusive (and contrasted well with the white silk). As for the reappearance of the servant in the portrait of the duc de Chartres, Hallett doesn’t I think point out that even the servant’s sleeve, with its distinctive gold chevrons, is repeated.

Incidentally the caption on fig. 356 of “Duke of Chartres, after 1785” is curiously unhappy for those who know when he succeeded as duc d’Orléans (late in 1785, between sitting for the portrait, and sitting under it at the dinner for the opening of the exhibition). Mostly the book is free from such irritants, but a smattering of solecisms could easily be corrected in the next printing (Fox Strangeways, Montague (once), Ozias Humphrey, Lord John Honywood, Lord Francis Rawdon, Petrach among them; I think the choice is between Van Dyck and van Dijck, although the costume is properly Vandyke). The figure standing on the left of fig. 371 (the print is called N’ayez-pas peur, ma bonne Amie, and it comes from the second series, neither of which Hallett tells us) is not as we are told here the pregnant lady’s husband, but, as his costume reveals, an abbé (“un merveilleux abbé”, in the Goncourts’ phrase; let’s not discuss the question of innuendo). The sad little mezzotint beside it seems a less interesting possible source for the cultural context of the Waldegraves’ activities than say Drouais’s Mme de Pompadour.

As Hallett is good at identifying visual borrowings, there is a curious omission from his discussion of the Liverpool portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll (fig. 144) from c.1758–60. This is one of the earliest examples of Reynolds’s use of the severely inclined, turned-away head which was to be such a distinctive hallmark of his compositions (albeit one all too easily copied by his imitators). Although Hallett discusses the earlier (1753) Edinburgh portrait of her by Gavin Hamilton, which is entirely conventional, he doesn’t I think mention Gavin Hamilton’s 1752 portrait of her sister Maria at Inverary which appears to be the source of this trope in fig. 144. You can see it reproduced in Duncan Bull’s powerful analysis of the Liotard portraits of her in the Burlington magazine, 2008 (also not referenced). The caption on Hallett’s figure 148 follows the error in the British Museum’s database: only one of the three Gunning sisters is by Liotard; the one on the right, Mrs Travers, is by Cotes.

This erroneous caption is (as far as I could see) the only occurrence in the whole book of Liotard’s name. Hallett’s subject would of course be delighted: Reynolds’s programme of dismissing pastel, treating it as no better than wax modelling or hair work, has plainly succeeded – and lasted a great deal longer than many of his canvases.

But the whitewashing of foreign influence is broader than just pastel. On page 238 Hallett quotes a letter written in 1772 explaining the London fad for “confounding portrait & History painting together which is a thing peculiar to Britain”, as though this was Reynolds’s special idea. But there is nothing in this that wasn’t part of the already outmoded tradition developed by Rigaud and Largillierre and perpetuated by Nattier. And Vigée Le Brun was still doing it after the Revolution.

One feature of the book which surprised me was an apparent lack of interest in the paint itself. There is very little technical discussion, nothing about materials or pigments or the purely sensuous aspect of these pictures. Reynolds, one feels, coming onto the London scene soon after Van Loo’s departure, had a vital role to play in directing the tastes of a generation: he chose to accept a looseness of handling (although more evident among other British painters, particularly later) rather than the exquisite finish that prevailed in France, and this separation of the ways became deeper as time went on, when anti-French feeling was entrenched by the seven years’ war.

For me this is one of the central puzzles about Reynolds. He may never have been Raphael or Titian, but at times he could paint at a very high level indeed: the National Gallery’s Captain Robert Orme, sensitively analysed in the book and reproduced on the cover, is surely one of the great eighteenth-century European portraits. But the portrait the follows, reusing the composition, is (even from the reproduction) of pretty mediocre quality. Hallett seems reluctant to grapple with this issue, or even to say which he thinks are duds: but Reynolds’s problem is that there were rather a lot of them. But he still towers high above his competitors: Cotes might have given him a run for his money, and Gainsborough produced some great things too, but I wonder sometimes if Reynolds’s dominance did not restrict the growth of British portraiture in much the same way that (as T. S. Eliot argued) Shakespeare’s retirement marked the death of verse drama. It rather depends on what you think of Romney and Lawrence. These are waters in which Hallett, so much better qualified than I, fears to tread.

Hallett is commendably honest when it comes to the limitations of his subject’s imagination (e.g. The Archers “teeters on the brink of absurdity”, p. 242) or indeed of his own interpretations (e.g. “Reynolds leaves open the possibility of rereading his portrait in almost entirely contrary terms”, p. 212).

I can’t write about Sir Joshua Reynolds without remembering the headmaster of my school, the charismatic Dr Reynolds, whose first name was Ralph (we usually didn’t know our teachers’ Christian names) but who was universally known (even, I dsicovered later, to his wife) as Josh. He taught Greek, an option only for the A stream. “Art” was offered only to the bottom stream: I don’t recall anyone taking it, nor do I have the slightest idea what they might have been taught.

Ignore my minor quibbles: buy and enjoy this book immediately.

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From → Art history

One Comment
  1. Donato Esposito permalink

    Wonderful review. I agree recent sources are sometimes overlooked. I am very interested in Reynolds’ collection and have begun to make a list. The print you own is very interesting. Could we please meet up? Thanks, Donato Esposito.

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