Andrew Lambirth

‘How various he is’

The first question: why isn’t this Reynolds show at the Royal Academy, of which Sir Joshua was so famously the founding father? The short answer is that the RA mounted its own Reynolds exhibition nearly 20 years ago, in 1986, and thankfully doesn’t hold the monopoly. It’s certainly time for another in-depth look at him, and the Tate has never shown him solo. The second question is more troubling: what on earth is the Tate playing at? The press release has this to say: ‘He was a brilliant portraitist but also an impresario, a skilled networker, and a master of spin.’ Is this supposed to be a commendation? Does it not occur to the management team of Tate Incorporated that such a description can only demean Reynolds? Far be it from me to claim a spotless reputation for that commercially minded old tuft-hunter, but to equate him with today’s tawdry publicity managers would have the old boy spinning in his grave.

Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), a Devonian on the make though not at all risible, revolutionised British painting by giving it a European standing. He made the Grand Manner his own, producing portraits with the requisite references to Antiquity and the Renaissance, which were also vigorous, original and highly fashionable. If his work sometimes has a coldness, he was, after all, often required to paint the social mask. He was prolific and hardworking, painting well over 100 commissions a year (and as such forced to employ drapery painters), displayed a singular capacity for useful friendships and adored the limelight. He admitted he wasn’t as good at figure drawing as he might have been, and invited too many people to fit comfortably round his table for dinner. He was avid for life and success, and he forced the dull old Establishment to take artists seriously.

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