Four years of research and careful restoration have resulted in a fascinating show of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits. His techniques were groundbreaking, finds Susan Jenkins, but not always successful.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) was the first President of the Royal Academy and the leading portraitist to the British aristo-cracy from about 1750. Despite his conservative clientele, however, Reynolds was an experimental painter, who continuously changed both his composition and technique. As his assistant James Northcote noted: ‘Every picture of Sir Joshua’s was an experiment in art made by an ingenious man.’

In his efforts to emulate the Old Masters, Reynolds experimented with his materials, including pigments, binding medium and the use of varnish, wax and turpentine. As a result, his canvases are now frequently cracked or faded and many have dark, blistered surfaces where the composition has become obscured.

The exhibition ‘Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint’ originates in the decision four years ago byChristoph Vogtherr, Director of the Wallace Collection, to host the Reynolds Research Project, in order to examine Reynolds’s technique.

The Wallace’s team worked closely with the National Gallery and now presents its findings in a fascinating yet focused exhibition that offers a fresh examination of more than 20 pictures 11 of these are from the Wallace Collection, four of which have been newly conserved. As curator Lucy Davis explains: ‘The aim was to illustrate a different side of Reynolds the innovator where he was experimenting with both his media and his approach to composition.’

The exhibition draws on the Wallace’s own significant collect-ion of portraits by Reynolds to illustrate the artist’s changing technique and compositional innovations. These are explored through six different groupings, entitled ‘Experiment’, ‘The Family’, ‘Fancy’, ‘The Evolving Image’, ‘Changing Faces’ and ‘The Painted Persona’.

Among the jewels of the show are two of the gallery’s most popular paintings: the courtesan Miss Nelly O’Brien (painted about 1762–64) and the three-year-old Miss Jane Bowles (painted about 1775). Nelly’s portrait, a compositional experiment in the subtle rendering of light and shadow, has been cleaned and displayed here for the first time alongside the Glasgow Hunterian museum’s portrait of the same sitter.

Layers of thick, discoloured varnish have been removed and analysis has revealed that Reynolds used a bright underpaint containing the unusual oleo resin ‘copaiba balsam’, which was gradually obscured by the darker paint layers built up over it.

As the X-ray  shows, the artist also modified the composition to expose more of Nelly’s chest, revealing a greater area of flesh onto which he could describe the fall of reflected light.

The paint layers of the infinitely more innocent Miss Bowles are equally complex, concluding with a layer of beeswax across the surface, another experimental technique used by the artist to achieve a soft, polished effect. Miss Bowles’s father was encouraged to commission the portrait from Reynolds by the great patron and collector Sir George Beaumont, who urged him to ignore his concerns about the effect of the artist’s experimental technique, suggesting that he ‘take the chance; even a faded picture
by Reynolds will be the finest thing you can have’.

As paintings conservator Alexandra Gent explains: ‘Reynolds confronted different problems at different times in his career. Originally, his technique produced fading, then, when he introduced changes by adding more layering and richness of tone, this led to cracking.’

According to Miss Gent, the artist’s attempts to learn by copying the techniques of the Old Masters demonstrate that ‘he was really into paint and understanding the artist’s technique, trying to work out how things were done, as we know from his annotations… but he frequently got this wrong’. However, she believes that, when Reynolds perfected his technique, he exhibited breathtaking artistry, where ‘you can see the paintbrush skipping across the surface of the canvas’.

The exhibition, which opens tomorrow, celebrates the conclusion of the Reynolds Research Project and will undoubtedly help the modern viewer to appreciate the ‘magic powers’ of the artist’s paintbrush, together with the ‘glow and brilliancy’ of his compositions that captivated his contemporaries.

‘Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint’ is at the Wallace Collection from March 12 until June 7 (020–7563 9500; www.wallacecollection.org)