Book review: Reynolds

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Biography/history of art
Mark Hallett
(Yale University Press, £50 *£45)

Sir Joshua Reynolds did for British portraiture what Elizabeth David did for our cuisine: he animated what had become a bland artform, spicing it with European sophistication and introducing the English palate to new tastes. His death was testament to his success. His funeral cortège, led by the Lord Mayor, and winding from Somerset House to St Paul’s in 1792, comprised gentlemen and noblemen, their footmen decked in black headbands and white gloves.

It was not a good time for British portraiture when Reynolds came on the scene in the early 1740s. Gainsborough had yet to make the trek west from Suffolk and the dominant portraitists such as Joseph Highmore, Thomas Hudson and Francis Hayman, lacked emotional range. Electrified by the accomplishments of the Old Masters following a trip to Rome and, fortified by the writings of art theorists, this boy from the West Country, brimming with imagination and blessed with technical proficiency, set about giving the British portrait a facelift.

London was a rich playing field and Society needed a portrait painter to record it all, a man to fill shoes that had lain empty since the death of Van Dyck a century earlier. Reynolds fitted the bill. His genius centred on his intelligence, a desire to graft the lessons of the Old Masters upon whey-faced English Society, to elevate our national love of portraits into high art.

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He was a man with charm, conviviality and the poetic sensibilities of his age all invaluable attributes when working intimately with a myriad different vanities. He was a shrewd business operator, too Mark Hallett ingeniously demonstrates how he chose and hung his portraits at the Society of Artists and latterly the Royal Academy (of which he was first President) in a way that wowed his audience and kept the order book running.

Portrait painters in previous generations had often used props and settings to suit their subjects a backdrop of battle for a soldier, for example, Arcadian clothes for a woman, Van Dyck-style clothing for a child but they tended to be dressing-up-box clichés.

Reynolds massively increased the repertoire, plundering history, literature, theatre and poetry. Generals growl amid smoke, thespians are torn between personifications of comedy and tragedy, beautiful women stroll in parkland or fly through the air feeding Jupiter’s eagle, intellectuals look demonstratively gimlet or inspired, children are both individuals and divine expressions of innocence.

Every major commission was an independent theatrical performance so much so that it famously caused Gainsborough to exclaim: ‘Damn him, how various he is.’ He could handle almost anybody of rank or achievement. Take, for example, the impossibly seductive courtesan Kitty Fisher, almost certainly commissioned by her lover Sir Charles Bingham. Tricky one that how do you show an extremely high-class tart in such a way that hints at her profession, but which doesn’t demean her or the man paying for it? Classical history and Shakespeare come to the rescue Reynolds casts her as the libidinous Cleopatra, dissolving a pearl, an artful reference to her day job as a career lover.

Mr Hallett, who is an excellent writer when stirred, doesn’t hold back when breathlessly describing the portrait’s subliminal carnality: ‘[Her] fingers that elegantly stretch, hover, clasp and caress and that to the knowing viewer must have evoked the fluttering, finger-tipped forms of touch that provided one of the greatest skills in the courtesan’s sexual armoury.’ Phew art historians didn’t write like that when I was at university!

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