Flying colours

Joshua Reynolds: the life and times of the first president of the Royal Academy

Ian McIntyre <em>

A year or two ago, the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds in front of the Royal Academy suddenly acquired a garland of plastic flowers, which jollied him up and made him noticeable again. Having been regarded as dull for so long, Reynolds was long overdue a spot of attention, but even so it was quite an eye-opener when his portrait of Omai recently fetched the second-highest price of any British painting ever. Is he really that good? Second only to Constable? Obviously it is time for a serious reappraisal, and now we have a new biography by Ian McIntyre that elevates Reynolds, if not to the ranks of the thrilling, then at least to the ranks of the more interesting than you might have expected.

Reynolds said himself that he came to painting late and had to make up by hard work what he lacked in native genius. He was born in 1723 in Plympton, Devon, the seventh of 11 children. His father, the Reverend Samuel Reynolds, was master of Plympton Grammar School, where Joshua received a gentleman's education. When he was 17, his father suggested that he should become either an apothecary or a painter, and Joshua opted for painting provided he could be apprenticed to a master. His father paid £120 to buy him a four-year apprenticeship in London with Thomas Hudson, a prolific but uninspired portraitist of the type Hogarth called "phiz-mongers".

Joshua wrote home to his father: "While I am doing this, I am the happiest creature alive." But after two years, he seems to have fallen out with Hudson - or perhaps outgrown him - and returned home to Devon, setting up his own portrait practice in Plymouth, where he painted the local gentry and naval officers at £3 10s a time. It was humdrum stuff, though the Self-Portrait Shading the Eyes, painted probably in his mid-twenties, shows that he had already risen above phiz-mongering and was looking to Rembrandt for inspiration.

When he was 26, a young naval officer called Augustus Keppel offered him a free passage to Minorca, from where he made his way to Rome. There he spent two years studying the Old Masters, before moving on to Florence, Bologna and Venice, making notes all the way. On his return to London in 1752, he exhibited a bravura full-length portrait of Keppel that was widely admired and which led to a flood of commissions. He worked incredibly hard, fitting in sometimes seven sittings a day - in 1759 he had more than 150 sitters and his prices by then had risen to 30-40 guineas for a half-length and 60-80 for a full-length. He bought a substantial house in Leicester Fields, where his sister Fanny acted as his housekeeper, and later built himself a country villa on Richmond Hill. He also spent freely on paintings, acquiring works by Rubens, Titian, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Brueghel (though many of these attributions have since been downgraded), some of which he used for "experiments" to discover the secrets of the Old Masters. Unfortunately, in the course of his experiments he completely destroyed at least one painting, a Watteau, and severely damaged others.

This love of experimenting also had a harmful effect on his own painting - the usual complaint was that he used "flying colours". Most of his reds faded because he used carmine instead of vermilion, and one painting suddenly acquired a grass-green sky because he had used "blue verditer" instead of ultramarine. But actually the worst problem was his use of experimental glazes, especially bitumen, which meant that many of his paintings crazed into crocodile skin, and great chunks of them fell off. He had to write apologising to the Duke of Rutland in 1779 that "the falling off of the colour must be occasioned by the shaking in the Carriage" - though his studio assistants guessed that it was probably be-cause he had used wax, egg, bitumen or maybe all three.

Despite being deaf (he used a hearing trumpet), he was a busy, bustling, sociable man and by his late thirties knew - and had usually painted - all the bigwigs of London. He was good friends with Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Dr Johnson, who once wrote to him when he was ill: "If I should lose you, I should lose almost the only Man whom I call a Friend." He also seems to have known most of the leading courtesans, such as Kitty Fisher, who visited his house for more sittings than were strictly necessary.

Reynolds maintained a busy portrait schedule almost to the end of his life, but increasingly, from his fifties, turned to "fancy" or historical or "subject" paintings - Count Ugolino and His Children, or The Continence of Scipio, or The Infant Hercules - portentous works that were not much liked even in their day. In his last Discourse, delivered in 1790 when he was 67, he said that if he had his life again, he would tread in the steps of Michelangelo. But "I have taken another course, one more suited to my abilities, and to the taste of the times in which I live." This seems a realistic self-assessment: he was ideally suited to his age, but artistically it was the age of brass. He was forced to give up painting in 1789 when he lost the sight in one eye, and died three years later, probably of cancer. Boswell was planning to write his Life, but died before he could begin.

Reynolds's greatest achievement, apart from his portraits, was to preside over the Royal Academy from its inception in 1769, to his death in 1792. Although he was not one of the Academy's first instigators, he proved an ideal first president: he made the Society financially self-sustaining, kept the king on board, and managed to include most major British painters in its exhibitions. The Discourses that he delivered twice a year to students and Academicians remained an important text on art history and aesthetics long after his death. He was knighted in 1769 and appointed principal painter to the king in 1784, though he grumbled endlessly that the king's ratcatcher was paid more than he was - £48 a year, to his £38.

This book, subtitled "the life and times", is very good on the times, but not so hot on the life. Everyone Reynolds ever painted - or sometimes seemingly everyone he ever met - gets a potted biography, while Reynolds himself often disappears into the crowd. McIntyre disdains to speculate on his psychology and offers no answers to what seem to me fairly crucial questions, for example: Why did Reynolds remain a bachelor all his life? Why did he fall out so badly with his sister? Why did Mrs Thrale complain that "he seems to have no Affections"? Reynolds must have been lovable because Dr Johnson loved him, but it is hard from this book to understand why. In sum, this is a useful biography of a useful man and will be welcomed by art historians - but what a pity that Boswell, with his ear for gossip and anecdote, his endless curiosity about what made people tick, never wrote his Life.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The banality of the good