Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Artful Inquisitor

Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Artful Inquisitor

Article excerpt

An artist often portrayed as an orthodox portraitist is depicted as having an 'unquenchable thirst' for innovation and experiment, finds Shahidha Bari

Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint

The Wallace Collection, London

Until 7 June

Villainy!", "Lie!" and "Slang!" were just some of the more economical epithets hurled at the grand society portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds by the poet William Blake in his copy of Reynolds' Discourses on Art.

A series of lectures given by the stately painter, the Discourses inspired such rage in the renegade poet that he furiously annotated his edition with an array of elegant aspersions. "Readers must expect", Blake warned, "in all my Remarks on these Books Nothing but Indignation and Resentment." Luckily for the Wallace Collection, visitors to this latest exhibition of Reynolds' work are unlikely to respond as violently as Blake to this small, sedate and thoughtful assembly of 12 canvases.

The quietness of the work sits in contrast to the energetic ways in which the curators of the show have set out to provide a fresh new perspective on this "towering figure of British painting": X-ray scanning canvases, painstakingly scraping away layers of varnish and microscopically scrutinising pigment compositions. It is a similar spirit of enquiring industriousness, though, that they seek to ascribe to Reynolds. The new, apparently more complex and adventurous, Reynolds revealed here is a painter with an "unquenchable thirst" for innovation and experiment, expressed in his tirelessly exploratory use of materials and radical compositions. If that thesis is not always persuasive, there is certainly inquisitiveness and boldness to the exhibition's super-powered meeting of art history with forensic chemistry. This is only amplified when set against the conventional understanding of Reynolds as a painter representative of the stodgier aesthetic orthodoxies of British art in the 18th century.

At the helm of British portraiture for much of his life, Reynolds had an influence that extended well beyond the parameters of his canvases. He was fundamental in the founding of the Royal Academy and committed to the idea of a schooling through which painters might acquire professional status. Through the Academy and its exhibitions, he sought to establish standards of excellence and a canon of good taste from which might emerge a British school of art to rival those venerable Flemish and Venetian traditions. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that an artist such as Blake, with his idiosyncratic style and intensely private methods of production, should have taken umbrage at the declarative directives issued by Reynolds in his annual addresses. The series of 15 lectures, written by Reynolds and delivered to an audience of colleagues and students over a period of 20 years, were published as the Discourses in 1797, sealing his position as the judicious voice of British art in the 18th century. Yet, despite his protestations, even the disgruntled Blake owed to Reynolds a not insignificant debt, having trained at the Academy in 1779 and submitting several works for exhibition there throughout his career.

In the present day, Reynolds' legacy remains visible not only in the panoply of his paintings, liberally scattered throughout the major British galleries, but also in his sculptural omnipresence, memorialised as he is in almost every corner of the city of London. At St Paul's Cathedral, John Flaxman's marble Reynolds is robed and severe, a figure of austere neoclassicism; in the courtyard of Burlington House, Alfred Drury's Reynolds is fey and spry, darting forward with brush in hand. The whistle-stop #JoshuaReynolds Twitter tour, playfully orchestrated by the Wallace Collection to accompany this exhibition, makes much of this, posting snapshots of his work and plotting their placement across London. Organised in coordination with the full gamut of the city's major galleries (each of which can make its own competing claim to Reynolds), the tour includes a stop at the Royal Academy for a close-up of Reynolds' wiry old spectacles, meticulously preserved like a holy relic. …

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