Magazine article The Spectator

More Respected Than Admired

Magazine article The Spectator

More Respected Than Admired

Article excerpt

JOSHUA REYNOLDS. by Ian McIntyre. Penguin/Allen Lane, L30, pp. 606. ISBN 0713993294

At the Italian seaside last week I flicked through the hotel's copy of a translation of Gombrich's Story of Art. The publisher had reproduced Reynolds's portrait of his friend Giuseppi Baretti to a larger size than any other British picture. Ottimo,' said the text, and by some odd process of displacement I was all the more happy to read the praise of a favourite picture in Italian.

It is a picture of a short-sighted and unhandsome man squinting at a book, his scrunched sleeve rubbing the velvet of the chair. But to me - and many others - it is one of the greatest examples of male character ever captured with a brush, a piece of cloth, and some wet paint. At my museum we were lucky enough to borrow the picture for an exhibition for eight weeks last autumn. When Baretti was wrapped in bubble-wrap and nailed into a box for the journey home to his (charming) owner I had a lump in the throat, as if it were a living friend one would never see again.

Baretti came from Italy as a librarian and translated Reynolds's Discourses on art. He was a voluble man who flew into a rage when beaten at chess by the 'noble savage' Omai, whose spectacular portrait by Reynolds has been so spectacularly in the news. In 1769 Baretti was tried for murder. As he was leaving the Haymarket Theatre, a prostitute grabbed his balls and in a blur he stabbed her pimp in the heart. At the Old Bailey David Garrick explained that it was not an Italian stiletto but the type of fruit-knife with which every Englishman took to the theatre to peel his oranges. Samuel Johnson demonstrated that even at arm's length the myopic Baretti could not see the expression on the pimp's face. Edmund Burke testified that he was a 'good-natured man', and Reynolds that he never drank more than three glasses of wine.

Baretti was acquitted on grounds of self-defence and in the 1770s he, and his character witnesses, were five of the 13 friends painted for Mr Thrale's library at Streatham. Garrick is engimatic, Burke distracted, Johnson growling with indigestion; in this commission, Reynolds was free to show his friends as he saw them. In the self-portrait he contributed he cups his deaf left ear; the disability - the consequence of catching cold in a picture gallery on the Grand Tour - was a useful device to ignore a sitter's suggestion about the true colour of her eyes. Perhaps it is shamefully insular of me, but if I could reconstruct any room of paintings for my private pleasure it would be Thrale's library in south London and not the Camerino Alfonso d'Este in Ferrara which was so magnificently re-assembled for the National Gallery's Titian show.

In this excellent biography of the first President of the Royal Academy Ian McIntyre shows that Reynolds was a man of heroic moral stature with a genius for friendship. If the book has a fault it is perhaps that it does not trumpet Reynolds's ability as an artist as loudly as he deserves. There was once a label in the Tate which put it well: 'Reynolds is more respected than admired.'

Three years ago David Mannings published an award-winning catalogue of Reynolds's pictures; there arc over 2,000 portraits alone, for Reynolds never married, never had a mistress, but painted seven days a week until his eyesight failed him in the last months of his life. …

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