Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
IN THE evening of 23 February 1792, in his substantial house on the west side of what is now Leicester Square, chronic liver failure ended the life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knight of the Realm, Principal Painter in Ordinary to King George III (who loathed him), Founder-President of the Royal Academy and Doctor of Civil Laws (Oxon). He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, his pallbearers a dozen dukes and earls, followed by a cortege of 91 carriages, the occasion a state funeral.
Within half a century or so the reputation of this man so obviously great and good was in such tatters that the bright young things of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood could, without rebuke, disparage him, his brushwork and thick paint, with the nickname "Sir Sloshua". Within far less than half a century, even within his lifetime, many of his paintings had disastrously undergone rapid chemical change; the son of a Devonshire apothecary and once destined too for that profession, he should have known how many constituents of the painter's materia pictoria are, without precaution, subject to such change.
With all technical care abandoned for the sake of fleeting effects long fled, his portraits' faces had become ghostly and ghastly, blanched and ectoplasmic, his histories blackened by cracked bitumen and buried under tarmac, his laurels tarnished.
There was a time, early in the 20th century, when the fame of Reynolds - influenced by the London art market's fervid response to a then frenzied American demand for aristocratic ancestors - revived, and absurd prices were paid for the simpering women and posturing men that for the best part of four decades he had produced at the rate of at least 100 a year, working, apart from a short break in the summer, seven days a week. The purpose of such industry was not only to earn a substantial income but to cut an equal dash in the society that provided him with wealthy, aristocratic and celebrated sitters, to be of it, rather than its servant peeping through its door, and to be seen and recognised as its Apelles. Just as that great painter of antiquity had painted portraits of Alexander the Great, so Reynolds portrayed the marshals and admirals of his day and, that done, added to them society's young bloods and ancient worthies, their courtesans, catamites and children, dressed as themselves in the restrained ostentation of the period, in splendid uniform, in the costumes of the masque and theatre, and even in the guise of such mythological and historical figures as Hebe, cupbearer of nectar to the gods, and Thaes, the courtesan who accompanied Alexander to satisfy his occasional heterosexual needs and who urged him to set fire to Persepolis.
Was there mischief as well as wit in such personifications? Was Reynolds the portrait painter playing the part of a gossip mongering a scandal for those with sufficient grasp of ancient Greece and Rome to recognise exactly what he was implying of his sitters? In the case of Emily Warren as Thaes, this meant that, though a notorious whore, she may have been as felicitous in repartee and conversation as in the skills that she exercised between the sheets. At Tate Britain, that great mausoleum of ancestral British culture, immediately current thinking about Reynolds has it that, for all his lofty ambitions as a painter in the wake of Raphael (who was a great disappointment to him when he saw the famous frescoes in the Vatican), he was indeed a gossip, and a new exhibition there sets out to prove the point, making of him in the course of it so loathsome a sycophantic toady that Rodin's drawing of William Rothenstein licking the anus of the Devil comes to mind.
AS A WOULD-BE painter, young Reynolds, born in Plympton in 1723, was a late starter and not until he was almost 17 was he apprenticed to Thomas Hudson, London's foremost painter of portraits in the wake of Kneller - of portraits and only portraits. …