Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of The First President of the Royal Academy by Ian McIntyre (2003)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was one of – if not the – leading English painter of the 18th century. He specialised in portraits, painting about 2,000 of them during a long and busy professional career, as well as 200 ‘subject pictures’, and over 30 self-portraits.

Self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1780) Note the bust of Michelangelo, the Rembrandtesque hat, and the text of one of his Discourses folded in his hand © Royal Academy of Arts

Reynolds promoted a ‘Grand Style’ in painting which was less interested in visual or psychological accuracy to his sitters than in placing them in idealised and heroic poses and settings. He was known – and criticised – for pinching aspects from the Old Masters – poses, tints, props, tricks of lighting and so on.

So when you look at this painting – of Reynolds’s lifelong friend, the successful actor David Garrick – you see that not only is he caught between the two allegorical figures representing Comedy and Tragedy, but that the figures are each painted in different styles – the figure of Comedy on the left in a flirty rococo style of Correggio, the figure of Tragedy is done in a consciously ‘antique’ or neo-classical style reminiscent of Guido Reni, dressed in Roman robes with a stern profile – and Garrick in the middle, is wearing a historical costume reminiscent of van Dyck but his face is done in an unashamedly realistic or figurative style.

David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy by Joshua Reynolds (1760)

Reynolds was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. He gave an inaugural lecture and this soon settled into an annual – later, biannual – lecture or ‘discourse’. At the end of his life these were published together as 20 or so Discourses about art, which were influential for decades afterwards.

The biography

Ian McIntyre’s biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds is a big book, weighing in at 608 pages, including index and notes (542 pages of actual text). What makes it hugely enjoyable is the way McIntyre very deliberately widens its scope to become a portrait of the age. Not a page goes by without entertaining and often amusing digressions away from the basic chronology of events.

For example, before we’re ten pages in we’ve had a whistlestop history of Devon and the town Reynolds was born in, Plympton, from Roman times to his birth in 1723. There’s an interesting explanation of the medieval and Renaissance tradition of Emblem Books and in particular the work of Jacob Cats, little known in this country but hugely influential on the continent. A little detour into the life of a well-known gypsy of the early 18th century, Bamfylde Carew. And so on.

The book is packed with footnotes, often as many as six on a page, giving biographical snapshots of every single person Reynolds comes into contact with, reads or meets or writes to or mentions, often with a bit of background about their achievements in art or literature – Reynolds cultivated friendships with the leading writers of the time – or, quite often, the wars or battles they were involved in, as a) Reynolds painted a large number of military and naval personnel and b) Britain was almost continually at war throughout the 18th century.

This blizzard of contextual information is partly explained because, as McIntyre candidly points out, we don’t actually know all that much about Reynolds’s life. We know he went to Italy to study the Old Masters for an extended stay from ages 25 to 27 (1750-52). Then he returned to London, set up a studio, and quickly became very successful. We have annual business ‘pocketbooks’ he kept, and these are packed full of appointments with sitters, practical notes about rents and paints and canvas and shopping (p.94). We have the accounts and minutes of the Royal Academy which he set up and ran from 1768 till his death in 1792, the Discourses he published to the world – the written version of the lectures he delivered at the Academy – and numerous descriptions of him in the diaries and letters of contemporaries – but not much more.

Reynolds didn’t keep a diary or interesting notes and thoughts about art which contain breath-taking insights and ideas. He never married, and so didn’t have either a wife or children to write memoirs about him. He doesn’t appear to have had affairs, or if he did they were kept very secret (the issue is discussed on p.85). His sister, Fanny, was his housekeeper for 25 years, followed by a niece.

Er, that’s about it in terms of a ‘personal’ life.

`So in a way McIntyre’s strategy of padding out the story with reams and reams of information about pretty much everyone else alive at the time was a necessity – a factual account of just Reynolds’s life would be quite sparse. Still, McIntyre’s encyclopedic approach makes for a highly enjoyable account.

As does his rangy, slangy style. He is at pains to emphasise that he is not a stuffy art critic, he’s one of the boys:

  • Then, brushing away a crocodile tear, he [an anonymous critic] put the boot in. (p.319)
  • Reynolds was taking a fair amount of stick in the press… (p.320)

18th century artists

Thus McIntyre doesn’t just place Reynolds in the 18th century art world – he introduces us to quite an intimidating number of 18th century artists, starting with Reynolds’s predecessors in Britain, referencing leading contemporary painters in France and Italy, and then a host of other contemporary painters – the famous, the not so famous, and the downright obscure. They include – and this list excludes all the many sculptors:

  • Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646 – 1723) leading portraitist of his time
  • Francesco Solimena (1657 – 1747) leading Italian painter of the Baroque
  • Jonathan Richardson (1667 – 1745) whose book, An Essay on the Theory of Painting inspired young Reynolds
  • Joseph Highmore (1692-1780)
  • William Hogarth (1697-1764) leading English artist, caricaturist and printmaker
  • Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699 – 1779) ‘the other great middle-class painter of the century’ specialising in quiet domestic scenes, in contrast to either grand historical paintings, or pink and blue rococo
  • John Shackleton (? – 1767) Principal ‘Painter in Ordinary’ to George II and George III
  • Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) Reynolds was apprenticed to him
  • Francesco Zuccarelli (1702 – 1788) Italian landscape painter from Venice
  • Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702 – 1789) French portraitist working mainly in pastel
  • Francis Hayman (1708 – 1776)
  • Arthur Devis (1712 – 1787) started as landscape artist, then portraits of members of pro-Jacobite Lancashire families, then portraits of London society
  • Allan Ramsay (1713 – 1784) rising star arrived in London from Rome in 1738, painted the definitive image of the coronation of King George III and a stream of royal commissions
  • Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714 – 89) landscape and marine painter
  • Richard Wilson (1714 – 82) ‘the classic master of British 18th century landscape painting’
  • Henry Robert Morland (1716 – 1797) Young woman shucking oysters
  • Richard Dalton (1720 – 91)
  • Katherine Read (1721-1778) Scottish portrait painter
  • John Astley (1724 – 1787) portrait painter
  • George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) English painter of horses
  • Francis Cotes (1726 – 1770) pioneer of English pastel painting
  • Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788)
  • Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779) German artist, precursor of neo-classicism
  • Charles Catton (1728 – 98) coach painter to George III
  • George Barrett Senior (1732 – 1784) Irish, leading contemporary landscape painter
  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) late Rococo painter of remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism
  • Robert Edge Pine (1730 – 1788)
  • George Romney (1730 – 1802) portrait painter in the Reynolds / Ramsay league
  • Sawrey Gilpin (1733 – 1807) English animal painter, illustrator and etcher who specialised in painting horses and dogs
  • Johann Zoffany (1733 – 1810) German neo-classical painter
  • Joseph Wright (1734 – 1797) to become Wright of Derby
  • Jeremiah Meyer (1735 – 1789) Painter in Miniatures to Queen Charlotte, Painter in Enamels to King George III
  • John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) Anglo-American painter, active in both colonial America and England
  • Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) first American artist to visit Rome, settled in London as a painter of historical scenes, early pioneer of neo-classicism
  • Nicholas Pocock (1740 – 1821) master of a merchant ship aged 26, he became a noted painter of naval battles
  • Ozias Humphry (1740 – 1810) a leading English painter of portrait miniatures, later oils and pastels
  • Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) history painter and portraitist
  • Ozias Humphrey (1742 – 1810) a leading English painter of portrait miniatures, later oils and pastels
  • Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) English painter specialised in flowers
  • Philip Reinagle (1749 – 1833) pupil of Allan Ramsey, specialised in hunting pictures – Members of the Carrow Abbey Hunt
  • Robert Smirke (1753 – 1845) English painter and illustrator, specialising in small paintings of literary subjects
  • James Gillray (1756 – 1815) British caricaturist and printmaker
  • Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827) English artist and caricaturist of the Georgian Era
  • Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838) Italian-English artist and educationalist
  • John Opie (1761 – 1807) English painter of historical subjects and portrait, took London by storm in 1781
  • Thomas Phillips (1770 – 1845) leading English portrait painter of the day, notable for portraits of William Blake and Lord Byron
  • Benjamin Haydon (1786 – 1846) British painter who specialised in grand historical pictures,

As with many of McIntyre’s digressions about contemporary figures, I found it well worth taking a few minutes to look up each of these painters. I was particularly drawn to some of the pictures of Jean-Étienne Liotard who I’d never heard of before.

The Chocolate Girl by Jean-Etienne Liotard (1744)

Provenances

An interesting aspect of Reynolds’s career is the number of portraits which have gone missing or are disputed. That the authorship of works of art can be disputed is significant: it shows you that, when the provenance of a painting is crystal clear, then the experts can confidently pontificate about its distinctive composition and style; but where there is no signature of clear history of ownership, where the authorship is disputed, then style and composition are not enough to determine the identity of the painter. Take this portrait of a black man.

Portrait of an African by Allan Ramsay (1757-60)

It is instructive to learn that it was once thought to be a portrait of Olaudah Equiano and painted by Joshua Reynolds, but is now generally accepted to a portrait of the young Ignatius Sancho painted by the Scottish painter, Allan Ramsay. The point being that the ‘house style’ of 18th century portrait painters was so similar, overlapped at so many points, that even experts can’t tell them apart.

Destructions

McIntyre’s book is extremely thorough. He documents the sitters and the painting sessions for what seems like every one of Reynold’s nearly two and a half thousand paintings. But a theme which emerges is the dismayingly large number of paintings which have been lost or destroyed, by Reynolds:

  • Portrait of Lady Edgcumbe – destroyed by bombing during Second World War
  • Portrait of Thomas Boone – untraced
  • Portrait of Jane Hamilton – untraced
  • Portrait of Mrs Baddeley – untraced
  • Portrait of Alexander Fordyce – untraced
  • Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu – untraced

No fewer than nineteen works by Reynolds were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the family seat of the Dukes of Rutland, Belvoir Castle in Grantham, Leicestershire, in 1816 (in which also perished works by Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck).

Or other artists of the day:

  • Benjamin West’s Cimon and Iphigenia and Angelica and Medoro – untraced

Which gives rise to a meta-thought: I wonder what percentage of all the paintings ever painted, still exist? Half? A quarter? To put it another way – how much of all the art ever created has been ‘lost’?

[The beginnings of an answer are given in Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War where he writes that Dutch artists produced several million paintings in the 16th and 17th centuries combined – ‘of which perhaps 10 per cent survive‘ (p.816). 10% – is that a good working guesstimate?]

Miscellaneous notes

Reynolds’s first studio was at 5 Great Newport Street, in London’s West End. It was on the edge of the country, with a good sized garden both behind and in front (inconvenient in rainy weather since rich people’s carriages couldn’t park right outside the door, p.119). His rival, Allan Ramsay (1713 – 84) lived round the corner in Soho Square.

In 1760 he moved to a house on the west side of Leicester Fields, later Leicester Square. The Prince of Wales kept a big house dominating the north side. Hogarth had lived since 1733 in a house on the east side.

Reynolds’s style is considered ‘more masculine and less ornamental’ than that of his main rival, Allan Ramsay, who was therefore generally thought to be the better painter of women portraits (p.117).

Penny-pinching Reynolds was careful with money. Anecdotes abound. He got up early to visit the fishmarket to select the best value fish then returned home with detailed instructions to his servant about which ones to buy. He made a fuss about the value of an old mop (p.122)

Vandal Reynolds was fantastically disrespectful of old paintings. Apparently, he stripped back layer by layer of paint to see how they had been painted, a number of Venetian paintings and one by Watteau – stripped them right down to the canvas until he had utterly destroyed them (p.239).

Factory production None of your romantic waiting-for-inspiration nonsense, 18th century painters painted to order and commission and on an awesome scale. Allan Ramsay’s portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte dressed for his coronation (1761) was so popular that his studio i.e. assistants, produced no fewer than one hundred and fifty pairs of the paintings to meet the market; buyers including members of the royal family, sovereigns, heads of state, colonial governors, ambassadors, corporations, institutions and courtiers.

Knock ’em out, pile ’em high was the watchword. When one aristocratic sitter offered to come for an additional sitting so that Reynolds could have a session devoted to her hands (of which she was very proud) Reynolds casually told her not to bother as he normally used his servants as models for hands (p.137). (This chimes with the revelation in James Hamilton’s book that Gainsborough generally painted the entire body of his sitters from models, often his wife or grown-up daughters.)

Anti-romanticism

It has been the fate of arts to be enveloped in mysterious and incomprehensible language, as if it was thought necessary that even the terms should correspond to the idea entertained of the instability and uncertainty of the rules which they expressed.

To speak of genius and taste as any way connected with reason or common sense, would be, in the opinion of some towering talkers, to speak like a man who possessed neither, who had never felt that enthusiasm, or, to use their own inflated language, was never warmed by that Promethean fire, which animates the canvas and vivifies the marble.

If, in order to be intelligible, I appear to degrade art by bringing her down from her visionary situation in the clouds, it is only to give her a more solid mansion upon the earth.  It is necessary that at some time or other we should see things as they really are, and not impose on ourselves by that false magnitude with which objects appear when viewed indistinctly as through a mist. (Discourse 7)

No good at drawing Reynolds was acknowledged to be more interested in colour and tone than in drawing and design. He himself confessed he wasn’t too strong on anatomy. One of the hardest parts of pure figure drawing is hands and Reynolds’s sitters hands are often ungainly, stylised or hidden. He wasn’t too bothered about strict visual accuracy:

The likeness consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature. (quoted on page 127)

‘Flying colours’ Throughout his career Reynolds experimented with materials that make an oil painting, incorporating at one time or another, asphalt, wax, charcoal, experimenting with non-traditional types of key colours such as incarnadine for red. This was often disastrous, as scores of anecdotes testify, the painter Benjamin Haydon just one who was sharply critical of his over-treatment of his paintings (quoted page 282).

One painting, being carried to its patron, was knocked in the street and the entire creation simply slid off the canvas and onto the street. Many others complained that the colours changed. The sky in Admiral Barrington’s portrait changed from blue to green within months of receiving it (p.362). Hence his reputation for ‘flying colours’ and many burlesques and parodies about them.

Rich As a result of his astonishing industry, Reynolds was by 1762 making £6,000 a year (p.141). By way of comparison, the homely parson in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village has a stipend of:

A man he was, to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year.

By about 1780 it cost 50 guineas for a ‘head’, 70 guineas for a ‘half length’, 200 guineas for a full length (p.361).

Reynolds’s deafness In Rome in 1751 Reynolds suffered a heavy head cold which left him partially deaf. For the rest of his life he carried about an ear trumpet. There are numerous humorous anecdotes of him pretending not to hear unflattering or critical remarks.

Reynolds’s height Sir Joshua Reynolds was five feet five and one-eighths of an inch tall (p.149).

Reynolds and the king Despite his prolific portrayal of the British aristocracy, Reynolds was disliked by King George III and never got the post of Principle Painter in Ordinary which he aimed for. This post went to Allan Ramsay in 1761. A number of reasons are given for this dislike, for example that when Reynolds was offered the presidency of the newly founded Royal Academy in 1768 but said he’d have to consult his close friends, Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke. Since it was a royal appointment which the king had personally agreed, he was offended that Reynolds hesitated, and particularly offended at the mention of Edmund Burke, a critic of the king. And his friendship with John Wilkes, a radical critic of the king and the Establishment as a whole (p.322).

Reynolds and Dr Johnson I’d like to like Dr Johnson more than I do. At the end of the day, his bluff English pragmatism comes close to philistinism. His rudeness was legendary, as was his greed (the story of a host setting out bowls of clotted cream, strawberries and a jar of cider for a party of guests and Johnson eating the lot, or asking for pancakes and eating 13 in a row) and his addiction to tea. And his depression: letters are quoted in which he describes his morbid fear of being left alone to his thoughts. Which is why it was difficult to get rid of him; he’d pop round for tea then stay, talking interminably, till past midnight. If he was ever left out of a conversation:

His mind appeared to be preying on itself; he fell into a reverie accompanied with strange antic gesticulations. (Reynolds, quoted page 210)

Reynolds and his sister Reynolds’s sister, Francis (1729 – 1807), acted as his housekeeper from when he moved to London in the early 1750s until 1779, when some kind of argument – still unknown – led to her leaving and her place being taken by their nieces. Fanny was an artist in her own right, of histories and portraits. She also wrote and won the support of Dr Johnson, who encouraged her and remained friendly and supportive even after the break with her brother. Mutual friends were critical of Reynolds’s treatment of her, e.g. Mrs Thrale (p.327).

Reynolds and Gainsborough The ‘Grand Style’ which Reynolds spoke about in his Discourses meant improving on nature, removing blemishes and imperfections, creating an idealised image.

The likeness consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature. (p.127)

And by ‘idealised’ he often meant aspiring to the style of Roman art and architecture, all pillars and togas. Thus Gainsborough and Reynolds disagreed about what their sitters should wear. Gainsborough, the more informal, casual and bohemian (p.338) of the pair thought it was an important part of capturing a sitter’s personality that they wore their own clothes; Reynolds, by contrast, kept a wardrobe of ‘idealised’ costumes and often painted his sitters in Romanised togas and tunics. The Dowager Duchess of Rutland complained that Reynolds made her try on eleven different dresses before settling on what she dismissed as ‘that nightgown’ (p.151).

Benjamin West, the American painter of historical scenes and second President of the Royal Academy, is quoted criticising Reynolds’s fondness for dressing his female sitters in antique robes, pointing out how much more interesting and useful for posterity it would be to see them in their actual everyday wear.

Technical terms

Conversation piece an informal group portrait, popular in Britain in the 18th century, beginning in the 1720s, distinguished by portrayal of a group apparently engaged in genteel conversation or some activity, very often outdoors. Typically the group will be members of a family, but friends may be included, and some groups are of friends, members of a society or hunt, or some other grouping.

Fancy picture Fancy picture refers to a type of eighteenth century painting that depicts scenes of everyday life but with elements of imagination, invention or storytelling. The name fancy pictures was given by Sir Joshua Reynolds to the supreme examples of the genre produced by Thomas Gainsborough in the decade before his death in 1788, particularly those that featured peasant or beggar children in particular. (Source: Tate)

Profile portrait The profile portrait ultimately derived from coins and medals from ancient Rome. It could be used as a commemoration of the dead, or as a tribute to the living great.

Eighteenth century London courtesans

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of courtesans which he began to make from the late 1750s onwards.

I include this list not out of a conscious or unconscious wish to define women by their sexuality, but because these women’s lives are fascinating, and the niche they occupied in the society of their time so startlingly different from our day.

Eighteenth century women artists

  • Katherine Read (1721-1778) Scottish portrait painter
  • Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) history painter and portraitist
  • Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) English painter specialised in flowers
  • Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838) Italian-English artist and educationalist

Those are the ones I noticed in the text, anyway. There’s a full list online:


Blog posts about the 18th century

Elizabethan Treasures @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition transports us back into the Elizabethan Age, the age of Shakespeare and Spenser, of pointy beards and intricate ruffs, to the soundtrack of exquisite lute music.

Lute music was one of the art forms Elizabethan England was recognised for across the Continent, its chief exponent, John Dowland, being poached by the king of Denmark to entertain his court in 1598.

The other art form which flourished in Elizabethan England was the very distinctive one of portrait miniatures, brought to a peak of perfection by two specialists, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and French-born Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617).

This exhibition – Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver – brings together some 85 masterpieces by both men, making it the first major exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures to be held in the UK for over 35 years. And what a delight it is!

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

These miniature portraits were termed ‘limnings’ at the time, the intricate detailing of their style deriving, ultimately, from medieval manuscript illumination, but the shape and format clearly owing something to the artwork for coins and medals.

Miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes as a way of demonstrating favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jewelled cases or worn around the neck, could be pinned to clothing or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy.

Variety

Having studied the literature of the Elizabethan period, and being a fan of lute music, I thought I knew what to expect – 60 or 70 exquisitely painted miniature portraits – but the most surprising thing about the exhibition is the variety of works it includes (miniatures, oil paintings, sketches, coins, manuscripts) and the presentation and context surrounding the portraits, which make it feel much more like an immersion in the broader culture and history of the time.

How to limn

For example, early on in the exhibition there is a display case showing the dozen or more implements which were required to create and paint miniatures, including a mortar and pestle to grind the colour, sea shells to mix the pigment with water or gum, the vellum surfaces the miniatures were painted onto, which were themselves worked flat using a paintbrush-style stick with a smooth tooth (!) at the end to create a supersmooth and even surface.

Above the case is a video showing every stage in the preparation and painting. Very informative.

Manuscript illumination

I was fascinated to be told that the tradition of these miniatures stems directly from manuscript illumination, and from the very finely drawn illustrations often found in later medieval manuscripts. To demonstrate how close the link was the exhibition includes a surviving manuscript, the charter marking the establishment of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1583, illustrated by Nicholas Hilliard himself.

Queen Elizabeth

You expect the patrons of these fine artists to have been the richest people in the land, the Queen and her courtiers and there is, indeed, a section devoted to the images of Queen Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard and Oliver. Hilliard, the older man by 18 years, established a monopoly of producing her portraits in miniature. He went on to design seals and illuminated legal documents and medals for the Crown, and became a salaried royal employee in 1599.

To be honest I found the miniatures of Elizabeth on display here less striking than the many full-length portraits of her which exist (and can be seen upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery, for example the stunning ‘Ditchley’ portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger). But I was struck by one very unexpected picture, an image from 1580 of Queen Elizabeth playing the lute. Do you think she took requests?

Elizabeth I Playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Elizabeth I playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Symbols and secrets

Elizabethan culture was packed with signs and symbols. Images and words had multiple meanings, some public and openly acknowledged, others to do with families, family trees and mottos and coats of arms, others deeply personal and private. The miniatures on display reveal a complicated combination of all three.

So, for example, much of the symbolism surrounding he Queen was straightforward enough, beginning with the Tudor rose symbolising her family lineage and including flowers or jewels which symbolised constancy and virtue. No surprises there.

But what are we to make of an image like this, of a young man, not wearing a ruff, with his doublet casually open, set against a backdrop of roaring flames?

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

The commentary says we can be confident that this symbolises ‘burning love’. Fair enough, but what comes over in the section devoted to symbolism, allegory and secret meanings is just how much we don’t know – just how much of the carefully worked symbolism in these paintings has been lost forever. Even of this image, the commentary is forced to speculate:

The man, dressed only in his undone shirt, holds a jewel. This is perhaps a miniature case containing an image of his love, who was presumably the intended recipient of this portrait.

Perhaps. Presumably. Next to it is a weird image of a young man clasping a hand apparently emerging from a cloud in the sky above.

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Because the Latin inscription written either side of his head translates as ‘Because of Athenian love’ the commentary says that the whole image may imply male homosexual love, which was associated with ancient Greece. May. Despite the fact that sodomy was punishable by death under Elizabethan law, so you’d have thought it was not something you’d leave incriminating evidence about, let alone commission the Queen’s own artist to publicise.

Next to it is a portrait of an unknown man, whose meaning, the commentary records, ‘is now obscure, as the identity of the man and the context of the miniature are lost’.

My point being that encountering a steady succession of images of unknown men or unknown women, with obscure or ambiguous mottos, clasping jewels or flowers which presumably had some meaning for them – but reading time and again how their identities and meanings are now long lost – creates a cumulative sense of mystery and uncertainty. Which is all rather wonderful and charming.

The images are so fantastically precise and perfect – and yet their meanings escape us. In some ways that’s frustrating. But in others it’s rather liberating.

Leicester and Essex

One section brings out the age gap between the two artists by comparing their patrons.

Hilliard b.1547, was patronised by Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), Elizabeth’s favourite in the early part of her reign. Hilliard’s portrait of Leicester from 1576 was one of my favourite three or four works from the show. What it lacks in strict anatomical accuracy, it more than makes up for in the tremendous sense of character and personality which it conveys. And, the closer you look, the more unbelievable the detailed painting of the great man’s fine white ruff becomes. This object is only about three inches in diameter. The fineness of the detailing is quite staggering.

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

By contrast, Oliver, born 18 years after Hilliard, in 1565, was taken up by the great court favourite of the second half of Elizabeth’s career, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex. Oliver painted Essex, his friend the 3rd Earl of Southampton, and others in their circle including Southampton’s cousins, the Browne brothers, examples of which are here.

Full-length portraits

Expecting only to see face portraits, I was surprised to discover the exhibition included a whole section devoted to full-length portraits, mostly of a very particular type.

From the late 1580s, both Hilliard and Oliver, like other artists of their day, produced a number of portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or reclining in gardens, or in wilder landscapes. Common poses included the head resting on one hand or the arms crossed. These images would have been read by their contemporaries as depictions of the fashionable ‘complaint’ of Melancholy.

One of the most famous of these (possibly because I’ve seen it on the covers of half a dozen different book editions of Elizabethan sonnets and so forth) is Hilliard’s depiction of a noble youth, posed full length and leaning moodily against a tree.

Young Man Among Roses' by Nicholas Hilliard

Young Man Among Roses’ by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1588)

Obviously enough, the figure is surrounded by elaborately painted rose bushes alive with thorns. Presumably these represent the thorns and snares of earthly love and so – presumably – would have had a significant personal meaning for the subject and, presumably, commissioner of the work. But then the commentary points out:

The symbolism of the roses, combining beautiful flowers and sharp thorns, and the Latin motto, suggest that its subject is the pain associated with loyalty to someone who has fallen from favour. It has been suggested that the miniature depicts the young Earl of Essex pining for the loss of the queen’s favour, but the context of the poem from which the motto is taken suggests a political affiliation gone wrong.

As so often, we don’t know and so the entire image becomes a prompt for all kinds of pleasantly romantic speculation.

Oliver branches out

If I was slightly surprised by the full-length portraits, I was astonished when the exhibition went on into a section describing the artistic diversity of the younger man, Oliver, who was far more experimental than Hilliard.

For a start, Oliver tackled overtly religious subjects, something Hilliard doesn’t seem to have done, and we are shown a portrait of Christ he did.

Even more surprisingly, the painting is done using stippling i.e. there are no direct lines defining the image, the whole thing is built up solely through the application of brief impressions of paint. The result is that it looks completely unlike anything else in the show, and resembles more the large paintings of contemporary Italian Renaissance artists such as Correggio and Federico Barocci. Soft and blurry, unlike any other of the images here.

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Also distinctive to Oliver was sketching and drawing. The exhibition shows two A4-size pencil drawings, one of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Maybe Oliver’s French origins connected him culturally to the European Catholic tradition. There are no religious paintings by Hilliard.

Most surprising of all is this large-scale work, sometimes titled An Allegory, sometimes A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love, by Oliver.

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

As so often we are not completely sure, but experts think that this picture shows an allegory of virtuous and immoral love.

On the left, a soberly dressed group of middle-class women, accompanied by a man, walk through woodland. To the right, richly and colourfully dressed women, probably prostitutes, are gathered around a reclining man. Behind these figures a number of other couples embrace in the woodland, and three different types of hunting are taking place: hawking, boar-hunting and shooting ducks. The miniature displays Oliver’s extraordinary skill, at a relatively early stage in his career, in creating a complex, crowded scene, convincing spatial recession and a sense of movement.

Maybe. Perhaps.

James I

The Stuart royal family

A separate room explores aspects of the change which came over the arts when Elizabeth died in 1601 and was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who was crowned James I of Britain. Unlike Elizabeth, James was married with children and thus the need for accurate portraits was greatly multiplied, and they were of a different type. While Elizabeth had to appear stern and aloof, many of the Stuart portraits feel softer and more intimate, as if to be shared among an extended family circle.

While James continued to patronise ‘our well-beloved servant Nicholas Hillyard’, in 1605 the more artistically adventurous queen consort Anne of Denmark appointed Isaac Oliver her ‘Painter for the art of limning’ for the same salary as Hilliard, £40 a year.

The result is a series of miniatures of king, queen and their three children, Henry, Prince of Wales, Princess Elizabeth and Charles, Duke of York. The exhibition shows us portraits by Hilliard and Oliver of the same royals, allowing us to compare their styles.

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Maybe I was subliminally influenced by the extraordinary ‘softness’ of the Jesus portrait, but I thought I detected a general softening of outlines in these Stuart portraits, especially by Oliver.

The level of detail – the hair styling, ruffs and jewels – is the same as the Elizabethan portraits but – maybe it was just me, but – I thought somehow the overall effect of the images was less sharp and precise and, somehow, more gentle.

One thing which definitely changes is the use of red velvet curtains as a background. The Elizabethan images tended to be set against an abstract colour wash, often blue. Now the royals are standing in front of a luxurious red backdrop implying wealth and grandeur of a more baroque and continental style.

Masques

James’s court saw the rise in popularity of masques, elaborate entertainments expensively staged with generally allegorical or classical subjects, words provided by the poet laureate Ben Jonson and sets and costumes by Inigo Jones. Masques were:

hugely expensive and elaborate court entertainments involving music, dance, poetry and sometimes prose. They were performed by courtiers and members of the royal family. Some took place in the Inns of Court and at courtiers’ homes, but the most spectacular were staged at royal palaces, and involved magnificent costumes and sets.

Some historians I’ve read detect in the popularity of masques among the royal court, a movement away from the sunlit, open-air progressions, tournaments and hunts favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The old queen spent a lot of time travelling round the country, imposing on her aristocratic hosts and asking for large entertainments to be staged, in order to make herself known to her subjects and celebrated as the nexus of national power.

In sharp contrast the masque was a form of entertainment which was held indoors, often at night amid candlelight, and was highly exclusive, restricted to close courtly circles.

Puritans, the more radically Protestant wing of the Church of England, saw in these masques and in their pagan, classical subject matter, a form of blasphemy. The way they were held in private gave rise to dark rumours of immorality, an accusation supported by one of the miniatures here, a portrait of an aristocratic lady dressed as the Roman goddess Flora and wearing a surprisingly diaphanous blouse.

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Take a magnifying glass

A contemporary wrote of these miniatures that ‘the art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great … that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties’ and he raises an important point.

Almost all the works on display in this exhibition are very, very small.

Luckily (vitally), the National Portrait Gallery is handing out free magnifying glasses for visitors (you hand them back at the end) and I found I had to combine the magnifying glass and my own glasses to get a really clear, close-up, in-focus view of each picture.

Summary

This is an absorbing and fascinating exhibition. Being forced to look so very closely at the faces and the finely written mottos, and the astonishingly detailed ruffs and jewels and hairdos of so many of these figures, famous or anonymous, from royalty to dashing adventurers like Walter Raleigh, can’t help giving you the feeling you’re getting really close to these people, looking right into their eyes, rubbing right up against the mystery of their images and dress and symbols.

And when you guess at the meanings of the often unknown symbols, and wonder about the purposes of the pictures (as love tokens, gifts to spouses, favours from royalty or aristocratic patrons), you feel that you, too, are becoming part of the dance of meanings which wove in and out of late Elizabethan and early Stuart courtly culture. This is a wonderfully evocative and beautifully staged exhibition.

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

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