This large double portrait depicts on a life-size scale two young aristocrats, Dudley Alexander Sydney Cosby, Lord Sydney (1732–1774), shown on the left, and Colonel John Dyke Acland (1746-1778) leaping forward on the right. Dressed in quasi-historical clothing invented by the artist, they are mimicking a medieval or Renaissance hunt; the dead game they leave in their trail underlining their noble blood and aristocratic right to hunt. The painting celebrates the men’s friendship by linking it to an imaginary chivalric past, when young lords pursued ‘manly’ activities together against a backdrop of ancient forest. The two subjects run and take aim in perfect rhythmic harmony; at one with each other and joint masters over nature.
Joshua Reynolds painted this portrait shortly after he took up duties as the first President of the newly opened Royal Academy of Arts and delivered the first of his famous ‘discourses’ on art. Reynolds’s sitter book confirms that the painting was executed in August – a month he usually reserved for personal projects rather than commissions – suggesting that it was made of his own volition, undoubtedly with an eye to the newly established Royal Academy annual exhibitions. The grand scale of the work, its dramatic, tightly organised composition and deliberate echo of the Italian painter Titian’s great mythological scenes all speak of Reynolds’s extraordinary determination to raise the profile and status of British art in these years. More particularly, this painting, his most ambitious male portrait to date, demonstrated his desire to elevate portraiture to the level of high art, alongside the genre of history painting, which was traditionally seen as superior.
The depiction of the two sitters hunting with bows and arrows points to a renewed enthusiasm for archery in aristocratic circles at this time; see for example Johann Zoffany’s Three Sons of John, 3rd Earl of Bute c.1763–4 (Tate T07863). Aa Attracted by its virile and romantic associations, the figure of the archer became a fashionable reference point for privileged young men and was a popular allegorical guise for contemporary portraits.
The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy’s second annual exhibition of contemporary British art in 1770, after which it remained in Reynolds’s studio for several years. It was eventually purchased by Acland’s widow in 1779 to commemorate her husband who had died the previous year of a paralytic stroke, probably caused by war injuries.
David Mannings with Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of Paintings, vol.1, New Haven and London 2000, p.58.