This is an official portrait of Sir James Hodges in his official role as Town Clerk and Deputy Chamberlain of the City of London. His robes are worn over a claret-coloured velvet suit with lace ruffles. On his head he wears a powdered bob-wig. The pose adopted by Hodges is common in Reynolds's portraits of men in public office, one hand resting on a table strewn with official papers, the other grasping an official looking document. There are countless variations on this theme in Western Art, an attitude derived ultimately from Italian Renaissance portraiture, where it was reserved for scholarly, patriarchal figures. The impression of ordered seriousness and authority in this portrait is reinforced by the subject's surroundings, which are redolent of a book-lined study.

Sir James Hodges (d.1774), who also worked as a bookseller, was appointed Town Clerk of London in 1757, an office which he held until his death. He was knighted on 8 June 1759. Hodges died on 16 November 1774, either at his house in Highgate or possibly in Bath. His wife, Mary, died on 4 August 1787 aged sixty-six.

The armchair in which Hodges sits is a distinctive and radically modern piece of furniture, upholstered in crimson velvet with a floral pattern and of a neoclassical design, as revealed here by the curved fluting on the wooden arm rest. After Reynolds's death, his niece gave the chair to the artist James Barry (1741-1806). It was subsequently purchased at auction by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and then passed by purchase to successive Presidents of the Royal Academy until Lord Leighton (1830-96) presented it to the Academy in 1879. The majority of Reynolds's sitters, male and female alike, would have occupied this chair while having their portrait painted. However, Reynolds only incorporated it into male seated portraits, invariably of middle-aged men in public life. An unexpected exception to the 'men-only' rule is an unfinished portrait of 1763-4 of the courtesan Kitty Fisher (Trustees of the Bowood Collection), who lounges in the armchair, toying with Reynolds's pet macaw.

The other prominent studio prop to be seen in the present portrait, and which recurs in Reynolds's official male portraits, is the silver inkstand. This inkstand, with claw feet and three glass containers (designed to hold ink, drying sand and quills), still belongs to Reynolds's descendants. In the present portrait, the inkstand, like the sitters' chair, was almost certainly painted by one of Reynolds's pupils, since Reynolds would not have bothered himself with such peripheral details.

Further reading:

David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2 vols., New Haven and London 2000, vol.1, p.259, vol. 2, p.363, fig. 829

Martin Postle
December 2000