Joshua Reynolds exhibited this double portrait at the Royal Academy in 1770. It depicts two young aristocrats, Lord Sydney (1732–1774), shown on the left, and Colonel John Dyke Acland (1746–1778).
Colonel Acland was a politician and soldier who fought in the war against the American colonists, while Lord Sydney pursued a diplomatic career until his death by suicide in 1774. In Reynolds’s portrait, they are dashing through a forest as if taking part in a Renaissance hunt: they are wearing quasi-historical dress, and leave a trail of dead deer and game in their wake. Reynolds’s composition is heavily influenced by the Venetian Renaissance master, Titian, whom he greatly revered. In particular, it recalls Titian’s painting, The Death of Actaeon, in which the goddess of hunting is viewed in pursuit of Actaeon, who spied her bathing. The pile of game in the left foreground is adapted from a painting by the Flemish artist, Frans Snyders, then in the possession of Reynolds’s friend, the eminent physician, William Hunter.
Through the lively narrative expressed in The Archers, Reynolds revealed brilliantly his ambition to elevate society portraiture to the level of history painting, and his close affiliation to the traditions of European art.
Martin Postle, Curator, Tate Collection 2005
Why is this acquisition important to Tate?
The acquisition of major historic British pictures for display, conservation, study, and loans is critical to Tate’s ability to promote the understanding and appreciation of British art. This iconic painting is just such a picture. Not only is Reynolds indisputably a major figure in British heritage – the first president of the Royal Academy and the foremost arbiter of taste in eighteenth-century Britain, who did more than any other individual to create a recognisable indigenous school of art – but this epic painting fills a gap in Tate’s Reynolds holdings, in which full-length male portraits are underrepresented. This is the first time Tate has bought a picture by Reynolds, all previous acquisitions having been transferred from the National Gallery.