The theatre of life

Reynolds seldom left his studio during the day, but his evenings were devoted to entertainment: clubs, masquerades, balls and the theatre. These social occasions were a vital means for him to maintain his circle of contacts, and cultivate new clients.

The theatre was popular amongst a broad spectrum of society, and at its heart was Reynolds’s friend, David Garrick. Reynolds knew the potential the theatre offered, not so much for portraying actors in character, but for capitalising on their star status.

Another form of theatrical entertainment, introduced to England from Italy in the eighteenth century, was the masquerade. People from widely differing backgrounds could mix indiscriminately, gossiping, flirting and conducting affairs while their identity was concealed by their costumes.

Exotic costume became increasingly fashionable with new opportunities for foreign travel. At the same time London society was entranced by visitors from far countries. As ever, Reynolds was at the forefront. His portraits of the Cherokee, Ostenaco, and the young Polynesian known as ‘Omai’, are memorable images despite their scant relationship to the values or aspirations of the people portrayed.

Joshua Reynolds Giuseppe Marchi, 1753

Giuseppe is grown so INTOLERABLY proud that I Fear we shall Not keep long together as he is above being seen in the street with ANYTHING in his Hand.

– Reynolds on his pupil Guiseppe Marchi

Giuseppe Marchi was about fifteen when he first met Reynolds in Rome, around 1750. Two years later he accompanied Reynolds to England, where he became his principal studio assistant for the next forty years.

This portrait was apparently the first picture Reynolds made on his return to London. His aim was to combine Rembrandt’s tonal mastery with the richness of Venetian colour. Reynolds would have displayed the picture in his own gallery to attract business.

Joshua Reynolds Giuseppe Marchi 1753
Joshua Reynolds
Giuseppe Marchi 1753

Joshua Reynolds Francesco Bartolozzi, about 1771– 3

Why will BARTOLOZZI spend his last precious moment f****g a young Woman, instead of out doing all the World with a GRAVER; when perhaps all the World can out do Him at the former Work?

– Thomas Gainsborough on Bartolozzi

The good-looking Florentine, Francesco Bartolozzi, was one of Europe’s finest printmakers. He was also a celebrated figure in London society.

A founder member of London’s Royal Academy, he specialised in making prints after the Italian old masters, as well as contemporary artists including Reynolds. In 1779 the Grand Duke of Tuscany offered Bartolozzi a pension to return to Florence, but he preferred to remain in England.

Joshua Reynolds Francesco Bartolozzi about 1771-3
Joshua Reynolds
Francesco Bartolozzi about 1771-3

Joshua Reynolds Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy, 1760– 1

Reynolds’s ambitious painting of the celebrated actor David Garrick was one of the most important of his entire career.

The subject was probably Garrick’s own idea: a playful parody of the classical story of Hercules choosing between pleasure and virtue, designed to emphasise Garrick’s versatility. Reynolds presents the figures of Comedy and Tragedy in the style of Antonio Correggio and Guido Reni. Correggio was known for his seductive use of colour, Reni for the strictures of line.

Joshua Reynolds Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy 1760–1
Joshua Reynolds
Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy 1760–1

Joshua Reynolds Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney, ‘The Archers’, 1769

Reynolds shows two aristocratic young men apparently taking part in a medieval or Renaissance hunt, in a composition deliberately echoing the example of the great Italian artist, Titian.

It became fashionable in the later eighteenth century for young aristocrats to identify with the romantic, virile figure of the archer. Reynolds conjures up an older, more chivalrous era; the pile of game emphasises that they are not common ‘foresters’ but noblemen exploiting their aristocratic right to hunt.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers' 1769
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers 1769
Oil on canvas
unconfirmed: 2360 x 1800 mm
Purchased (Building the Tate Collection fund) with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Tate Members, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and other donors 2005

Joshua Reynolds Master Crewe as Henry VIII, about 1775

Is not there humour and satire in SIR JOSHUA’S reducing Holbein’s swaggering and colossal haughtiness of Henry VIII to the boyish JOLLITY of Master Crewe?

– Horace Walpole on Reynolds’s portrait of John Crewe

John Crewe’s pose and costume are modelled on the famous portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, part of a dynastic mural made in 1537.

The green jacket Crewe has taken off and thrown over a stool shows he is wearing fancy dress - the kind of costume worn by adults at fashionable masquerades. His mother adored masquerades, where she appeared as a Spanish nun and even cross-dressed as a fashionable young gentleman.

Joshua Reynolds Master Crewe as Henry VIII about 1775
Joshua Reynolds
Master Crewe as Henry VIII about 1775

Joshua Reynolds Miss Crewe, about 1775

Sadly, this portrait of a child in a winter landscape remained unfinished because the young Miss Crewe died before it was completed. Although it was acquired by her parents Reynolds does not appear to have asked for payment.

It was probably because of the little girl’s untimely death that the picture was not exhibited in public until the nineteenth century. Despite this it has come to epitomise the innovative image of innocent childhood for which Reynolds became celebrated during the 1770s.

Joshua Reynolds Miss Crewe about 1775
Joshua Reynolds
Miss Crewe about 1775

Joshua Reynolds Scyacust Ukah, 1762

He strongly resembles the MARQUIS of GRANBY, and I assure you in many instances gives MASTERLY strokes of great courage, a sense of true HONOUR, and much generosity of mind.

– A contemporary on Ostenaco

‘Scyacust Ukah’, or Ostenaco as he is now known, was the leader of a group of Cherokees who came to England on a diplomatic mission. The three-man delegation attracted intense interest during their stay in London, which culminated in an audience with George III.

Ostenaco wears around his neck a silver gorget, a military mark of rank given by the British to Native Americans they regarded as allies. He also wears a medal the British had awarded him after a recent peace treaty.

Joshua Reynolds Scyacust Ukah 1762
Joshua Reynolds
Scyacust Ukah 1762

Joshua Reynolds Sketch for ‘Omai’, about 1755-6

This is an oil sketch for Reynolds’s large-full length portrait of Omai, the young Polynesian brought to England from Tahiti in 1774.

Although the angle of the head is the same in both pictures, here Omai’s facial features are more pronounced; his nose is larger and flatter, his jaw squarer and his lips more full.

Joshua Reynolds Sketch for 'Omai' about 1755-6
Joshua Reynolds
Sketch for 'Omai' about 1755-6

Joshua Reynolds Omai, about 1776

he had Passed his time, while in ENGLAND, only in the Best company; so that all that he had acquired of our Manners was GENTEEL

– Captain James Cook on Omai

Mai, or ‘Omai’ as the British called him, was a young Polynesian, brought to England from Tahiti in 1774. British scientists wanted to evaluate his responses to ‘civilised’ Western virtues; Omai wanted British support against those who had driven him from his native island, Raiatea. However, he also became a source of curiosity and amusement to his British hosts.

Reynolds shows Omai in a pose which echoes his earlier portrait of Augustus Keppel; this, in turn, was based on a classical sculpture of Apollo.

Joshua Reynolds Omai
Joshua Reynolds, Omai 1776

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Baldwin, 1782

Nineteen-year-old Jane Baldwin, the wife of a wealthy merchant, was born in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) of British parents. She had no East European blood, but Mrs Baldwin made the most of her exotic background; she was known as the ‘pretty Greek’.

She wore this costume on special occasions in London, notably at a ball given by the king. She holds an ancient coin from her birthplace. The sensuality of her unusual crosslegged pose adds to her allure.

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Baldwin 1782
Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Baldwin 1782

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1784 or 1789

The sudden transition from VIOLENT rage to affected indifference, was a MASTER -PIECE of acting; none but Mrs. Siddons could so well exhibit the two extremes

– The Times on Mrs Siddons

Reynolds’s portrait immediately confirmed Mrs Siddons’s status as the greatest tragic actor of her day. He presents her not merely in a theatrical role, but as the embodiment of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. Behind her are figures representing terror (right) and pity.

Her pose recalls the figure of prophet Isaiah from Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, but Mrs Siddons insisted she had composed it spontaneously herself. This is one of three versions Reynolds made of the portrait.

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse 1784 or 1789
Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse 1784 or 1789

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Billington, 1789

You have made her Listening to the ANGELS; you should have made the Angels Listening to HER.

– The composer, Joseph Haydn, on Reynolds’s portrait of Mrs Billington

Reynolds exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy in 1790 as a Portrait of a Celebrated Singer. By this time ‘Betsy’ Billington, the most famous diva of the age, was also notorious for her scandalous private life.

Mrs Billington may have suggested posing as St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, though some critics disapproved of this mixture of the ‘sacred and profane’.

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Billington 1789
Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Billington 1789