Sir Joshua Reynolds

A Man’s Head


Not on display

Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723–1792
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 584 × 457 mm
Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826


This small oil study of an old man's head angled sharply away from the viewer (in so-called profil perdu) was painted by Reynolds during the early 1770s from one of his favourite models, an old beggar named George White. Reynolds painted White frequently during the early 1770s in a number of different guises, including those of an apostle, a Renaissance pope, a bandit and as the central figure in his first major history painting, Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon (National Trust, Knole, Kent), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773. White also became a popular character model for several of Reynolds's contemporaries, including Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), Benjamin West (1738-1820), John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-79) and the pastellist John Russell (1745-1806), who portrayed him as St. Peter. In addition to his private sittings to artists, White was also employed as a model at the Royal Academy Schools. Such was White's popularity that in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1772 the celebrated connoisseur, Horace Walpole (1717-97), counted no fewer than six different works based on him.

Reynolds's interest in White as a model was kindled by his passion for the Old Masters and his desire to paint character studies which could be regarded as 'companions' to pictures of venerable patriarchs by such artists as Guido Reni (1575-1642) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), then very much in vogue among British collectors. Reynolds's practice of pictorial imitation was satirised by Nathaniel Hone (1718-84) in his celebrated painting titled The Conjuror of 1775 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) in which he employed White as the model for the central figure. Tate owns the original oil sketch for this painting (Tate T00939).

In addition to begging and modelling to artists, 'Old George', as White was affectionately known, worked as a casual labourer, laying paving stones. Each winter he would leave London for his native Yorkshire, apparently because, as he stated, 'coals be cheap in the north, and warmth be the life of an old man' (William T. Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England. 1700-1799, 2 vols., London 1928, vol.2, p.266). Reynolds was probably introduced to White through the surgeon John Hunter (1728-93), who treated him at St. George's Hospital following a bout of fever. Because of his muscular physique, White was also taken up by John Hunter's brother, William Hunter (1718-83), who used him as a model in his anatomical demonstrations, and who believed he was the best physical specimen he had ever seen. For a while White lodged with William Hunter at his home in Great Windmill Street, Soho, although eventually he returned to the streets.

The present picture remained in Reynolds's possession until his death. Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827) who had been a personal friend, as well as a great admirer of Reynolds's work, purchased it in 1796 at his posthumous studio sale. In 1826 Beaumont presented it, along with fifteen other of his works, to the National Gallery. It was transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1919.

Further reading:
Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Subject Pictures, Cambridge, 1995, pp.121ff
David Mannings and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London 2000, vol. 1, p.555, no. 2134; vol. 2, p.608, fig. 1676

Martin Postle
November 2000

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Display caption

This is a study of the celebrated artist’s model, George White. Reynolds had just discovered him in the early 1770s and went on to use him in many of his history paintings. His roles included St Joseph, a Renaissance pope, and an Italian nobleman. White was also a popular model at the Royal Academy’s life classes because of his powerful muscular physique, which made him look like the idealised figures in classical sculpture and Renaissance painting. He was also the model for Nathaniel Hone’s painting, The Conjuror, which is on display in this room.

Gallery label, May 2007

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