The Streatham Worthies
Henry Thrale was a wealthy brewer with a taste for literary company. During the late 1760s his home at Streatham Park, in south London, became a country retreat for Reynolds, Samuel Johnson and other members of their intellectual circle. Among the many improvements Thrale made to his estate was a new library to hold books recommended by Johnson and portraits painted by Reynolds of his friends.
Reynolds painted these portraits over the course of about ten years, beginning with the novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith, and ending with the composer and music historian Charles Burney. As well as the twelve bust-length male portraits, Reynolds also painted a double portrait of Thrale’s wife Hester, and their daughter Hester Maria, nicknamed ‘Queeney’.
The novelist Fanny Burney christened Thrale’s collection of portraits the ‘Streatham Worthies’ - a playful reference to the celebrated ‘Temple of British Worthies’ at Stowe. They were hung above the bookshelves in the library. As Burney explained, Thrale wanted ‘the persons he most loved to contemplate… to preside over the literature that stood highest in his estimation.’
Joshua Reynolds Oliver Goldsmith, about 1772
No man was MORE FOOLISH when he had not a pen in his hand, or MORE WISE when he had.
– Samuel Johnson on Oliver Goldsmith
The celebrated Irish novelist and playwright, Oliver Goldsmith, was one of Reynolds’s closest friends.
Goldsmith was renowned for his gauche behaviour; his conversational skills did not match his literary abilities. Reynolds’s sister thought this portrait was ‘the most flattered picture she ever knew her brother to have painted’.
Joshua Reynolds Giuseppe Baretti, 1773
Mr.Baretti… is a most humain, BENEVOLENT, peaceable man. I have heard him speak with regard to these Poor Creatures in the street, and he has got some in the hospital, who have had bad distempers.
– Oliver Goldsmith’s testimony at Baretti’s murder trial
Giuseppe Marc’Antonio Baretti was a literary critic and translator. By the early 1770s he was employed as a live-in tutor in Italian and Spanish to Henry Thrale’s eldest daughter, Hester Maria.
Reynolds presents Baretti as a myopic scholar, in an attempt to counteract his public image which was still coloured by his trial for murder in 1769. Baretti narrowly escaped hanging after stabbing a pimp to death in a violent street brawl.
Joshua Reynolds Edmund Burke, 1774
Edmund Burke first found fame in 1757 as the author of a treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In it he examines the conflicting emotions aroused by pain, terror and immensity.
Burke exerted a tremendous influence upon Reynolds, shaping his views on philosophy and politics. It was also Burke who effectively transformed Reynolds from an artist with sympathy for Whig ideals into the ‘principal painter’ to the Whig party.
Joshua Reynolds Self Portrait, 1775
To COXCOMBS AVERSE, yet most civilly steering;
When they JUDGED without Skill, he was still Hard of Hearing.
– Poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith on Reynolds
In this portrait Reynolds draws our attention to his partial deafness, but also to his customary role in his social circle as a listener. He cups his hand to his ear, although in public he carried a large silver ear trumpet.
Reynolds is traditionally supposed to have become partially deaf due to a cold caught in the Vatican during his stay in Rome in the early 1750s. But deafness was also hereditary in his family.
Joshua Reynolds Samuel Johnson about 1772-8
There is no Arguing with Johnson: for if his PISTOL misses fire, he knocks you down with the BUTT END of it.
– Oliver Goldsmith on Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson, the great poet and moralist, was Reynolds’s close friend and mentor. In this intimate, unflattering portrait Reynolds suggests Johnson’s idiosyncratic gesticulations, which included an involuntary rolling of the head, and shaking limbs. He also emphasises Johnson’s instinctive fingering of the buttons on his tight waistcoat.
Despite his supposed indifference to the visual arts, Johnson appreciated the power of portraits in ‘diffusing friendship, in renewing tenderness, in quickening the affections of the absent, and continuing the presence of the dead’.
Joshua Reynolds Charles Burney, 1781
He never thinks of his AUTHORSHIP and FAME at all, but… is Respected for both by everybody for claiming No RESPECT from anybody.
– Fanny Burney on her father, Charles Burney
Charles Burney was a composer and music historian. He became famous through a series of travel books based on tours of France, Italy and Germany. These included Burney’s encounters with celebrated men including the philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, and the composers Gluck and CPE Bach.
Burney had been awarded a doctorate in music by the University of Oxford in 1769, and is shown in his academic robes. Unusually, Reynolds painted this portrait in the Thrales’ house at Streatham rather than his own studio.
Joshua Reynolds Mrs Hester Lynch Thrale with her Daughter Hester Maria, 1777-8
In Features so PLACID, so Smooth, so Serene,
What trace of the Wit - or the Welch -WOMAN’S seen?
– Mrs Thrale on her portrait by Reynolds
Reynolds painted this portrait to hang over the chimneypiece in Henry Thrale’s library. Mrs Thrale, an intellectual renowned for her sharp tongue and caustic wit, disliked the picture. She told a friend that ‘there is really no resemblance, and the character is less like my father’s daughter than Pharaoh’s’.
In the event the portrait was not hung with the other portraits in the library - on the pretext that her husband did not like it.