The Experiments Of Joshua Reynolds At The Wallace Collection

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 35 months ago
The Experiments Of Joshua Reynolds At The Wallace Collection ★★★☆☆ 3
This cutesy picture is of Miss Jane Bowles as she over-exuberantly hugs her dog. © The Wallace Collection.
This cutesy picture is of Miss Jane Bowles as she over-exuberantly hugs her dog. © The Wallace Collection.
The Countess of Lincoln appears pensive in this portrait painted soon after she had become a widow. © The Wallace Collection.
The Countess of Lincoln appears pensive in this portrait painted soon after she had become a widow. © The Wallace Collection.
This rare self-portrait was started again, possibly because Reynolds was not happy with the shading in the first iteration. © National Portrait Gallery, London
This rare self-portrait was started again, possibly because Reynolds was not happy with the shading in the first iteration. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Mary Robinson is the sister of the pensive Countess and her hair has been painted in the fashion of the time. © The Wallace Collection.
Mary Robinson is the sister of the pensive Countess and her hair has been painted in the fashion of the time. © The Wallace Collection.
This sickly - almost alien - Strawberry Girl may be Reynolds' most original portrait. © The Wallace Collection.
This sickly - almost alien - Strawberry Girl may be Reynolds' most original portrait. © The Wallace Collection.
This painting of a mother and child is modelled on classical portrayals of the Virgin and the baby Jesus. © The Wallace Collection.
This painting of a mother and child is modelled on classical portrayals of the Virgin and the baby Jesus. © The Wallace Collection.

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

Joshua Reynolds is a major figure in the history of British painting, the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts and an influential portraitist. His paintings of wealthy sitters made him very fashionable at the time but we might ask now: what else is there left to reveal? The Wallace Collection has conducted some thorough research over the last four years and used x-rays to uncover additional insights into his paintings.

But any fears of this being a dull, academic exhibition are quickly dismissed as the findings reveal interesting facts such as how a woman's hairstyle in one painting was changed as the fashion of the time dictated. Likewise, with a self-portrait of Reynolds shading his eyes — we learn that he didn't like his first effort so flipped the canvas upside down and painted over it.

It's a scholarly show but there are plenty of Reynolds' portraits that really stand out. His picture of the recently-widowed Countess of Lincoln shows her lost in her own thoughts, while elsewhere a mother's gaze on her child is filled with expressive adoration. The portraits of children show the artist's different sides: in one work a cherubic little girl hugs her dog with such strength that she's in danger of strangling it, while his 'strawberry girl' looks ghostly and almost alien.

Reynolds is often viewed by contemporary art goers as not terribly exciting, but this small and free research-oriented exhibition manages to shine a new light on his work and make Reynolds relevant to a modern audience.

Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint is on at The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, W1U 3BN until 7 June. Admission to the exhibition and the permanent collection is free.

Last Updated 18 March 2015

Jennifer

One of the reasons that Reynolds Strawberry Girl "looks ghostly and almost alien" is due to the deterioration of the pigments on the canvas. Reynolds, while a highly skilled and admired artist of his day, was often chastised for his too-bold, unorthodox experiments with pigments. Some sitters even complained that the portraits they commissioned would fade or chip away within months of being completed. The unstable tar- or bitumen-based pigments used on several of his portraits (versus traditional nut oil-based pigments) are called 'fugitive' pigments and fade in time due to light exposure. These pigments, while smooth and easy to manipulate, never completely solidify and often create tears and cracks in the painting's surface. Often Reynolds would use a variety of pigments in his works, so that certain colours or areas of the pictures remained while others deteriorated. Popular pictures such as Strawberry Girl have been frequently ill-restored over the years, so that contemporary conservators may have difficulty revealing Reynolds's true colours beneath the patina and layers of applied varnish. The conservation done on works in the exhibition are a vast improvement upon previous restorations. While Strawberry Girl's face has always been pale, it is undeniable that the picture changed a great deal over the years; the original painting may actually have looked quite different. Viewing the painting in person also improves the viewer's experience, since, as is frequently the case in online reproductions, the image on the computer screen cannot do justice to the real object. Reynolds was a complex artist as well as individual, and the exhibition at the Wallace Collection (along with the attendant lectures and workshops) are extremely well-researched and worthwhile. The exhibition has managed to gather gems from around the world. Definitely worth a visit.