Joshua Reynolds: The Invention of Celebrity
Captain Robert Orme 1756
Oil on canvas, 240 x 147 cm National Gallery,
In 1775, Joshua Reynolds splashed out on forty seats for his friends at the benefit performance for the actress Mrs Abington. The play was a new farce by David Garrick , aptly named Bon Ton, or High Life above Stairs. Samuel Johnson went along although he couldn’t see or hear properly so the whole performance was a blur. Why did he go? asked Boswell: ‘Because Sir, she is a favourite of the publick; and when the publick cares the thousandth part for you that it does for her, I will go to your benefit too.’
This little tale is told by Martin Postle, writing about Mrs Abington as ‘Miss Prue, 1771, the painting that adorns the front of the catalogue for Tate Britain’s new show, Joshua Reynolds: the Creation of Celebrity. For me, it sums up the Reynolds of this exhibition, surrounded by friends, a lover of theatre and the farce of high-life, as aware as the growling Johnson that the beacon of fame draws all-comers. This is not the aloof founding President of the Royal Academy, holding forth in his Discourses on the virtues of copying the antique and the idealised grand style: ‘ we perceive by sense, we combine by fancy, and distinguish by reason…the beauty of which we are in quest is general and intellectual’. Such views drew the wrath of artists like Hogarth, who loved the cluttered, noisy world of the everyday, and of visionaries like Blake who rejected the bland, fashionable orthodoxy, fuming that ‘To Generalise is to be an Idiot To Particularize is the alone distinction of Merit’. Instead of this stuffy generaliser, Tate Britain gives us Reynolds in the midst of his milieu, a convivial man, an assiduous networker, a hard-working professional, ambitious and knowing, with his finger on the pulse of national events and the scandals of his day.
Exhibitions with a theme are fashionable today, and a title like ‘the Creation of Celebrity’ certainly gives visitors a way in, an angle, a talking point. But themes can also become straightjackets: in this case Reynolds did not ‘create’ celebrity . Since the lapse of the licensing laws in 1695 journals and newspapers, ballads and broadsheets all served up hot gossip, either to make political waves or simply to entertain. Reynolds certainly knew how to ride this wave, to create the image that his sitters wanted. But so did the other artists showing at the time: Gainsborough, Ramsey, Romney. Why is Reynolds singled out? Partly it is because of the sheer range of his work and quantity of his output. After he established himself in his fine house in Leicester Fields, with his host of assistants, everyone wanted to sit for him - the military and the navy, writers and musicians, aristocrats, actresses and courtesans, botanists and bluestockings. Surveying this range we really do feel that we are walking among the ‘Bon Ton’. It was a small, intense milieu, bounded by the London season – 1200 souls made up ‘the World’, declared Henry Fielding - but it was a world in which reputations were won and lost, fortunes gained and squandered, political deals made and intrigues concocted.
Before 1760 ‘celebrity portraits’ were viewed only by this intimate circle, in their houses or in the artists’ studios. But during Reynolds’s long career its stars became visibly known to a far wider public through the new exhibition spaces, and the shows of the Society of Artists from 1760, and the Academy itself from 1768. Many more people could now see the stars they read about. Each year brought a new sensation: in 1776, for example, crowds came to gasp at Lady Worsley, tapping her whip in her brilliant red riding dress, the latest military-style fashion. And beyond the capital, through the medium of mezzotint, an art revived by Reynolds’s patronage, people across the land could admire the Marquis of Granby, hero of the Seven Years War, or marvel at the versatility of Garrick, between Tragedy and Comedy. Portraits of the famous now looked down their noses from the walls of public houses as well as grand mansions.
Reynolds’s own self portraits were all carefully designed to create the required image at different points in his career: the young visionary shading his eyes; the confident, budding artist in Rome, the ‘gentlemanly’ London portraitist of the mid 1750s; the scroll-holding dignitary of the 1770s. And if he showed himself more intimately, as the mature and aging man, his deafness and spectacles point less to vulnerability than to his attentive, scholarly genius. From the start, he chose the face to show the world. He also knew the value of good connections. His early work in Devon brought him the friendship of Augustus Keppel, who gave him a free berth to Minorca when he was on his way to Rome. His vigorous 1752 portrait of Keppel, in pale blue satin, poised like a reverse Apollo against rocky cliff and stormy sea, evoked the adventurous past of his friend, who had joined the navy at ten, sailed round the world with Lord Anson, been shipwrecked off France. The portrait was a sensation, a brilliant introduction to aristocratic clients.
In his paintings of military and naval heroes, Reynolds was absolutely in tune with the highly popular, jingoistic imagery of martial honour. His dashing visions of young blades or crusty old defenders of Britain’s coasts were patriotic statements, but he always added something unexpected, conveying the tension and harshness of military exploits as well as the heroism. In public life too, many of his portraits were contributions to a cause. Passed over for court painter to George III, Reynolds turned to the King’s opponents, the Whig grandees and the group that surrounded the Prince of Wales. His lavish studies of the Prince attempted – never entirely successfully – to defuse criticism of his dissipated life by showing him as a dashing warrior, or being decked in his robes of state by a black servant ( one critic said that it looked as if he was being fitted for a pair of trousers). But other attempts to massage a public image were far more effective, none more so than the portrait of Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire with her Daughter. This laughing, Rubenesque painting, the model of motherly happiness, wooed crowds at the academy in 1786, deliberately setting out to repair the damage done when Georgiana had shocked the public by campaigning for Charles Fox in the streets, in a most ‘unwomanly’ way, in the Westminster election two years before.
He painted everyone who was anyone. And beyond the battlefield and the court, the world of politics and the aristocracy, beyond the masquerades with their gorgeous costumes, and the marriageable young women in white, lay the equally celebrity-obsessed world of the arts and literature. Reynolds scooped this too, painting Sterne with his enigmatic smile and his old crony Edmund Gibbon, all rosy cheeks and double chins. These are equally stylised but more intimate works. In 1764, when Samuel Johnson was in one of his darkest, lowest moods, Reynolds instigated ‘The Club’, a support group of allies. The portraits of these friends, painted for Henry Thrale’s library at Streatham Park and wittily labelled by Fanny Burney as ‘The Streatham Worthies’, are tender and acute. Here is Johnson, fiddling with his waistcoat button: Goldsmith looking pale and alarmed; a thoughtful Edmund Burke, stripped of rhetoric; Dr Burney, benign and nervous in his doctoral robes; the shortsighted Baretti with his nose in his book.
These studies are of celebrities, but they are a private celebration. At his best, Reynolds manages simultaneously to acclaim and to dispense with the trappings of fame. You feel this with people he knows well, whether it be writers like Johnson, or actresses like Fanny Abington, sexily biting her thumb as she leans over the back of a chair, with her little dog on her lap. The great courtesans, Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien were constant visitors to his studio and close friends. He painted them in his grand, allusive style, Kitty as Cleopatra dissolving her a pearl in wine, Nelly against the background imagery of Danae – since the flawed gods of the day showered such women with gold. But he also showed them at ease, as in the affectionate study of Kitty draped casually in his studio chair, murmuring to his pet parrot. Rumours abounded that Nelly, in particular was his mistress – but no one knows.
His paintings of these beautiful women alienated stricter minds but won him great publicity among men of the world. Society women quickly took note, and queued up to have their portraits painted in similar poses. The close conjunction of the two gave an added frisson; notions of celebrity began to blur and overlap. And if Reynolds sometimes seemed to verge on the formulaic, suddenly he would surprise the world afresh. As Gainsborough famously said. ‘Damn him! How various he is.’