Review of Reynolds: Portraiture in Actionby Mark Hallett
Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press (£80)
This volume is another in a long line of distinguished volumes on British art that have been published recently by Yale. As might be expected for the price, it is beautifully illustrated, with almost all of Reynolds' finest works illuminating the authoritative text written by one of the leading experts on this period of English art. It is not only a study of the techniques and stylistic development of the most important English portrait painter of the eighteenth century, but also a reminder of the unique contribution that portraiture can make to our understanding of the past. It is easy to forget sometimes that the figures in these old portraits were subject to the same emotions and vagaries of life to which we all bend. Spending time with these portraits is both enjoyable and rewarding, for they force the viewer to consider important questions regarding interpretation: What is the artist trying to tell us about the subject? What is revealed and what is hidden? What do the accompanying objects in the painting mean? Finally, and perhaps most telling of all and most difficult: what was the intention behind the completion of the painting, other than to produce a likeness of another human being?
The introduction really does set the tone for the book. Hallett focuses on the 1774 Royal Academy exhibition. Reynolds at that time was not only President of the young Academy, which had been founded by Royal Charter in 1768, he was also its first elected officer. As a reward, the following year he was granted his knighthood. By 1774, Reynolds stood higher than any other English artist in public and private esteem. What he did mattered. In that year, as Hallett beautifully reveals, he gave the paying public --or at least those who could read the content of his opening series of portraits-- an astonishing critique of life at the very top of society. That he was capable of such complexities is just one of the revealing features of this book, and I make no apologies for examining this episode in some detail.
Upon entering the exhibition (entrance fee 1s., catalogue gratis) the spectator would find grouped together these portraits: Maria, Duchess of Gloucester (1771-74), Sophia, Matilda of Gloucester (1774), Lady Anne, Lady Cockburn, and her Three Eldest Sons (1773), Montgomery Sisters Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773), and finally, Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont (1773). Viewed from the perspective of more than two hundred years since their completion, the pictures provoke the first, commonplace impressions that we feel whenever we see old portraits and know little of the persons depicted ---who are these people, and why did they matter to the artist? And further, in this particular case, why did the artist group these works together? Might they be connected in some way?
Maria, Duchess of Gloucester, was the wife of the king's brother, William Henry, Duke of Gloucester. She had been a famous beauty and had been previously married. Widowed in 1763, she secretly married William in 1766, but it was not until 1772 that the king discovered the secret and she was barred from court. The same year she gave birth to her daughter Sophia Matilda, whose first name was the same as that of the child's grandmother, the wife of the king.
Reynolds portrays Maria sombrely dressed, leaning thoughtfully against a classical background. To many of her contemporaries, she had done little wrong: a young widow, she had married and lived harmoniously with the king's brother, and upon their secret being revealed she had been cast out of society. Her sober dress and thoughtful pose all suggest, Hallett writes, “signs of a refined woman of sensibility fully deserving of being granted royal status.”
Hanging next to this romanticised image of womanhood is the portrait of her daughter, Sophia Matilda, then aged two, born the same year that the secret marriage became known. She engages the viewer directly, her arm around her pet dog, in a loving and completely innocent depiction of a young child. She is too young to understand the ordeal that her mother is being put through, yet for those who knew the background to the pictures --and we can assume that most would-- these works would have been a clear challenge to the king to accept the family back at court, and this must have been Reynolds' intention.
Next he presents another idealised mother, this time Lady Cockburn with her three young boys, again placed against a classical setting. The boys surround her, and the youngest is held to her bosom, which suggests that she has been feeding the baby herself --a fashionable aristocratic practice at the time. Her middle child hangs around her neck affectionately, happy in the bond that they have together. The eldest son is still in her arms, but is not as closely attached as his brothers. Although her hand is around his waist, he is less engaged, looking away from his mother. Hallett suggests that this is because he represents the path which the eldest son must by tradition take, leaving the comfortable family environment to ensure its survival.
Moving from what seems to be a group of portraits which engage with the notion of motherhood, we next arrive at a complex and subtle depiction of the role and status of marriage within the highest levels of society in late eighteenth-century England. The earlier works would probably be enough of an advertisement of skill for most artists, but the next two pictures go further, resonating with contemporary meaning once they are unravelled. Montgomery Sisters Adorning a Term of Hymen is another of those portraits which at first seem easy to interpret. Three sisters, echoing the Three Graces, are set in a classical landscape, decorating a marble figure of Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, with garlands of flowers. On one level the painting borrows much from the past --the setting, the costume, and the classical references all suggest that Reynolds is attempting to raise the status of portrait painting by utilising the stylistic mores of 'The Grand Manner.' Yet when we examine the social situations of the three sisters the painting takes on a quite different dimension, especially following the previous celebrations of motherhood.
The central figure is Elizabeth, the eldest of the sisters. She has her hand extended towards Barbara, her younger sister, while to our right Anne, the next eldest, is holding a large garland of flowers above her head, ready to adorn the statue. After drawing attention to the use of what he correctly terms 'imagery of the past', Hallett reveals the hugely significant marital status of the sisters. Elizabeth was engaged to an Irish aristocrat, Luke Gardiner, who had commissioned the painting. She is centre stage for obvious reasons: her husband-to-be has paid for the work and he wants her to be the focus of attention. These are common enough features in the world of commercial portraiture. However, there is a twist. Anne, the figure draped in white with the garlands, although younger than Elizabeth, was already married to a noted military commander, Lord Townsend. The garlands which the two older sisters hold clearly symbolise the estate of marriage, to which the kneeling figure of Barbara aspires. The whole structure and design of the group both reference the past, since the sisters are depicted as the Three Graces, and also the marital narrative, with the women representing the first three states -- unmarried, betrothed, and married.
Finally, on Hallett's tour of the 1774 exhibition, we come to a male portrait, that of Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont. This is another full-scale portrait and shows the subject in the full regalia of the Order of the Bath. In June 1772 Coote had been installed in the order in a huge and elaborate ceremony in Westminster Abbey, in front of hundreds of his peers, all dressed in their ceremonial robes. To the contemporary viewer the subject of this portrait would have been familiar: resplendent in the satin cloak and feathers, Coote represents the power and authority of the highest social status. Only the royal family stood above him. However, remember how they had treated the first subject of this series of paintings. This should be enough to suggest that there is much more to Reynolds' portraits than is commonly supposed, but now Hallett reveals the one detail which makes the displaying of this series truly remarkable, and which reminds us how important the social background to the production of portraits --and our understanding of the whole process-- really is.
In the winter of 1773 Charles Coote was involved in a duel with pistols. He was well-known for his extravagant lifestyle, and his fiery temper had led him into many arguments and disputes. In the duel he was shot in the groin, and Hallett quotes the General Evening Post of February 27th as reporting that “the Earl of Bellamont is now in so dangerous a state, that his Lordship is not expected to live.”
Within a few months, however, he had recovered, and in the summer of 1774 Reynolds displayed this portrait alongside the others already described. So what is it that makes this group so remarkable? Return to the duel and the protagonists: on one side was the Earl of Bellamont, on the other the newly-married husband of Anne Montgomery, George Townsend. Anne's husband shot and nearly killed Bellamont. The duel took place only a few weeks after they were married; could their argument even have been about her?
Hallett has neatly encapsulated the fascination of old portraits. Almost instinctively we want to know more about the subjects, their lives, and the reasons why the artist has chosen to show them in this way. What this group so clearly demonstrates is that we should not assume that these long-dead aristocrats were uninteresting, or that the portrayal of the privileged with the trappings of splendour implies a sterile art. Reynolds used classical motifs and settings to frame his subjects, yet was more than capable of leaving clues which reveal both the humanity of his approach and the frailty of his his subjects.
Reynolds' career is well-documented, and Hallett explores it fully and in fine detail. The self-portrait of 1747-49 is very well-known, and is highly significant. At that time Reynolds was beginning his career, and, like so many painters before him, used the format of the self-portrait to accomplish two complementary objectives. The first was to demonstrate quite clearly his skill as a painter to his potential patrons, and second, to reveal to the world those aspects of his character and personality which he believed would further interest those patrons. Reynolds was a huge admirer of Rembrandt, whose self-portraits are amongst the greatest and most revealing ever painted, so it is no surprise that he attempted to emulate his hero.
The early self-portrait is notable for the striking pose. Reynolds paints himself peering out at the viewer, his hand over his eyes, presumably shielding himself from the reflected light of the mirror. In the other hand he holds the maul stick and palette: he is showing himself in the moment of artistic creation, capturing the necessary concentration and commitment. “This is who I am,” he is saying. “I am a young artist at the height of my powers.” While not perhaps in the same league as the great self-portraits of Dürer or Rembrandt, this work does share one common feature with them: the self-confidence of the artist. Indeed, Hallett claims that the picture represents a significant development in the way that portraits were presented. Gone is the quiet, austere elegance of artists like Hudson and Ramsey. Now we see a new dynamic, with light and shade combining to create not only a sense of movement, but also drama. In this one work Reynolds not only asserts himself to the outside world as a new artist of significance, he also breaks new ground in composition and technique, factors which would not have been lost on his contemporaries.
Hallett's narrative reveals so many fascinating details of Reynolds' artistic development that it is difficult to take any single one as an example, but one aspect which was particularly revealing concerned the portraits that Reynolds produced around the time of the Seven Years' War. This conflict, which involved most of Europe and laid the foundations of the British Empire, is now largely forgotten. However, at the time --and certainly in England-- it was (obviously) of major importance. Reynolds' involvement, not surprisingly, focussed on commissions to paint a number of officers and soldiers in various poses and situations. Hallett discusses two of these portraits which Reynolds showed at the Society of Artists' exhibition in 1761, Captain Robert Orme, painted in 1756, and Cornet Nehemiah Winter, which was completed three years later. Both of these paintings can be seen in galleries in this country, the first at the National in Trafalgar Square, the second at the City Gallery in Southampton. I have spent many hours in both galleries and have usually walked past these pictures, dismissing them as mid-eighteenth century military portraits of little interest. Hallett's expert research shows these works to be anything but!
The Orme portrait is revealed as a complex narrative of the war. Captain Orme had been an aide-de-camp to General Braddock, who was killed at the Battle of Monongahela, a few miles from Pittsburgh. At the time it was part of French-held territory which Braddock's army was attempting to take for the British. Braddock's army was ambushed, and of his 1, 300 men, 900 were either killed or wounded. Captain Orme survived and was instrumental in restoring Braddock's reputation after he had been initially blamed for the military disaster.
Reynolds presents Orme as slightly dishevelled, with his hair loose around his shoulders. Beneath the hem of his officer's coat, in the distant background, can be seen the vague remnants of the battle: smoke and indistinguishable details hint at the carnage that he has witnessed. Orme is resting one arm on his exhausted horse, and, as he looks out at us, he also seems spent in the aftermath of battle. In his other hand he holds a folded piece of paper, a reference to his printed account of the battle which helped to exonerate Braddock from blame.
The battle represented a low point in the war, when the threat of a French invasion of England was very real. This image portrays the reality of conflict to those who might attempt to glorify it. Orme is a partly tragic figure, forlorn and bereft, mourning his lost brother officers and men, and reflecting, no doubt, on the horrors of the battle. Yet he has survived, and therefore represents the eternal heroic soldier who has come through the most harrowing of experiences: the loss of his comrades-in-arms in pursuit of national glory. Hallett emphasises this dichotomy with an insightful interpretation of Orme's face. On the left side, the mouth is slightly turned up, and the tidy hair is tucked under a gold braid hat; on the right the face is more shaded, the hat and hair are disordered, and the mouth turns down. It is almost as if we are witnessing the moral transformation of a soldier from nationalist idealism to realistic pessimism. This is yet another superb example of how Hallett succeeds in bringing back to life a work whose meaning could so easily be overlooked.
Cornet Nehemiah Winter is painted in a similar vein. The portrait of Orme remained in Reynolds' studio and must have been seen by Winter when he commissioned his own portrait. The similarities are striking. The same stance and outward-looking face, the same position of the horse, the raging battle in the background, all are motifs borrowed from the earlier work. Yet, as Hallett again explains, Reynolds seems to have moved the image further on from the simple representation of the soldier in the aftermath of battle. Although these images appear so similar, their differences lie in the backgrounds of the soldiers and the events that they depict.
Winter was involved in another English military disaster, this time much nearer to home. In September 1758 some seven thousand troops landed on the French coast near St. Malo. Their commanding officer Thomas Bligh, realising that a vastly larger French army was lying in wait for them, ordered a retreat back to the beach. What followed was yet another scene of carnage. According to Hallett, more than half the horses and a third of the men lost their lives along the seashore, through artillery fire and drowning. It is this scene that Reynolds portrays in the left-hand third of the picture. Unlike the Orme portrait, in which the details of battle are vague and blurred, here they are shown in graphic detail. A slain soldier and his horse are sprawled close together, a symbol of the death of so many others. A British officer rides a white charger, surrounded by the grey-coated French, perhaps a representation of Bligh himself –he died in the conflict, the result of a musket shot in the chest.
Alongside all of this is the portrait of Winter. He is shown in an almost identical pose to that of Orme: his coat is open, his hand is on his horse, and he is looking at us directly. However, there is a difference. Orme was a mature soldier, an officer experienced in the ways of war. Winter is much younger and Reynolds acknowledges this fact in his face. He has painted it almost deathly white and expressionless, as if registering deep shock. Where the Orme portrait sought to reveal the moral dilemmas faced by military leaders in action --the human cost of national warfare-- in the Winter portrait Reynolds shows the harrowing truth for the young man. Barely grown, Winter has witnessed the full horror of the battlefield. This is no hero, but a figure who is troubled by what he has seen and what he represents.
This volume is full of fascinating details which uncover for the reader the full extent and complexity of Reynolds' achievements. Although this painter is often simply regarded as a member of the artistic establishment who gave his admiring patrons exactly what they wanted, by unravelling the hidden minutiae which Reynolds' contemporaries would have understood, Hallett restores his integrity as a serious artist who pushed the boundaries of portraiture. There is no better example of this than the two portraits of Kitty Fisher.
Kitty Fisher was the best-known courtesan of the period. She had a lavish lifestyle and a succession of well-known wealthy lovers, who all paid handsomely for the privilege of her company. Reynolds painted Fisher many times, but the two portraits that Hallett places side by side date from 1759, a time when Reynolds was still aiming to conquer the market for portrait painting. Fisher was a great celebrity and therefore presented Reynolds with a golden opportunity to make his name. Such was the interest in these pictures that mezzotint reproductions were quickly produced and sold to a fascinated public. It should be noted that Kitty's fame was sealed in the same year when a pornographic mock biography entitled The Uncommon Adventures of Miss Kitty F****r was published.
The first portrait is, superficially, conventional enough, yet it is provocative. Kitty is seated at a table, well dressed, wearing rows of pearls and large gold earrings. This is clearly the portrait of someone with wealth. Her hands are intertwined, yet no rings can be seen; she is unmarried, has no wealthy parents, yet can afford luxurious clothes and jewellery. Implicit is the information that she is a financially successful courtesan who moves in the highest social circles. Reynolds portrays her staring straight out at us, demanding that we acknowledge her. He brings us into the narrative, for we could be standing in front of the table ourselves. To emphasise the point of a moment frozen in time, a folded letter is about to fall from the table, with just the words “My dearest Kit” visible.
The second painting, Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl, is more controversial still. Here Reynolds employs a technique which was new and bold, and it was perhaps because Fisher was a courtesan that he could get away with it. In the eighteenth century the image of Cleopatra represented everything that was exotic, extravagant, and sexually charged. By portraying Kitty in this role, Reynolds is combining the modern reality of the sitter with the licentious myths about the Egyptian queen, so that Kitty becomes associated with these narratives. Here, unlike in the previous work, Kitty is turning away from us, leaving her neck and shoulder provocatively exposed. Hallett describes her skin as “milky-white” and concludes his examination of this work with these words: “the picture's explicit evocation of an ancient, orientalised world of courtly indulgence gives this work a sensual, luxurious and fantasy-laden character that for admirers of both Fisher and Reynolds must have seemed entirely fitting.”
This book goes far in restoring the reputation of an artist who has often been regarded as a self-publicist, overly concerned with commercial success rather than artistic integrity. While it is true that Reynolds never lost sight of the fact that he painted to earn a living, the many portraits analysed here show how he was able to accommodate the demands of his customers with a rigorous artistic aesthetic and masterful technique, as well as—most tellingly of all—an awareness of the social and political mores of his times. When the latter ingredients are present in fairly equal measure, the results, as accurately interpreted by Hallett throughout this book, showcase an artist who has much to offer, if we care to take the time to understand the context in which the work was completed. This is a book which rewards long and careful reading.--Paul Flux