This month, July, sees the 300th birthday of a great artist – Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was born on 16 July 1723 in Plympton, a small Devon village, son of a vicar and teacher, and he rose to become the first President of the Royal Academy of the Arts, was knighted by King George III in 1769, and became one of the most successful and fashionable portrait painters of his day. Amazingly, he originally thought of becoming a pharmacist, not a painter.
I wonder if he ever gave any thought to becoming a writer, for he had many friends in the literary world. He was a member of ‘The Club’, which listed amongst its members Dr Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, the playwright Sheridan, and actor David Garrick.
So, it’s hardly surprising that Reynolds has many interesting literary connections. Boswell dedicated his Life of Samuel Johnson to Reynolds, while Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice names Darcy’s housekeeper Mrs Reynolds because she is the one who shows Elizabeth the portraits of Darcy and his family. Just after Johnson published his famous dictionary, Reynolds painted his portrait. This work, never quite finished, hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. In 1772 he did another portrait of his friend, one which is owned by the Tate. Then he did another in 1775, one which is known as the ‘Blinking Sam’ portrait as Johnson peers short-sightedly at the book he is reading.
Reynolds also painted novelist and poet Oliver Goldsmith, novelist Frances Burney and her father (the musicologist Charles Burney), playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his wife Cecilia, statesman and author Edmund Burke, inventor of the Gothic novel Horace Walpole, Italian poet and critic Giuseppe Baretti, and biographer and diarist James Boswell. Thanks to Reynolds, we have a good idea of how so many 18th century writers actually looked.