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Highlights from the Sir Joshua Reynolds collection

Painted image of Sir Joshua Reynolds sitting at a desk
Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), 1767, by Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) | © National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) was the leading portrait painter of the 18th century, and 2023 marks the 300th anniversary of his birth. An imaginative and creative artist, his portraits were admired for their innovative compositions and ability to capture an individual’s distinctive personality. We look after the largest collection of his works in a historic house setting.

Who was Joshua Reynolds?

Joshua Reynolds was born in Devon on 16 July 1723, to a middle-class family. Interested in art from an early age, he studied essays by Leonardo da Vinci and practised drawing with his sisters.

At 17, Reynolds started training with an artist called Thomas Hudson. He then travelled to Italy and France and by the 1750s he was firmly established as a portraitist in London. As his social network grew, so did the number of commissions.

Reynolds co-founded the Royal Academy of Arts with 33 other artists in 1768 and became its first President. He was actively involved in its management and delivered a series of lectures, called the Discourses on Art, which contained his beliefs about art theory and practice.

In 1784, Reynolds became the Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King. However, the post seems to have disappointed him, writing that it was ‘of near equal dignity with His Majesty’s Rat-catcher.’

A large collection

In addition to 76 oil paintings, we also care for 607 print copies of his works, with more in bound volumes, and 77 copies of his written works. This collection forms the largest body and widest distribution of works by Joshua Reynolds in the British historic house setting.

Reynolds's early career

Portrait painting of a woman who is possibly Elizabeth Hamilton, Mrs John Cameron of Glenkindy, later the Comtesse de Fay. It was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792)
Possibly Elizabeth Hamilton, Mrs John Cameron of Glenkindy, later the Comtesse de Fay by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-1792) | © National Trust Images

Possibly Elizabeth Hamilton, Mrs John Cameron of Glenkindy, Montacute, Somerset

The cool flesh tones, blues and greys suggest this portrait was painted in the early 1750s, after Reynolds had returned from studying the Old Masters in Italy. Back in London, he set up his first studio at St Martin's Lane before moving to Great Newport Street. The 1750s saw Reynolds establish his name in the London art world. His budding flair for conveying character is revealed in this playful portrait, in which the sitter, softly illuminated against dark drapery, gazes mischievously at the viewer.

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Later career

Painting of Elizabeth Dashwood, Duchess of Manchester (1741–1832) and her son George Montagu, Viscount Manderville
Diana disarming Cupid: Elizabeth Dashwood, Duchess of Manchester (1741–1832) and her son George Montagu, Viscount Manderville, 1763–72, by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723–1792) | © National Trust Images

Diana disarming Cupid, Wimpole, Cambridge

Elizabeth Dashwood, Duchess of Manchester is depicted as the Roman goddess Diana, taking the bow from Cupid, portrayed by her son, George Montagu. The portrait was Reynolds’s submission to the first Royal Academy exhibition in 1769. Reynolds not only drew on classical mythology but also took the sitters’ poses from an older painting by the Italian Baroque artist Francesco Albani (1578-1660), which is now in the Louvre in Paris.

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New directions and Reynolds's legacy

Oil painting on canvas shows Count Ugolino shown on the left, surrounded by his children and grandchilden, in various states of despair in a dungeon.
Macbeth and the Witches (from William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’) (unfinished), 1786, by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723–1792) | © National Trust Images/Brian Tremain

Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon, Knole, Kent

The miserable story of Ugolino – who was imprisoned with his sons and grandchildren and left to die of starvation – was popularised in the late 18th century largely because of this painting. Commissioned by Reynolds’s most influential patron of the 1770s, the 3rd Duke of Dorset, Ugolino was a bold venture into historical subject matter for Reynolds. It brought him considerable attention at home and abroad, and the artist himself said that the piece 'got me more credit than any I ever did before.’

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Conservation stories

A painting of The Honourable Theresa Robinson standing in a wooden landscape, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, at Saltram, Devon
The Hon. Theresa Robinson by Joshua Reynolds | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Hon. Theresa Robinson, Saltram, Devon

Several Reynolds portraits are being conserved this year, including the portrait of Theresa Robinson. It's been examined using a range of techniques, including inspection under ultra-violet light, which revealed discoloured areas of old varnish. This technical report was added to information about the painting's original appearance from a historic mezzotint (a print made from an engraved metal plate). This information informed the conservators’ approach to removing varnish and overpaint layer by layer, area by area, at the Royal Oak Conservation Studio at Knole in Kent.

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Joshua Reynolds was a central figure in British art during the Georgian period. He had a powerful influence on generations of later artists and his paintings continue to appeal to a wide range of audiences today.

Today, we continue to look after, research and interpret the Reynolds’s works in our care, making them accessible to everyone.

A group of Delftware urns at Dyrham Park, Bristol and Bath

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