Reynolds and Kauffman: Royal Academy connections at Saltram
2018 marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy, an artist and architect-led institution aimed to promote the appreciation and understanding of art as well as its practice.
At Saltram in Devon there is a magnificent collection of works by two artists and founders of the Royal Academy: Angelica Kauffman and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Curator Alison Cooper discusses this collection and explores the relationships between these formidable artists and their patrons at Saltram, John and Theresa Parker.
Artists and their patrons
The National Trust looks after one of the largest collections of works by Royal Academicians outside of the Royal Academy, with over 5,000 works spanning much of the institution’s 250-year history.
The significance of these collections, however, is not limited to size. The origins and histories of our collections provide a unique view of the diverse ways in which artists and their patrons have made names for themselves, shaping and challenging public taste along the way.
Such was the case with John Parker, 1st Baron Boringdon (1734/5-1788) and his 2nd wife Theresa Parker (1744/5-1775) of Saltram. The Parkers were responsible for many of the fine interiors and wonderful objects still in Saltram's collection today.
A wealthy family with extremely good taste, it was natural that they would meet, sit for and buy from the best artists of the day including Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807).
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Reynolds was born only four miles from Saltram in Plympton, Devon. His first studio was in Dock (modern day Devonport, Plymouth) but as his popularity grew, he quickly moved to London to meet the demands of those who wanted their ‘likeness’ made by him. By1768, Reynolds had established himself as the leading portrait painter of his time and became the founding president of the Royal Academy.
Reynolds was good friends with John and Theresa Parker and they met often both for business and on social occasions. In 1770 he began painting a full-length portrait of Theresa in a landscape. When it was still not complete two years later, Theresa joked that Reynolds was ‘very lazy’. She sat for him at least two more times in 1772 whilst heavily pregnant.
This portrait was commissioned for the Saloon to complement Marcus Geeraerts's full-length portrait of Sir Thomas Parker (b.1594/5-1663). In a letter to her brother, Theresa wrote 'Sir.Thos.Parker wants a companion so much in the great Room at Saltram that it could not be delayed another year.'
When completed, the portrait of Theresa was exhibited at the Royal Academy, drawing attention and high praise. The family were so pleased with it that they commissioned an engraving and 50 prints to share with family and friends.
Sadly, Theresa died in 1775, not long after the portrait was completed. Reynolds hosted her heartbroken husband John at his home in Richmond and reportedly wrote an anonymous obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine.
Reynolds continued to paint the family, including the Parkers' young children, John and Theresa (who bore the same names as their parents), in 1779. The painting’s progress was well-documented as it took six months to complete and was delayed at one point because the children were ill. Once completed, it was highly admired and even Reynolds said that young John’s face was one of the best he had ever painted.
Reynolds was not the only Academician to be patronised by the Parkers. Angelica Kauffman painted numerous portraits and history paintings for the interiors at Saltram. Like Reynolds, Kauffman was a founder member of the Royal Academy, but along with painter Mary Moser, shewas one of only two female members.
Kauffman was born in Switzerland and rose to fame as an accomplished painter in Europe before even moving to London in 1766. Here, her work was so popular that by 1781 the Danish Ambassador wrote that the whole world was 'Angelica mad.'
Despite being hugely famous, she was still a minority in the male-dominated art world. Kauffman was left in social and financial difficulty after a disastrous first marriage but it was through her talent and determination, along with the support of Queen Charlotte and patrons like the Parkers of Saltram, that she was able to continue working.
Kauffman's self-portrait shows one of her other loves – music. A recurrent theme in her work, it alludes to a decision she had to make earlier on in life – between a more traditional career for a woman in music or the less obvious path into art.
In London, she remained a favourite and though she was inundated with customers, she was well aware of the negative attention that it could also bring. She acknowledged, 'I am now known by everyone here and in the public eye.'
Friends and advocates
On her arrival in London, Kauffman soon became friends with Reynolds and painted his portrait. The relaxed pose and intimate style indicate that they knew each other well. Reynolds called her ‘Miss Angel’.
Where Reynolds was an advocate of Kauffman’s brilliance, not everyone was so enthusiastic. Another Plymouth artist, James Northcote, questioned her ability, claiming that – as a woman - there was a ‘point of excellence’ that she could never reach.
As a woman, Kauffman was excluded from much of the main business of the Royal Academy. She was prohibited from attending committee meetings and dinners and it was frowned upon for her to attend life drawing classes, the most fundamental method used by the RA to study the human form.
When the Parkers bought Kauffman's portrait of Reynolds, they were simultaneously supporting Kauffman and giving their friend Reynolds a place in Saltram’s portrait collection.
" I have finished some portraits which are snapped up by everyone, Mr Reynolds is excessively pleased with them. I have painted his portrait, which has turned out very well and does me much honour. "
Kauffman's history paintings
The Parkers further supported Kauffman's career by purchasing six large paintings depicting scenes from classical sources and early British history. These large paintings were shown at the Royal Academy’s first exhibitions between 1769 and 1771 and now hang in the staircase at Saltram.
The six paintings represent Kauffman's 'break' into the field of history painting, which throughout the 18th century, was considered superior to portraiture. Reynolds advocated for the moral superiority of history painting in his writing and steered the Royal Academy into an increased focus on its importance, though he would paint very little of these himself.
Unlike portraiture which sold easily, history paintings were large and less likely to sell. By painting these, Kauffman was trying to claim her position as a serious and talented painter, gambling on the fact that they may not have sold.
Evidence suggests that originally these history paintings hung in Saltram's drawing room. When the Parkers purchased them, they were showing support for Kauffman and boosting her career whilst simultaneously showing their own good taste, purchasing history paintings for their main and most impressive reception rooms.