Happy birthday, Sir Joshua Reynolds!

As Kenwood House celebrates 300th anniversary of the birth of the first President of the Royal Academy, London Blue Badge Tourist Guide, Mark King, takes a quick look at the life and works of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

300 years ago, on 16 July 1723, Joshua Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon. He later chose a career as an artist and eventually rose to eminence as the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, becoming a titanic influence on British painting of the 18th century. He was knighted in 1769.

Sir Joshua Reynolds self-portrait c. 1788. Oil on panel RCIN 400699

Today, some may regard Reynolds’ paintings less favourably than in their day, but the presence of his paintings, print reproductions and writings in the collections of stately homes and galleries across the UK – and internationally – attest to a very successful career (see selected links below).

It is undeniable that his output was prodigious, his techniques were experimental and scholarly, and that at their best his fancy pictures and portraits in the ‘Grand Manner’ celebrate notable – as well as more ordinary – people or themes from contemporary British society. Undeniably, he was a powerful role model and the thoughtful champion of a distinctively British approach to the arts that drew on classical traditions. His legacy is huge.

In this article the focus is on one of the largest single collections of Reynolds’ work – 17 paintings acquired in the late 19th century by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh. They form a major part of a large, world-class fine art collection Iveagh gifted to the nation a hundred years ago.

Curator and team installing part of the special exhibition at Kenwood House. Copyright Mark King

The Iveagh Bequest is displayed permanently at Kenwood House near Hampstead in north London, where it is managed by English Heritage. With financial support from the Friends of Kenwood, the curatorial team has just unveiled a special 300th anniversary exhibition that shines a valuable spotlight on Lord Iveagh’s favourite artist.

Kenwood House, Hampstead, London. Copyright Mark King

Reynolds showed great genius as a young man. He moved to London and travelled around Europe, bringing back ideas about the arts, particularly from Italy. He became the chosen portrait painter for high society – including Kenwood’s late-18th century owner, the Lord Chief Justice William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield – and supported the careers of successful protegees including Angelica Kauffman. While visiting Kenwood, look out for six paintings by Kauffman.

Reynolds was partially deaf, possibly from a young age and progressively he lost his sight as he grew older. One of his final paintings before his eyesight failed is displayed poignantly in the exhibition. He has been portrayed using an ear trumpet and a self-portrait at Kenwood is a rarity – there aren’t many brutally honest 18th century portraits of people wearing spectacles! When he died aged 68 in 1792, he was honoured with burial in St Paul’s Cathedral, where he lies today, surrounded by several other eminent names from Britain’s artistic pantheon.

Lord Iveagh showed great discernment when he built his collection of Reynolds’ portraits and fancy pictures as part of a much wider collection, before gifting so many of them for all of us to enjoy. In this landmark year, when the National Portrait Gallery has acquired jointly with the Getty one of Reynolds’ most famous portraits, Mai/Omai, for a record-breaking £50 million, it is exciting for all of us at Kenwood House to be celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of this extraordinary artist.

Three rooms of Kenwood House form an interpretative trail entitled: ‘Spotlight on Reynolds, Lord Iveagh’s Favourite Artist at 300’ This special exhibition runs from 13 July – 19 November 2023.
Entry to Kenwood House is free. Come and appreciate for yourself these fine works by one of Britain’s most valued artists!

A selection of major exhibitions or collections of Reynolds’ work in England:

English Heritage – Kenwood House, London

Spotlight Talks on Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving A Pearl and Mrs Musters As Hebe

Audley End House, Essex 

The Box, Plymouth

Harewood House, Leeds

Wallace Collection, London

Royal Academy, London

National Portrait Gallery, London 

National Trust 

National Gallery, London

Tate Britain, London

Royal Museums Greenwich, London

Art Fund 

About the Author Mark King is a born and bred Londoner but has also lived in Oxford and Dorset and he has worked overseas in France, United States of America, Czech Republic and Russia as well as travel extensively around the world. His peerless tours encompass both the historical and contemporary in London, several outer and inner boroughs of London as well as sites outside of London – Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and Stonehenge never fail to delight, as well as the the ‘must see’ cities of Salisbury, Bath and Oxford. Mark is author of the The Blue Badge Guide’s London Quiz Book and he sits on the Council of the Friends of Kenwood. You can contact Mark here