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Thursday 13 February 2014

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

Sir Joshua Reynolds from The Literary Works of
Sir Joshua Reynolds by HW Beechey (1852)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (16 July 1723 - 23 February 1792) was a leading 18th century English portrait painter and President of the Royal Academy from 1769 to 1792.

You can see some of his paintings in my blog post about a 2015 exhibition of his work.

Family background

Joshua Reynolds was born on 16 July 1723 in Plympton, Devon, one of the 11 children of Samuel Reynolds and Theophila Potter. His father was master of Plympton grammar school and it was here that Joshua received his education.

Artist or apothecary

Joshua was encouraged to take an active interest in art and painted his first known portrait at the age of 12. He was highly influenced by Jonathan Richardson’s An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715). When it came to choosing a career, Joshua told his father that
he would rather be an apothecary than an ordinary painter; but if he could be bound to an eminent master, he should choose the latter.1
In 1740, Joshua’s father bound him to an “eminent master” – Thomas Hudson, a native of Devon who had become a leading portrait painter in London. Although he was bound for four years, he only served two; Hudson dismissed him after an argument.2 The two men were soon reconciled and Joshua continued to paint, dividing his time between Plymouth Dock in Devon and London.

The Grand Tour

On 11 May 1749, Joshua sailed to Europe with Augustus Keppel. Over the next three years, his travels encompassed Cadiz, Minorca, Gibraltar, Morocco, Rome, Perugia, Arezzo, Florence, Venice, Lyons and Paris. He made copies of many old masters and also painted some caricatures, but had no formal artistic training. Whilst in Rome, he took on his first pupil, Giuseppe Marchi, who returned with him to England on 16 October 1752.

Admiral Keppel from The Life and
Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds by Leslie and Taylor (1865)
Portrait painter

On his return to England, Joshua took apartments in St Martin’s Lane, a very fashionable address for a painter. He later moved to 5 Great Newport Street and then to 47 Leicester Square in 1760, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Joshua was a prolific painter. During the 1750s, he painted over 100 portraits a year, often working seven days a week, except in the summer when the ton deserted the city. He kept pocket notebooks listing his appointments, which give a wonderful insight into both his sitters and his social engagements.

His popularity was reflected in his charges. His rates went up from 48 guineas for a full-length portrait in 1753 to 100 guineas in 1759 and then 150 guineas in 1764.

He promoted his works through engravings of his paintings.

The Royal Academy

Drawing from life at the Royal Academy from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Drawing from life at the Royal Academy
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in December 1768 and Joshua was the first President. He was very involved with the running of the Academy and introduced the annual dinner on 23 April 1771. But the Academy members were not all supportive; William Chambers and James Barry were both antagonistic towards him.

During his presidency, he wrote 15 lectures on art, known as discourses, which were read out and then published. Unfortunately, Joshua was not a good public speaker and people had difficulty hearing him.


Joshua exhibited at the first annual exhibition of works held by the Society of Artists in 1760 and at the Royal Academy, whose first exhibition opened on 26 April 1769 and continued every year. Between 1769 and 1779, Joshua exhibited over 100 pictures.

Drawing from life at the Royal Academy from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The exhibition at the Royal Academy, Somerset House
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)

Joshua was eager for royal recognition and was disappointed when Allan Ramsay was appointed portrait painter to the King in 1760. It was not until 1 October 1784 that Joshua was made principal painter-in-ordinary on Ramsay’s death.

On 21 April 1769, Joshua was knighted at St James’ Palace.
St James' Palace, London (2013)
In 1772, Joshua was elected an alderman of Plympton and in 1773, he was elected mayor. He was awarded a doctorate of civil law by the University of Oxford in July 1773.

The Georgian networker

Joshua was a very sociable man and developed a wide circle of patrons and friends. He was a member of a number of clubs including the Artists’ Club, the Dilettanti Society, the Devonshire, the Thursday night club and the Eumelian.

He was a frequent guest at the bluestocking circle assemblies of Mrs Montagu where he developed friendships with Fanny Burney and Hannah More.

His friends included lexicographer Samuel Johnson, author Oliver Goldsmith, politician Edmund Burke and radical John Wilkes.

In later years, Joshua was part of ‘The Gang’ with James Boswell, Edward Malone and John Courtnay.

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson
from The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds
 by Leslie and Taylor (1865)
Joshua’s closest friend and influencer was Samuel Johnson. He encouraged Joshua to embark on a literary career by commissioning him to write three essays for The Idler.

In 1764, the Literary Club was formed at Joshua’s suggestion, meeting at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard Street for many years.
The object of Reynolds in the establishment of this club was to give Johnson undisturbed opportunities of talking; and to procure for himself and his friends such opportunities of listening to his wisdom and wit, as did not often occur in the accidental intercourse of mixed society.3

Joshua never married. There are letters to a Miss Weston that suggest a romantic attachment in the late 1740s and rumours of other attachments in the late 1770s. He was very fond of Fanny Burney and it was thought he would offer for her, but in 1782, he suffered a severe paralysis and Fanny wrote to her sister that to be married to him would leave her in perpetual fear of his suffering a fatal stroke.4

Fanny Burney from Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay (1846)
Fanny Burney
from Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay (1846)
In 1788, Joshua told Boswell he had never married, because “every woman whom he had liked had grown indifferent to him.”5

The Whig influence

Many of Joshua’s friends and patrons were leading members of the Whig party and it is probable that he, too, was a Whig.

Johnson complained that:
Reynolds is too much under Fox and Burke at present. He is under the Fox Star, and the Irish constellation.6
What was Sir Joshua like?

Joshua was about five foot six inches tall, with a rounded face and a lip that had been damaged by a riding accident in Minorca. He was dedicated to his painting and had a tendency to be sloppy in his appearance, careless of whether he had thrown snuff down his front whilst at work.

Sadly Joshua did not get on well with his unmarried sister Frances who lived with him as housekeeper for many years. Joshua found her constant indecisiveness frustrating and he did not treat her kindly, leading some to assume that he was cold in all his relationships. In the 1770s, Frances left and his niece, Mary Palmer, became his housekeeper for the rest of his life.

Joshua was highly sociable and known for his generosity, often inviting far more people to dinner than his table could accommodate, but his haphazard dinners seemed to endear him to his friends rather than provoking disgust.

He loved to play cards and visit the theatre and was fond of wine.
I am, said Sir Joshua, in very good spirits when I get up in the morning. By dinner time I am exhausted; wine puts me in the same state as when I got up; and I am sure that moderate drinking makes people talk better.7
Wine and glasses, Kew Palace (2014)
Failing faculties

Joshua was partially deaf and often used a silver ear trumpet to aid his hearing. He wore spectacles from at least 1783 when he complained of a violent inflammation of the eyes, but as an examination of his spectacles indicates that he was short-sighted, he may have worn them for longer.

Sir Joshua Reynolds - self-portrait c1788 from
The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds
ed J Farrington and E Malone (1819)
In July 1789, Joshua’s sight began to fail. He had to cancel an appointment because he could not see properly and by the end of July, he was forced into retirement.

Illness and death

In the autumn of 1791, Joshua started experiencing severe pain in his left eye, a result, so it transpired, of liver disease. He died on 23 February 1792 and was given a state burial in the crypt of St Paul’s on 2 March. The night before his burial, his body lay in state in the Life Room at Somerset House before being transported to St Paul’s followed by a funeral procession of 91 carriages.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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(1) In a letter by his father to Mr Cutcliffe 17 March 1740, from Leslie and Taylor’s Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1865).
(2) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Martin Postle says the split happened in the summer of 1743 which would mean that Joshua served three years, not two.
(3) From Leslie and Taylor's Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1865).
(4) A letter from Fanny Burney to her sister from Leslie and Taylor’s Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1865).
(5) From Sir Joshua Reynolds, a personal study by Derek Hudson (1958)
(6) A conversation between Johnson and Boswell in 1778 from Boswell's Life of Johnson (1851).
(7) A conversation between Johnson and Reynolds in 1776 from Boswell's Life of Johnson (1851.

Sources used include:
Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D, with new additions by John Wilson Croker (1851)
Burney, Fanny, Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece, Charlotte Barrett (1846)
Hudson, Derek, Sir Joshua Reynolds, a personal study (1958)
Leslie, Charles Robert, RA, and Taylor, Tom, MA, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1865)
Postle, Martin, Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-1792) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Oct 2009, accessed 2 Jul 2013)
Reynolds, Sir Joshua, ed Beechey, HW, The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1852)
Reynolds, Sir Joshua, ed Farrington, J and Malone, E, The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1819)

All photographs ©


  1. For all that he did and achieved, I get a sense of sadness about the man, although reading this he seemed somewhat of a cheerful chappy. I must be going senile :)

    1. Joshua Reynolds did become quite depressed towards the end of his life and I think the quote about his not getting married because all the ladies he liked becoming indifferent to him is rather melancholy. However, there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest that he was a cheerful and sociable man for most of his life, who endeared himself to many.

  2. I am working on Mary Moser as part of my romance novel, and I have read quite a bit about the Royal Academy and its early years. She was a woman before her time kind of gal. She also lost her sight toward the end of her life. Thank you for such an in depth look at Joshua Reynolds and by the way, moderate drinking does make people talk better!

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the post. I confess that I know absolutely nothing about Mary Moser apart from the fact that she was one of the founder members of the Royal Academy!

  3. Hello Rachel, I LOVE your blog!
    I'm looking for the years Joshua bought his house on Newport Street, and the year he bought his place at Leicester Square/Fields.
    Thank you for your blog,

  4. Hi Cheryl Thanks for your kind comments about my blog. On the British History online website, it has Great Newport Street as 1753/4 to 1760 when he removed to 47 Leicester Square. Here is the link if you want to check it out further: Hope that help Best wishes Rachel

  5. Thank you Rachel!

    You're amazing. I have another question, I know one of Joshua's nieces, Theophila came to live with him when he was 13, and I thought I read somewhere that another niece, Theophila's sister came to live with him,but I can't find anything on her. Do you know anything about her, if there was such a person? Thanks!

    1. Hi Cheryl I have found reference to Theophila Palmer's sister on Geneanet family tree site. Her name was Mary (1752-1820). You could try other family tree sites to see if you can confirm that. I don't know whether she lived with Sir Joshua. Best wishes Rachel

    2. From Helene Russell, g g etc great niece of Sir Joshua Reynolds:
      Two of the nieces of Sir Joshua Reynolds lived with him, Theophila and Mary Palmer, they were two of the daughters of John Palmer, and Mary Palmer nee Reynolds was one of Sir Joshua’s sisters. Sir Joshua Reynolds would make Mary Palmer his main beneficiary of his estate after his death, she was now a wealthy heiress. As far as internet trees goes Geneanet, Ancestry and My heritage are completely unreliable for Reynolds/ Palmer trees. I would say 90% of them are just misinformation that has been copied from one tree to another. Good reliable trees can be found on The Peerage, Geni and Wikitree. Mary Palmer went on to marry Murrough O’Brien an improvished nobleman who needed a large cash injection. Theophila Gwatkin nee Palmer would receive 10,000 pounds from his estate. My G G etc grandfather was Joseph Palmer a brother to these two sisters, apparently as the oldest son of the oldest surviving sibling of Sir Joshua Reynolds he got rather put out when he found out he was not going to get any money from his Uncles estate. There is an excellent biography written by Ian McIntyre in 2003, “ Joshua Reynolds The Life and Times of the First President of the Royal Academy.”