Reynolds 300: Age of Innocence

Reynolds 300: Age of Innocence

18 May 2023

Today our childhoods should be an age of innocence, a time when we get to be children and explore the world on our own terms and in our own way. But it wasn’t always so. Until the 1700s, it was entirely normal to think of children as little adults, to dress and educate them as such and to expect them to behave accordingly.

In the mid-1700s, the Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau (1712-1778) began to think and write about a new kind of education for children, which whilst providing everything they needed to enter ‘civilised’ society, also encouraged their natural desire to play and explore. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was among the first to weave this new thought about childhood into his art.

After rising to prominence in the mid-1700s, Reynolds found he was earning enough through his portrait commissions to begin painting things for his own interest and enjoyment. He called these paintings his ‘fancy pictures’. Many of them feature children - like this tender portrait of a seated little girl, thought to be Offy (Theophila) Gwatkin. She was the daughter of Reynolds' favourite niece. Experts have dated the painting to around 1788, which means she would have been about 6 years old at the time it was painted.

Shown seated on the ground with her head turned in curiosity, the little girl looks at something beyond our view. Her hands are clasped almost anxiously at her chest, and her bare feet poke out from under her dress. It’s a very affectionate painting and a far cry from the stiff formality of the child portraiture that came before it.

If you search the Tate’s catalogue you’ll find another version of the same composition, with the same title. This is because the fancy paintings were not commissions, so Reynolds was free to rework and repaint as he pleased. Research carried out by Tate suggests their version is the original by Reynolds. Ours is what's known as a ‘studio copy’, meaning it was created in Reynolds’ studio, under his supervision.

‘The Age of Innocence’ (as we know it now – the title was added after Reynolds’ death by the engravers who produced prints of it in 1794), was an incredibly popular image. National Gallery records show that 323 licensed copies were made by artists between 1847 and 1951 when it was transferred to Tate.

The Box's version certainly continues this tradition and is one of the best-loved works in Plymouth's permanent art collection.

Thanks to Emma Philip, former Senior Curator