Reynolds 300: Early Self-Portrait

Reynolds 300: Early Self-Portrait

18 May 2023

Sir Joshua Reynolds didn’t just paint portraits of the rich and famous, he also created portraits of himself! In 2014, The Box was delighted to acquire two important works by him – one of which was this early self-portrait from 1746.

The self-portrait was acquired thanks to funding support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. It was painted around 1746 when Reynolds was 23 years old, shortly after he returned to Plymouth from London where he'd been undertaking an apprenticeship to another famous 18th century artist called Thomas Hudson.

It’s been suggested that he painted it (as well as portraits of his father and sister) to advertise his services as a portrait artist. He and his sisters, Elizabeth and Frances, had moved to Dock (now Devonport) after the death of their father in 1745 where he'd established a studio.

After running his Plymouth Dock studio Reynolds travelled around Italy studying the Great Masters. On his return to England he moved to London where he made his name. He even became Painter to the King, George III.

The portrait underwent some important conservation work after we acquired it. During the process, x-rays revealed a secret: a hidden image of an unknown male in the bottom left hand corner of the canvas.

It wasn't uncommon for artists in the 18th century to re-use their materials. Unfortunately, we'll never know who the original portrait is of. All we can assume is that Reynolds was unhappy with it so turned the canvas round and painted a portrait of himself over the top!

In the 'Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration' exhibition (24 Jun-29 Oct 2023) it's displayed next to other self-portraits showing him at different stages of his life.

Reynolds created an amazing body of work and campaigned tirelessly throughout his life to raise the standing of the arts in Britain. The legacy and the wonderful paintings like this that he left behind are something we can be really proud of.

Thanks to Paul Willis, former Curator of Fine Art