Reynolds 300: Portrait of Frances Reynolds

Reynolds 300: Portrait of Frances Reynolds

17 May 2023

Many people aren’t aware that famous portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds also had a talented sister. Frances Reynolds (1729-1807) was affectionately known as Fanny. She was six years younger than her brother and would have appreciated, perhaps even emulated his artistic talent whilst growing up.

Frances and Joshua spent a large portion of their lives together. She became his housekeeper in 1752, finally departing in the late 1770s. He requested she leave when their nieces were old enough to take over his household.

Poor Frances has been described as ‘a most difficult woman’ who possessed a ‘capricious temper’. It seems as though she regularly remonstrated with Joshua about his habit of working on a Sunday. He ignored the religious ‘day of rest’ stating "he will never make a painter, who looks for the Sunday with pleasure as an idle day”.

Like her brother, Frances was artistic and considered an excellent painter of miniatures, a reasonable portraitist, a poet and a literary theorist. Various examples of her work live on, including a portrait of James Harris (1709-1780), a philosopher, critic and politician. Frances painted him in oils in 1777 and it's now in the collections at the National Portrait Gallery.

James Northcote (1746-1831), another Plymouth artist, stated that Frances painted portraits “with great likeness and taste”. Her brother wasn’t as kind though and discouraged her from exhibiting her work. His reaction reflects the difficult position of women artists in the 18th century.

Frances also painted an oil of Anna Williams, the housekeeper to the eminent literary genius, Dr Samuel Johnson. Johnson, a friend of Sir Joshua, seemed very taken with her. He communicated with her regularly by letter, calling her ‘Renny dear’. When discussing a microscope for the mind, Dr Johnson exclaimed that “I never saw one that could bear it, except that of Miss Reynolds, and hers is very near to purity itself.”

Frances wrote various pamphlets, essays and a book of poems, each of which she consulted Dr Johnson about. However, his thoughts on painting were sadly very different: “The public practice of any art, and staring into men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female.”

Our portrait shows Frances at the age of 17. It's a companion work to a portrait of her and Joshua's father, Reverend Samuel Reynolds, dated 1745-1746. Both portraits are part of The Box's historically important Cottonian Collection.

Frances lived to 79 years old and died in London in 1807. She was overshadowed by her famous brother but hopefully this article, and her presence in the 'Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration' exhibition (24 Jun-29 Oct 2023) help highlight the fact that she was a talented person in her own right.

Thanks to Nicola Wakeham, volunteer researcher