Reynolds 300: Italian Sketchbook

Reynolds 300: Italian Sketchbook

18 May 2023

In 2014, Plymouth secured £326,300 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and a range of other funding partners to acquire two important items connected to artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds. One was an early self-portrait from the mid-1740s. The other was a fantastic sketchbook compiled on his ‘Grand Tour’ to Italy from 1750 to 1752.

In the 1700s, the 'Grand Tour' of Europe was considered a must for wealthy young men and artists in training. Although Plympton-born Reynolds was the son of a local Grammar School master rather than an aristocrat, he’d attracted the attention of the 1st Baron Richard Lord Edgcumbe, of Mount Edgcumbe in Cornwall, who arranged his passage to Italy in 1749.

Reynolds spent two years in Rome, studying the work of great artists from the 1500s and 1600s. He then travelled to Florence, Bologna, Parma and Venice.

By 1753, he was back in London with a first-hand, in-depth experience of art history and the knowledge and connections to venture into the London art world as a fully-fledged portrait painter.

He also had a theory that he would apply to his work: to incorporate the grand styles of Italian art into British portraiture using gesture, expression, arrangement, light and shade in his paintings to make the imperfect look perfect and, in doing so, create an artistic tradition all of Britain’s own.

This image shows two of the sketches from the book which provides a fascinating insight into Reynolds’ early career and artistic development. It also gives an idea of the places Reynolds sought out on his tour – the churches, palaces and private collections where it’s believed he drew in situ in front of paintings and classical statues. Research has shown he didn’t simply copy what he saw, but would instead sketch the particular elements that interested him.

The sketchbook is bound in its original vellum (a smooth and durable type of prepared animal skin that was frequently used at the time) binding and cover. In total, it contains 121 sides of drawings in pencil, pen and ink and black chalk. The sketches range from coarse line drawings, some with colour coding, to more shaded, developed pictures.

The sketchbook is a visual record of Reynolds’ artistic eye, his thought processes and his personal interests – a rare private insight into an artist whose life and work would change the face of British painting in the years that followed.

Thanks to Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer