Reynolds 300: What can his portraits tell us about the era?

Reynolds 300: What can Reynolds' portraits tell us about the era?

27 June 2023

Sir Joshua Reynolds' career spanned a time of national and global change and the portraits on display in 'Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration' can tell you a lot about society in this era. We've also created a timeline showing his career progressing alongside other major events that he and his clients had connections to.

In North Hall, one of the grand portraits on display on the back wall of is of Lady Elizabeth Keppel (on loan from the Woburn Abbey Collection). At this time, people would use portraiture as a way to construct their social status and she is portrayed as ‘ready for marriage’. However, the portrait reveals more about the context of the time when we look at the woman to her left. We don’t know who she was, as her name was not recorded in Reynolds’ sitters’ book. During this time in Britain it was common for black people’s names to be disregarded in documentation.

In this new exhibition, we decided it was important to look at the hidden and overlooked stories that can tell us more about what was happening at this time in the world – including exploitation, revolution and colonisation. At first glance, the expensive clothes on display in these portraits represents status and identity, but when you investigate the colours used in some clothing, it reveals associations with dyes such as indigo were produced by enslaved people working in American and the Caribbean. Many of Reynolds' clients had links to the British Empire and colonial networks.

As Reynolds’ career took off, he became very influential. He was central to the formation of the Royal Academy, which shapes Britain’s understanding of art appreciation and visual art to this day. Some of his lectures were later published and used as texts for art education, helping to inform future generations of artists.

Reynolds moved within influential circles and in 1787, he spoke in favour of ending ‘this cruel traffic’ – referring to the trade of enslaved people from Africa. He also put money towards supporting the anti-slavery cause.

Graphic in an exhibition showing a timeline of events connected to Sir Joshua Reynolds

Within the exhibition we have created a timeline that charts Reynolds’ career alongside bigger events. It gives much more narrative around some of the people portrayed in the exhibition and their connections to what was happening at this period in time. We’d really encourage you to explore this.

The exhibition is on display until 29 October 2023. If you aren’t able to visit, you can download a copy of the timeline here.

With thanks to Terah Walkup, curator of 'Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration'.