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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 109-112
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A Monument to Reynolds
John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe, eds. The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001). Pp. 290. $40.00.
David Mannings. Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings Subject pictures catalogued by Martin Postle. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000). 2 volumes. Pp. 612, with 629 plates. $250.00.
At the end of their nineteenth-century biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles Leslie and Tom Taylor describe the artist's funeral in the spring of 1792, during which his body was taken from its temporary resting-place in the home of the Royal Academy of the Arts, Somerset House, to a grave in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral. The authors evoke the scale and splendour of the occasion by noting that 'the first of the line of ninety-one carriages that followed the body had reached St. Paul's before the last had defiled from Somerset House.' Ninety-one carriages! In death, as in life, Reynolds was granted an enormous significance within British high culture, one that is perhaps hard for us to imagine or recover. Only a few days beforehand, his friend, Edmund Burke, had written that 'Sir Joshua Reynolds was, on very many accounts, one of the most memorable men of his time. He was the first Englishman who added the praise of the elegant arts to the other glories of his country.' Such comments further testify to the weight of the artistic reputation that Reynolds had acquired since breaking into the London art world some forty years earlier, a reputation reinforced by his election as the first President of the Royal Academy, his knighthood, his honorary doctorate from Oxford, the relentlessly celebratory reviews his exhibited work received in the London newspapers and—not least of all—the huge prices he commanded for his portraits and history pieces.
It seems fitting, then, that the new, boxed, two-volume catalogue of Reynold's paintings compiled by David Mannings and Martin Postle should be such a massive tome, and should so dominate my shelf of books on eighteenth century British art as to make its neighbors seem flimsy in comparison. Its monumentality as an object, happily, is matched by the magnitude of the scholarly achievement it represents. Long ago recognizing that the fullest existing catalogue of Reynolds' paintings, published in four volumes between 1899 and 1901 by Algernon Graves and William Cronin, was being rendered increasingly inadequate by scholarly advances in the field, David Mannings has famously spent many years gathering together all available material on the artist and scrutinizing those canvases attributed to him, both familiar and obscure: in his own words, 'as regards pictures, I have made every effort to inspect at first hand as many of Reynolds' portraits, scattered as they are in literally hundreds of collections worldwide, as has been humanly possible.' His collaborator, Martin Postle, has been similarly assiduous in his research on Reynolds' subject-pictures, and together they have provided an exhaustive and invaluable map of a career that was as productive as it was celebrated.
The catalogue is admirably clear in its structure, divided into a first volume containing a textual explication of Reynolds' works and a second that reproduces the paintings themselves. In the first volume, Mannings describes with great [End Page 109] sensitivity, erudition and patience the nearly two thousand portraits currently known to be by Reynolds, which are listed alphabetically according to the sitter's surnames. His text also takes into account the fact that many of these canvases were then copied, often more than once, for the sitter's family, friends or colleagues. In each case the initial canvas is carefully discussed in terms of its provenance, its subject-matter, its physical appearance, its exhibition history and, where the information is available, its gestation within Reynolds' studio. This is followed by a list of all known copies, and their whereabouts. Mannings, drawing upon a superb bibliography, also notes the available literature on each image, and lists the early engravings...