In March 2015, Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint will open at the Wallace Collection, providing a fresh perspective on a towering figure of British painting. Yet how well do we really know Joshua Reynolds? Over a series of blog posts Mark Hallett, Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre and co-curator of the exhibition, will provide an introduction to the artist and his highly experimental pictures.
Thanks to his great fame and long career as a portraitist, Reynolds was regularly asked or allowed to paint the same individual more than once. One figure who regularly returned to his studio was most famous comic actress of late eighteenth-century England, Frances Abington, whose portraits by the artist I discuss at length in the catalogue that will accompany the forthcoming exhibition.
Abington had a chequered life and career. Born in 1737, she grew up in the slums around Drury Lane in London. She seems to have spent a period of her early adulthood working as a prostitute, before embarking upon an increasingly successful career as a comic actress. From the mid-1760s onwards Abington was established as one of the stars of David Garrick’s Theatre Royal, where she continued to enjoy great acclaim for eighteen years, before moving to the rival Covent Garden Theatre in 1782. As was widely reported in the period, her personal life was complex. She separated from her first husband, paying him off to stay away from her; she became involved in a series of love affairs; and she maintained a long-term relationship as mistress to the rich Irish MP Francis Needham. This somewhat colourful history helped make Abington a controversial, much gossiped-about figure, whose fame rested not only on her talents as an actress but upon her scandalous private life and her perceived sexual desirability. Adding to her interest, she was also a fashion icon, lauded by one writer in 1771 for her ‘distinguished taste for elegance of dress’ which, he continued, made her someone who was regularly consulted ‘on that article by ladies of the first fashion’.
How, then, did Reynolds depict this fascinating figure? Let’s look briefly at four of his portraits of Abington, three of which I illustrate through the prints that were made after them, and the other of which – that depicting her as the comic character Miss Prue – is one of the highlights of the exhibition.
The first, painted and then engraved in the 1760s, represents Abington as the Comic Muse, Thalia, leaning against a pedestal that supports a classical statue representing the Muse. This is James Watson’s luscious mezzotint after Reynolds’s painting:
A second portrait of Abington by Reynolds, which he seems to have sent to the 1771 Royal Academy exhibition, and which was then reproduced in 1772 as a mezzotint by Elizabeth Judkins, offers a very different image of the actress:
Here, rather than being aligned with a classical muse, she is shown as herself, and as someone who – wearing a fashionable cloak and a pair of stylish gloves – flaunts the ‘distinguished taste for elegance of dress’ noted earlier. And rather than gazing directly out at the viewer, as in her first portrait, she swivels her head away, thereby assuming a more modest and restrained kind of persona than before.
A third, especially famous portrait of Abington by Reynolds, painted at around the same time as the picture engraved by Judkins, and which is being lent to the exhibition by the Yale Center for British Art, depicts the actress playing the comic role of the naïve but flirtatious rural ingenue Miss Prue, from William Congreve’s 1695 play Love for Love.
What a contrast! In this instance, Abington is given a dramatically direct, frank gaze that shoots out at the viewer from behind the turned back of a chair, and that is alluringly aligned with the playfully indecorous brush of a thumb against her lips.
Finally, more than a decade later, Reynolds painted and exhibited a picture – subsequently engraved by John Keyse Sherwin – that represented Abington playing the role of Roxalana from Isaac Bickerstaffe’s play The Sultan. In this fourth portrait, Abington is pictured at the moment when she would first have burst upon the Covent Garden stage during performances of the play, pushing aside the curtain and entering the private, eroticised space of a Sultan’s seraglio:
Fascinatingly, there survives a drawing by Edward Francis Burney showing Reynolds’s original painting of Abington as Roxalana hanging in the 1784 Royal Academy exhibition. There it is, in an oval frame, peeping out from below the huge maritime painting by James Northcote that dominates the wall. Here, it is as if the actress is looking out not so much at the Covent Garden stage, or the Sultan’s seraglio, but at the exhibition space itself.
Looking at Burney’s image helps us appreciate how Reynolds’s portraits of Abington were forms of performance in their own right, with their own particular drama. Furthermore, having briefly reviewed four of the artist’s depictions of Abington, it is interesting to think how such portraits – even as they invite being appreciated as independent works of art – can also be interpreted as an unfolding sequence of interrelated images, a sequence in which the character of each successive portrait is shaped, however obliquely, by the templates and histories offered by its predecessors. Such a sequence can be understood as an experimental, improvised and intermittent exercise in pictorial biography on the artist’s part – one that in this case offered not so much a comprehensive biography of a remarkable actress, but rather of the very different kinds of identities she assumed and performed at particular moments in her career.
By Mark Hallett