The Wallace Collection owns 12 paintings by Joshua Reynolds, one of the most important and most varied groups of his works anywhere.
They once formed part of a much larger group of at least 25 works in the collection of the Seymour-Conway family. This collection was built by four members of the family, the first marquesses of Hertford, who were all interested in Reynolds’s work.
Some of these works are today preserved in the collection of the present marquess of Hertford at Ragley Hall, Warwickshire, others were sold by the family at different times, some remain untraced. The sustained interest of one family in Reynolds’s work over the span of a century is unique in Britain.
The four marquesses showed different preferences and tastes in their acquisitions. Francis Seymour-Conway (1719–1794), 1st Marquess of Hertford since 1793, exclusively commissioned family portraits. It seems to have been Horace Walpole who brought Reynolds to his attention.
Walpole probably gave him his own portrait as a present, which in all likelihood triggered Seymour-Conway’s six portrait commissions from the artist. Most of them were relatively conventional. The only exception were the portraits of two of the marquess’s sons, Henry and George.
The artistic patronage and collecting of Francis Ingram Seymour-Conway (1743–1822), 2nd Marquess of Hertford from 1794, began immediately after Reynolds’s death in 1792.
In 1796, he acquired the famous portrait of Mrs Mary Robinson ('Perdita'), today part of the Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor, then in 1810 the portrait of Nelly O’Brien.
It can be assumed that the looks and biography of these celebrities attracted the marquess more than the painterly quality of the paintings. In 1818, Thomas Gainsborough’s full-length of Robinson joined this group as a present from the Prince Regent.
The acquisitions by Francis Charles Seymour-Conway (1777–1842), 3rd Marquess of Hertford after 1822, marked a fundamental change in the family’s attitude towards Reynolds, for, a generation after the artist’s death, he was the first to collect Reynolds as an old master. In 1813 he bought St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, a history painting.
Richard Seymour-Conway (1800-1870), 4th Marquess of Hertford from 1842, was the collector of Reynolds whose contribution is most visible at the Wallace Collection today.
Following his passion for 18th-century art, he bought Reynolds’s works as important examples of 18th-century painting alongside Watteau, Boucher or Fragonard.
His acquisitions reveal a clear preference for what he called ‘pleasing pictures’, that is, paintings of attractive women and children, fully in keeping with a collection that was generally escapist.
He was also the first Seymour-Conway who was interested in Reynolds’s subject paintings, adding The Strawberry Girl, one of Reynolds’s great masterpieces of fancy painting, and the Nymph and Cupid (whereabouts unknown) to the collection.
Reynolds’s history paintings, however, fell victim to the 4th Marquess’s aversion to dramatic, violent or disturbing subjects. The 4th Marquess viewed his Reynolds acquisitions in the light of the wider context of his collection.
Thus, in 1861, he bought the full-length portrait of Mrs Elizabeth Carnac to form a pendant pair to Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs Mary Robinson (‘Perdita’), which had entered the collection in 1818.
Lord Hertford never saw some of his best Reynolds paintings, as they were bought and kept in London after 1856 while he lived in Paris and no longer travelled to Britain.
They stayed in Hertford House, at that time a property of largely symbolic importance that was maintained but not used by the family. Only two of his eight Reynolds acquisitions were intended for his residence in Paris.
In 1870, Sir Richard Wallace, the likely illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess, inherited the collection and fortune but not the title of marquess of Hertford.
As a consequence, a distinction had to be established between unentailed property inherited by Sir Richard and entailed property mainly family portraits, that was linked with the title and moved with it to another branch of the family.
Richard Wallace preferred applied arts and sculpture to paintings, and he added no further works by Reynolds to the collection. He did however bring most of them together in the Reynolds Room that is today the Small Drawing Room. These paintings became part of Lady Wallace’s bequest to the nation in 1897 and have remained in Hertford House ever since.
In the context of today’s museum, works by Reynolds form the most important group of paintings by a non-French artist of the 18th century and the core of the British collection.
Reynolds is the only artist whose works were acquired by four generations of the family. This rich repository of paintings by the artist is not the result of a systematic collecting strategy, however, but rather of a fortunate sequence of Reynolds collectors with changing interests within the same aristocratic family.
Text adapted by Dr Christoph Martin Vogtherr, General Director of the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg, from Vogtherr, C.M., 'The Seymour-Conway Family as Patrons and Collectors of Reynolds: A Case Study', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, pp. 18–27.