In the years that immediately followed his return from Italy in 1752, Joshua Reynolds’s growing commercial success as a portraitist saw him becoming increasingly reliant on the help of a range of pupils, assistants, drapery painters and copyists.
They included a young Italian, Giuseppe Marchi (about 1735–1808), whom he had met in Rome. By the mid-1760s, Marchi was Reynolds’s most experienced assistant, painting draperies and accessories, and making copies of his paintings in oils and in print form, staying in Reynolds’s service for the remainder of his career.
By the 1750s, Reynolds also began to tender out his paintings to specialist drapery painters, such as Peter Toms (active 1748–77), a former pupil of Thomas Hudson (1701–1779), and George Roth (active 1742–78), who also painted draperies for Hudson. At the time, Reynolds was charging 48 guineas for a full-length portrait. Out of this total, Toms received 15 guineas.
In 1760, Reynolds’s success as a society portrait painter was underlined by his move from premises in Great Newport Street, off St Martin’s Lane, to a grander establishment in nearby Leicester Square. He was now doing very well for himself; yet behind the gentlemanly veneer there was a great deal of graft – as the memorandum book he kept during the early 1760s reveals.
Here, he recorded the colour and style of his sitters’ clothing, any inscription required on the portrait, and the type of frame to be used. We know from his sitter books that the clothing of his clientele was routinely shipped out, along with their portraits, to drapery painters.
While he employed assistants, Reynolds was responsible ultimately for managing routine administrative tasks, including keeping the accounts and taking care of the package and delivery of paintings.
Over the course of his profession, he relied upon a range of artists and tradesmen, including waggoners, pigment suppliers, frame-makers, drapery painters, professional copyists and miniaturists. Reynolds also worked closely with engravers to whom he distributed commissions, gave instructions on inscriptions required.
Generally, he did not collaborate with other artists, aside from drapery painters and his own assistants. However, occasionally he employed the services of independent painters, including George Stubbs (1724–1806), who apparently painted dogs for him in several of his portraits.
In the years following his relocation to Leicester Square, the size of Reynolds’s household steadily expanded, and he began to take on more pupils, including Thomas Beach (1738–1806), Hugh Barron (1747–1791), William Parry (1743–1791), and John Berridge (about 1742–about 1812).
Reynolds’s best-known pupil was James Northcote (1746–1831), who was in Reynolds’s service from May 1771 until the spring of 1776. Northcote’s long-term significance derives from his role as biographer as well as pupil, writing The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was published in 1818. Northcote was 24 years old when he entered under Reynolds’s roof.
However, during his five-year apprenticeship, Northcote became increasingly disenchanted about his role and station in Reynolds’s household. As a result, he claimed in his autobiography that the majority of Reynolds’s pupils ‘lived in poverty, and died in debt, miserable to themselves and a disgrace to the art.’
Even so, Northcote executed the draperies for some of Reynolds’s most prestigious portraits, and painted numerous accessories, while also routinely preparing replicas of Reynolds’s compositions.
During his time with Reynolds, Northcote did not have a dedicated painting room. On first moving into the artist’s home, Northcote had described his place of work as ‘a kind of hall or parlour, which is not made much use of by the family.’ Four years later, he referred to it as a ‘dismal hole.’
By way of contrast, Reynolds painted in a spacious octagonal room, which he had constructed adjoining the rear of the house shortly after his move to Leicester Square. Here sitters took their ease in a comfortable leather armchair – now in the possession of the Royal Academy.
While Reynolds experimented with pigments, varnishes, and painting techniques, he was concerned to conceal them from the prying eyes of his own pupils, who were only allowed to use the standard materials supplied by the artists’ colourman.
Even Reynolds’s notes on painting materials were written in a curious form of quasi-Italian, possibly to guard against the possibility that his painting recipes might fall into the wrong hands.
From the mid-1770s and into the 1780s, Reynolds’s assistants included William Score, John Powell and William Doughty (1757–1782), who had been recommended to him by his friend William Mason.
William Palmer (1763–1790), who died in 1790 at the age of 27, was clearly an artist of some distinction in his own right, as was Doughty, who made several accomplished copies after Reynolds’s portraits.
Reynolds’s role as a teacher and mentor also extended beyond his studio, encouraging the young American, Benjamin West (1738–1820) and his compatriot, John Singleton Copley (1738–1815).
Another young artist whom Reynolds showed a particular desire to promote was the Irish history painter James Barry (1741–1806). However, Barry’s fiery temper and fractious idealism caused him to pick quarrels with almost everyone he met, including Reynolds.
The respect that many young artists had for Reynolds was reflected in their visits to his prestigious picture gallery, where his own works were displayed alongside his collection of old masters. Visitors included the young Royal Academy student William Blake (1757–1827).
Reynolds, who continued to employ assistants to support his workshop practice, throughout his life, was playfully self-deprecating about his influence on younger artists: ‘If all those whom I have endeavourd [sic] to help forward by lending them pictures and telling them their faults should do me the honour of calling themselves my scholars, I should have the greatest school that ever Painter had.’
Text adapted by Dr Martin Postle, Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre, from Postle, M., '"The greatest school that ever Painter had": Joshua Reynolds and his Workshop', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, pp. 54–69.