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July 05, 2005

Christie Davies visits Dr Johnson and the harlots - Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity at Tate Britain

Posted by Christie Davies

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity
Tate Britain, London
26th May - 18th September 2005
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

Joshua Reynolds was and remains the most famous of British portrait painters. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, from their childhood encyclopaedias what Horace Walpole 1756, Laurence Sterne 1760, Edward Gibbon 1779 or Charles James Fox 1782-3 ( who bears a great resemblance to Bernard Manning) looked like because of Reynolds' portraits of them. Reynolds is part of our experience. He deserves the garland placed around the neck of his statue in the courtyard of the Royal Academy and his exhibition at Tate Britain deserves a visit.

Appropriately enough the exhibition is devoted to Reynolds' penchant for painting "celebrities". It brought him both fame and money, especially if he could do a profitable deal with the publishers of prints. Yet it would be wrong to think that Reynolds was a precursor of the intrusive lensmen of today who hunt models or soccer players or pop-mongers as they flash hot across the sky to snap them up before they become redundant cinders. Most of the men, and I use the word men deliberately, whom Reynolds painted were men of achievement who have not been forgotten. They were not mere celebrities well known for being well known and for no other reason. Also the curators have not asked the vital question "who were the contemporary celebrities whom Reynolds did not paint?" Who was left out, who today would jump worthless out of Hello! to greet its equally worthless readers?

The point is emphasised by the most evocative of the rooms in the exhibition, that devoted to the "Streatham worthies", "The Club", the men around Dr Johnson, including Garrick himself, whose portraits were commissioned by their host, the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale to hang in his house in Streatham where they met. We still revere Oliver Goldsmith 1772 and Edmund Burke 1774 because their achievements have lasted. We know Charles Burney 1781 and Giuseppi Baretti 1773 through Boswell's Life of Johnson. That part of the eighteenth century is still called "The Age of Johnson". We do not live in The Age of Beckham. Reynolds painted many of them, and indeed himself, not warts and all but warts are all. Here is the shaking, shuddering, half blind, half deaf Samuel Johnson circa 1772-8, his face pinched in at the eyebrows and bulging at the jowls, like a pear in a wig. The wig is the unfashionable one he burned with a candle while trying myopically to read in poor light. Johnson was not pleased at the emphasis on his poor eyesight; he resented being portrayed as "Blinking Sam" even when Reynolds pointed out that he had pointed up his own deafness, hand behind ear, in his Self-Portrait 1775. Here too are the bald Oliver Goldsmith 1772 and Giuseppi Baretti 1773 reading a book two inches from the end of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his plump hands fastened to the page, so that he can read the single line between them. An unseen knuckle bends the book even further towards his eyes and his body is held close by a sofa whose arm curls round him.

David Garrick, whom Johnson called "Punch", rightly hangs elsewhere. In Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy 1760-1, he is, appropriately enough, portrayed as a buffoon; indeed that was why Johnson for a long time prevented him from joining "The Club". Garrick was a mere celebrity, as foolish and as pointless as today's luvvies. Let us face it, the only actor who has ever achieved greatness was Ronald Reagan and he had been a bad actor; the very inconsistency and superficiality of personality that enables actors to move effortlessly between roles renders them unfit for serious activities.

James Boswell 1785 too is hung in another place. Boswell's picture is described unfairly by the curators who claim that his portrait reveals his physical degeneration due to binge drinking and repeated doses of venereal infection. In fact he looks no worse than most Scotchmen of his age, late eighteenth century, or age, forty five. They have allowed their knowledge of Boswell's habits to determine their assessment of his portrait. He does not look clapped out to me. They also omit to remind us that Boswell dedicated his Life of Johnson to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Reynolds most unsparing depiction of the wrath of time is in fact his Self-Portrait 1788 painted when an old man just four years before his death. He was of course only 65 but he has deliberately aged his portrait, not to look like a wise philosopher as the curators suggest but because he was a portrayer of infirmity. His hair, or is it a wig, is grey but greyer still against a black background, one which fades into grey at the base of the portrait to emphasise the blackness of his coat. He has emphasised his spectacles to the point where his eyebrows are eclipsed and his eyes distorted by the lenses. The light from the side whitens his face pointing up the small patches on his cheek that are pink with high blood pressure. His mouth hangs slightly open. He does not look like a philosopher as the curators suggest; if it did not have a title we would name the painting "Portrait of a Decrepit Old Buffer". The spectacles indicate long-sight not insight. They are also a reminder that he was soon to become blind. He had once portrayed himself as a handsome young man with abundant, rich, thick, brown hair and a face of good colouring; now he rendered himself a crumbling mass of defects.

By contrast, Reynolds' women were nearly all young, handsome and insipid. Mrs Thrale, a noted wit (and later as Mrs Piozzi a writer) refused to hang Mrs Hester Lynch Thrale with her daughter Hester Maria 1777-8 above the fireplace in her salon where "The Club" met. She rightly saw it as insulting and hid it away, even though her husband Thrale had paid good money for it. She knew it was "Sir Sloshua" at his worst.

Indeed all Reynolds' women lack individuality and are trapped in the conventional appearances of society beauty or "natural" maternal solicitude, the two images cultivated by eighteenth century aristocratic women. The poses survive today in celebrity magazines because even the stupid can understand them. Unfortunately Reynolds did not have the knack of painting either of these stereotypes well. He knew how to paint children, notably the happy and winning little Miss Crewe 1775 who died before he could complete it. Knowing that she had died mid-portrait quite alters our perception of the winter landscape behind her. But Reynolds was quite unable to paint women over the age of five.

There is one exception Reynolds knew how to paint whores. An entire room in the exhibition is given over to his portraits of the high class ladies of the demi-monde notable Polly Kennedy 1771, Kitty Fisher 1763-4, Elizabeth Hartley 1765 and Nelly O'Brien 1762-4. Here we really are approaching the country of The Sun with fashionable, bodice-ripping, well-Heyered, young bucks going "Phooarr! Wouldn't half like a bit of dalliance and leg over with her". What Dr Johnson called their "white bubbies" are not shown to excess; this is not page three stuff. Nonetheless Reynolds was selling sex and celebrity pictures and prints because that was what the market demanded. In the restrictive society of today we only get to know the identities and appearances of this elite among the whores when a scandal is drummed up by the gutter press. It usually involves the downfall of some unfortunate notable such as John Profumo, Earl Jellicoe, Lord Lambton, or Jeffrey Archer. Who can remember the names of the women who downfelled them? Even the tolerant admiration of the nineteenth century for Les Grands Horizantales, or Skittles has no place in our puritanical and uncommercial twenty-first century. There is no room for individual working girls in our pantheon, however striking their charms or eminent their customers. How much broader the eighteenth century was in its range of sympathies.

The stars among them are undoubtedly Nellie O'Brien 1762-4 and Lady Worsley 1776. Her ladyship has been placed by the exhibition's curators in this section among the whores rather than among the aristocracy. The curators' decision must be based on the evidence heard in an infamous trial of 1782. Lady Worsley's husband, the Governor of the Isle of Wight Sir Richard Worsley, brought an action against a Captain Bisset alleging "criminal conversation" with his wife. During the trial it was alleged - and the jury accepted - that Sir Richard Worsley connived at the relationship. It was also rumoured that Lady Worsley had taken 27 lovers during her marriage. Even in 1776 Reynolds may have heard rumours about her. But did they influence the way he portrayed her? She certainly looks like a provider of exotic sexual services. Indeed there is some resemblance between Lady Worsley and James Gillray's Lady Termagent of Grosvenor Square of 1786. The tall, stern Lady Worsley is dressed in a tight fitting, bright red riding costume cut like a military uniform and carries a sizeable whip. She is Leopold Bloom's vividly imagined The Honourable Mrs Mervyn Talboys.

Nelly O'Brien was Sir Joshua Reynolds' favourite model and a woman of whom he was very fond. The curators primly comment, "whether she was also his mistress is unknown". Well it would be, wouldn't it. Given that she was selling it anyway, it is difficult to believe that the old master did not get a free sample. Yet the proof lies in Reynolds' picture. She is easily the most alluring, enigmatic and intelligent of the women he painted and the only one to come alive as an individual. Why was he unable to paint Mrs Thrale like this? It is a very private almost disconcerting picture. He was as close to her as in a very different sense he was close to his male friends, the worthies of Streatham. Neither she nor they were mere celebrities to be used.

Poor Omai, the Polynesian brought to England from Tahiti is by contrast reduced to being a mere idea "The noble savage". The preliminary Sketches for Omai 1775-6 are of a rather ugly "other" but the famous full length portrait Omai 1776 is of a handsome, swarthy Welshman in dignified bardic and Biblical robes and turban. Only the incised tattoos on his hands reveal his Tahitian origins. I knew a Mr Beynon who looked just like him Omai's portrait. It makes a fine ending to and poster for the exhibition but he is not a person, not even a celebrity, but an idea. Yet it is an idea we can all greatly enjoy, as indeed we can Dr Johnson's circle and the harlots and in fairness the rest of this very substantial exhibition.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction 2004.

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I wonder if the inability of Joshua Reynolds to paint women in a lively manner results from his being educated at a (presumably) boys-only school. Perhaps this would have curtailed his ability properly to see women, other than his immediate family or most intimate acquaintances, as fellow human beings. A parallel to this might be the difficulty untrained people have in actually seeing astronomical objects through a telescope a factor which caused much difficulty for Galileo (Alan Chalmers ISBN: 0335201091 ).

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 6, 2005 09:42 AM

Christie Davies makes a very interesting point about how this exhibition shows that there was once the celebrity whore - but that in our seemingly so much more liberated society that figure has simply disappeared from view. I suppose the closest modern equivalent are those celebrities which don't actually sell sex, but instead sell their pneumatically enhanced images as sexual titilation - ie the Jordan's of this world. The question is - are any of our leading artists seeking to paint or photograph her? The sex workers who appear in our art tend to be from rather lower down the scale, eg. the rather good portrait/print by Lucian Freud called "Solicitor" - American for prostitution.

Posted by: David Jacobs at July 9, 2005 08:11 PM

I don't know what the previous commentator - or indeed Prof. Davies - are talking about. Today's culture has plenty of celebrities who are only celebrities by virtue of their sexual exploits. Admitedly they are not prostitutes - but is Abi Titmuss not today's Nelly O'Brien, Paris Hilton today's Lady Worsley, and Rebecca Loos today's Kitty Fisher? They are not prostitutes - but they are cultural icons by the mere virtue of their sexual exploits. Their images are rather more universal than their eighteenth century forebears, although admitedly Nuts and Loaded can not claim the artistic integrity of a Joshua Reynolds. True artists should ask them to pose - maybe we could have Abi Titmus painted by Lucian Freud, Paris Hilton by Gilbert and George.

Posted by: Anonymous at July 10, 2005 07:24 PM
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