Earl Harcourt, Description of Newnham Courtenay in the County of Oxford, 1806;
J. Steegman, 'Portraits of Reynolds', Burlington Magazine, LXXX, 1942, pp. 33-4, pl. IIb;
D. Hudson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1958, p. 18;
T. Clifford, A. Griffiths & M. Royalton-Kisch, Gainsborough and Reynolds in the British Museum, 1978, p. 25, no. 83;
N. Penny, Reynolds, 1986, p.168;
D. Mannings & M. Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, 2001, p. 46
'Whilst painting this early self-portrait, Joshua looked at himself critically. He saw a young man... not down right handsome but not ill favoured...his thick hair, unpowdered, hanging long and carelessly. One might suppose from the expression of the face – painted with a native insight and delicacy that owed little to Thomas Hudson – that its possessor was a man of intelligence, of talent and almost effeminate sensitivity, but that he was not yet sure of himself, was conscious of some weakness or of a coming trial of strength.'1
The present drawing was executed in circa 1740 when Reynolds was just seventeen and is the earliest recorded self-portrait by the artist. He made very few drawings of this sort, but perhaps at this early stage in his career he was inspired by the long tradition of head studies in chalk made by portrait painters working in England such as Lely, Kneller, Dahl and Ramsay. It is an intensely private image and drawn in the delicate medium of black and white chalk on buff paper. The shadows appear to have been rubbed with his finger or perhaps with a piece of rolled paper known as stump and the highlights have been suggested with white chalk. The result is a sensitive and delicate portrait of 'a plump, purposeful face with hair falling to the shoulders, and in his eyes a hint of determination and surmise.'2
In October 1740 Reynolds travelled up to London from Devonshire to begin a four year apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson, the most fashionable and successful portrait painter of the day. Initially, he lodged with his uncle, John Reynolds, at his chambers in the Temple and later went to live with Hudson at his house on Great Queen Street. As a student Reynolds was diligent and enjoyed working under his master. He quickly settled into his new life and in December his father, Samuel Reynolds, wrote that 'Joshua is very sensible of his happiness in being under such as master, in such a family, in such a city and in such employment....'
The drawing shows Reynolds when a young man starting out in life. His face is full of youth and promise, but perhaps lacks the confidence conveyed by his later self-portraits in oil, such as that in the National Portrait Gallery of circa 1747-49. A drawing he made ten years later whilst he was in Rome and now in the British Museum displays none of the modesty of the present work. Gone are the watchful eyes and shy tilt of the head, to be replaced by the commanding stare and assured pose of a successful man at the height of his career.
By the age of seventeen Reynolds had spent his life in the country and had yet to surround himself with the wide circle of friends, artists, literary men, actors, prominent statesmen and women of fashion and beauty that would soon flock to his side. His peers thought of him as 'a perfect gentleman, (who) had good sense, great propriety with all the social attributes, and all the graces of hospitality, equal to any man.'3 He was to develop the confidence that would lead him to become one of the greatest portrait painters of the day.
The present drawing was handed down by descent to Reynolds' niece, Mary Palmer. She lived with her uncle at Leicester Fields from 1773 onwards and when her sister, Theophila, married she remained to take charge of his household. On his death she inherited most of his property including the present work. Later, she married an Irish peer, the Earl of Inchiquin, who eventually became the Marquess of Thomond. In 1806 she gave the drawing to George Simon, 2nd Earl Harcourt, who was a patron and friend of Reynolds. In temperament Harcourt was very different from his father - whereas the latter had been quiet and dignified, his son was a lover of refined society and one who 'affected French manners and fashion'. He and his wife, his cousin Elizabeth, transformed Nuneham Park, the family's seat, into an arcadian delight. Reynolds visited Nuneham on a number of occasions to draw portraits of the family (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and wrote 'I thought my holydays were over for this summer, but Nuneham is so pleasant both indoors and outdoors that it is irresistible,' (Sir Joshua Reynolds to George, 2nd Earl Harcourt, London, 18th September 1778).
1. D. Hudson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1958, p. 22
2. D. Hudson, op.cit., p. 18
3. R. Cumberland, Memoirs of Richard Cumberland, 1806, p. 258
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