W.Cotton, Sir Joshua Reynolds's Notes and Observations on Pictures, 1859, p.115;
A. Graves and W.V. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1899-1901, Vol.II, p.724;
E.K. Waterhouse, Reynolds, 1941, pp.16, 61;
David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2000, Text Volume, no.1389, Plates Volume, fig.1035
Painted in 1771 this portrait is a work of exquisite intimacy and great personal significance to the artist since the sitter was the favourite niece of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Affectionately known as ‘Offy’, she was regarded as kindly and thoughtful, and lived in Reynolds’s house in London from 1770 until her marriage in 1781. In a letter dated 29th March 1831 Maria Edgeworth wrote that Theophila is “very agreeable and good natured…enthusiastically and affectionately fond of her uncle” (Maria Edgeworth, Letters from England 1813-1844, 1971, p.503). She was the second daughter of John Palmer and his wife, Mary Reynolds, and in January 1781 she married Robert Lovell Gwatkin. Her elder sister was Mary Palmer, who eventually married Murrough O’Brien, 5th Earl of Inchiquin, later 1st Marquess of Thomond. It was remarked that “The Miss Palmers added to the grace of his [Reynolds’s] table and of his evening circles by the pleasingness of their manners and the beauty of their persons” (Fanny Burney, Memoirs of Dr Burney, 1832, Vol. I, pp.332-33). Offy was commonly regarded as the more beautiful of the two sisters, and Reynolds was remarkably fond of her. When Offy, at the age of twenty, was spending some time away from Reynolds’s house, he wrote her a letter remarking “I never was a great friend to the efficacy of precept, nor a great professor of love and affection, and therefore I never told you how much I loved you, for fear that you should grow saucy upon it. I have got a ring and a bracelet of my own picture; don’t tell your sister that I have given you your choice” (Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds, ed. F.W.Hilles, 1929 p.54).
Reynolds painted a number of portraits of Offy, the earliest of which is thought to have been painted in 1767 when Offy was only ten. A portrait of her was also given to Offy by Reynolds on the occasion of her marriage in 1781. Neither portrait, however, approaches the reflective intimacy of the present work.
Reynolds has captured his niece as she sits reading her novel, Clarissa Harlowe by Samuel Richardson. The position of her body suggests relaxation and no hint of being observed. Her gaze turns away from the viewer, as she reads one of the eighteenth century’s finest novels. The novel was written in 1747-48, in the form of letters from the eponymous heroine to her friend Miss Howe, and from her lover, Robert Lovelace to his friend John Belford. The story tells of how Clarissa is wooed by Lovelace, eventually succombs to his advances, and elopes with her seducer, despite opposition to the match from her parents. Clarissa dies of shame and Lovelace is killed in a duel by Clarissa’s cousin. Written in seven volumes the novel was an enormous success and came to be regarded as one of Europe’s literary masterpieces.
The motif of girls reading was well established in French painting throughout the eighteenth century. Jean Baptiste Chardin had painted a number of intimate genre portraits, including a portrait of The Young Schoolmistress in the National Gallery, London, in which the delicate turn of the sitter’s head away from the viewer finds an echo in the present portrait. Jean-Honore Fragonard painted a Portrait of a girl reading in the National Gallery of Art, Washington c.1775 in which the composition bears a strong resemblance to the present picture. The sitter in the portrait by Fragonard exudes a greater sense of self-awareness than Offy, and it is this suggestion of naivete which is one of the painting’s charms. Reynolds turned to portraits of children to a far greater extent in the 1770s. Children appealed to his gentle, protective qualities, and in 1775 he painted the portraits of Miss Crewe, and John, 2nd Lord Crewe as Henry VIII. He also painted the magnificent portrait of Miss Bowles, in the Wallace Collection, and some years later the portrait of Lady Caroline Howard, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Each of these portraits captures the guilelessness of youth.
The picture has an outstanding and continuous provenance, descending from the sitter to John Gwatkin, who sold the work at auction in 1871 where it was acquired by Agnew’s. It is likely that Sir Charles Mills, Bt., later Lord Hillingdon, acquired the work from Agnew’s soon after (see fig.1). Lord Hillingdon owned a number of works by Reynolds, including the famous portrait of Mrs Abington as 'Miss Prue' (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven) - fig. 3, and a portrait of Miss Hickey (fig. 2) which was sold with three other works from the Hillingdon Collection in these rooms on 27th November 2003. Miss Hickey was a family friend, and it seems fitting that Lord Hillingdon, a true connoisseur, should have acquired two portraits which capture Reynolds’s exquisite ability to capture the intimacy of character, and which display the deep affection which the artist felt for members of his family and close friends.
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