Sir Sploshua

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter who persuaded 18th-century society that it was OK to have its portraits painted by a British artist, was a man obsessed with process.

In order to discover the technical secrets of Titian, Rubens and Watteau, "Sir Sploshua", as the wiseacres called him, bought works by them and dug into the layers of paint. And to produce in double-quick time the effects achieved by the old masters, he dabbled with a variety of materials, including solvents, resins and eggs.

The artist Benjamin Haydon reckoned that some of Reynolds' paintings were "varnished three times with different varnishes, and egged twice, oiled twice, and waxed twice, and sized 6, perhaps in 24 hours!"

Exaggeration from a jealous rival? It seems not. Even in his own day, the extent of these dubious techniques, and some of their more unfortunate consequences, were common knowledge. Chief culprit was a tarry substance called asphaltum, lumps of which were dissolved in oil and turpentine and applied as a glaze. In the short term, this gave the work the mellow tone of a Renaissance masterpiece, but it very quickly resulted in fading and worse. One aristocratic sitter returned in poor health from abroad to discover his once youthful portrait, like that of Dorian Gray, had aged even more than he had. And the story was told of how a boy, delivering a Reynolds portrait, knocked into a railing, whereupon the entire face fell off.

Sir George Beaumont, recommending the artist to a friend, brushed aside such worries: "Take the chance," he said. "Even a faded picture from Reynolds will be the finest thing you can have."

But when the artist died, this enviable reputation deteriorated as rapidly as his colours, so dull and lifeless did his legacy now appear. William Blake, never an admirer, wrote somewhat gleefully that, when Reynolds passed away, "All Nature was degraded; The King drop'd a tear into the Queen's Ear, And all his Pictures faded." Everything he achieved in his lifetime was now spoiled, and all for a ha'peth of tar.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today