Last week I went to the Witt Library to have a look for other works by Thomas Rennell (or Reynell), the eccentric pupil of Thomas Hudson that I wrote about a fortnight ago. I found an image of the original portrait of Miss Irons that Rennell superimposed with the print of Dr Huxham. The x-ray detail shows Miss Irons’s head underneath the overpainting.
(c) Greater London Council 1979
It’s an extraordinary portrait. The large thumb holding the book is rather ungainly, but the iconography is interesting – Miss Irons is shown with one dense book in her hand and another by her side. Unless these are part of Rennell’s elaborate joke – ‘putting some sense into her head’ – he presents her as uncompromisingly literary. Who was she? The portrait descended in the Mudge family of Devon, so perhaps Miss Irons married into them.
There was one further painting in Rennell’s file, this group painting of a Dame School. If the only two certain examples of Thomas Rennell’s painting are Miss Irons and Dr Huxham, I wondered if this painting wasn’t a bit too sophisticated for him. There are weaknesses; the hand supporting the boy at the right recalls the disproportion of Miss Irons’s hand holding the book. But, unless this is simply a very late Rennell, it seems to by someone who is familiar with the later work of Sir Joshua Reynolds (himself originally a pupil of Thomas Hudson). It reminds me of the work by John Opie in the early 1780s, the ‘Cornish Wonder’ whom Reynolds discovered and took under his wing.
(c) Sotheby’s January 28th 1952 lot 158
There is a signature in this painting, on the right-hand side of the copybook ABC letters, and I think it reads ‘Frances Reynolds’ rather than ‘Thomas Reynell.’ Without inspecting the painting at first hand, and without a larger body of Rennell’s work to compare it with, it might be impossible ever to be certain – Ellis Waterhouse, who may have seen the signature at auction, believes it must be the only known work of an otherwise unknown painter familiar with Opie (British Eighteenth Century Painters 1982) -but it led me on to have a look at Frances Reynolds herself.
Frances Reynolds (1729 – 1807) is another Devonian, the younger sister of Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723 – 1792). She came to London in 1752 to act as housekeeper for her brother when he returned from his trip to Italy, moving with him in 1760 to the large house in Leicester Square. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her portrait in the late 1750s, engraved here by Samuel William Reynolds (no relation, apparently) in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
(c) National Portrait Gallery, London
Miss Reynolds had ambitions further than being her brother’s housekeeper. Her entry in the Dictionary of National Biography lists her as poet, painter and writer on art. Remarkably, however, despite having Sir Joshua as a brother, her painting was all self taught; her brother did not want her to be an artist, and so she learned what she could by copying his paintings. Sir Joshua allegedly said that these copies made others laugh and him weep; either way they were a superb education and Frances’s original paintings suggest a very strong natural talent.
Like her brother, Frances Reynolds was a friend of Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) and was popular with his circle. Frances’s portrait of the poet Anna Williams (1706 – 1783) must be an early work, and comparatively naive, but it shows the directness that was typical of her approach; there is an intellectual honesty to it, that went down particularly well with Dr Johnson and his circle, and the sitter is shown without any rhetorical flourishes.
(c) Dr Johnson’s House
Frances painted Dr Johnson himself several times, shown here in this example of c.1780 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery).
(c) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs RB Adam in memory of RB Adam 1905
Her masterpiece, however, is probably this portrait of the playwright Hannah More c.1775 (1745 – 1833) at Nailsea Tithe Barn in Bristol. The classical drapery reminds us of the Sibyls in Old Master paintings, but the portrait remains an affectionate, honest portrayal of one of Frances’s friends in the act of writing, looking up as if she is quite glad to be interrupted.
(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Frances exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1774 and 1775, and continued to write and paint at her brother’s house until the late 1770s, when there was a falling-out. Dr Johnson’s friend Hester Thrale thought that ‘perhaps She paints too well, or has learned too much Latin, and is a better Scholar than her Brother: and upon Reflection I fancy it must be so’ (Thraliana 1.80, Angela Rosenthal DNB 2004).
Whatever the reason – and sibling relationships are not always easy, let alone sharing a house for twenty years – Frances left Sir Joshua’s house and lived, possibly in Devon, rather more precariously but still painting and writing. During this time she dedicated her Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Taste and the Origins of our Ideas of Beauty &c. to her friend the famous intellectual and social reformer Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1785, published 1790) and revised her Recollections of Dr Johnson. To his credit, when Sir Joshua died in 1792 his will left Frances financially secure, and she moved to a large house in Queen Square – large enough to house all her pictures (DNB) – where she lived and painted until her death in 1807.
Frances’s rather uneven relationship with her brother, and his reluctance to encourage her as a painter, reflects the ambiguous position of women painters at this date. When Sir Joshua founded the Royal Academy in 1768 he was kinder to two of the more successful female painters of the day; Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) and Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) were both elected founder members. But as you can see from Johann Zoffany’s famous painting of the Academicians at a Life Class 1771 – 2 (Royal Collection), women could still only go so far.
Her Majesty the Queen (c) Royal Collection
Zoffany’s painting shows the Academicians, the big names of mid-eighteenth century painting – apart from George Romney (1734 – 1802) because he and Reynolds loathed each other – all in the room together drawing from the nude; but Kauffman and Moser are shown by the two portraits hanging on the wall at the right. It was unthinkable at the time for a woman to be in the same room as a naked man, even for the purpose of Art. According to Richard Wendorf and Charles Ryscamp (‘A bluestocking friendship; the letters of Elizabeth Montagu and Frances Reynolds’ Princeton 1979/80 quoted DNB) Frances Reynolds ‘drew all her figures cloath’d except infants which she draws from the life.’
This reference might be further evidence for Frances’s authorship of the Dame School above; as does, now I think of it, the fact that the Dame might be modelled by Elizabeth Montagu, seen her in a print from her portrait by Frances Reynolds.
(c) Witt Library.
So the creation of the Royal Academy in 1768 had a curious effect on the role of women painters. Up til 1768, despite repeated attempts to establish a permanent academy, the art world lacked formal organisation. In this looser confederation of talents, it could be argued that women had enjoyed fairly equal status, dependent solely on their abilities. But the Royal Academy – like Academies abroad – defined itself by the primacy of the life class; drawing from the male nude became the essential activity of the serious artist. Women could not participate, so the very thing that at last cemented painters as part of the national Establishment specifically excluded women artists from membership. Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were the first women Academicians in 1768, but they were to be the last women on the Academy roll until Annie Swynnerton (1844 – 1933) became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1922. And there was not another woman full member of the RA until Dame Laura Knight (1877 – 1970) in 1936.