It is perhaps a little strange that the first image you see in the Encountering Reynolds exhibition at the Peninsula Arts Gallery is not by Joshua Reynolds at all. Reynolds after Raphael, isn’t even a painted picture, but a photograph of a staged reconstruction of Reynolds’s artwork: Caroline, Duchess of Marlborough and her daughter Lady Caroline Spencer, taken by and featuring Victoria Hall in 2006, some 214 years after the artist’s death.
But then, as you wander around the Peninsula Arts Gallery you realise that this exhibition is not so much about the life and work of the Plympton-born painter, but the effect of his legacy on the way we view and consume art. The exhibition is running in conjunction with Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius, a major retrospective of the artist at Plymouth City Museum.
The exhibition includes three works by Hall, who explores the way history is created and consumed through period drama, museums and the heritage industries. Her images, reconstructions of the 18th century artist’s portraits, are a modern take on Reynolds’s work. Unlike Reynolds’s sweeping and sympathetic brushstrokes, Hall’s camera is unforgiving. Her photographs show the realities of creating her art – her thick theatrical makeup and roughly made costumes exposed by the camera lens.
Hall sweeps away the myth and artifice of the ‘genius’ artist, highlighting the process and endeavour in 16 behind-the-scenes images that are displayed close to the finished photograph. Perhaps Reynolds, who believed that hard work rather than innate ability was the key to artistic success would have approved of this disclosure.
There are many reasons why the life of the artist who practised over 250 years ago has relevance today. Our obsession with celebrity has roots in the 18th century, and Reynolds, who moved among London society, desired and nurtured this acceptance and notoriety. He used his portraits of well-known figures and canny marketing techniques to build his own reputation to superstar proportions. He exploited the ability to create reproductions of his popular work through printing and in doing so helped to change the way art is consumed.
Reynolds’s images have been replicated so widely that most people will have seen his work before, even if they haven’t been aware of the artist behind the picture. There is a reassuringly familiar feel to the Ephemera and Memorabilia section of the exhibition, from Bubbles featured in Pear’s soap advertisements and the Heads of Angels adorning biscuit tins, through to a collection of framed and Liverpool-postmarked 1973 first-day covers celebrating the painter. The Victorians in particular loved Reynolds’s depictions of a ‘natural’ state of childhood.
And, it would seem, Victorian and modern day viewers of Reynolds’s work have more in common than might be first apparent. Part of Reynolds’s appeal to 19th century audiences is the fact that his childhood portraits display a time of rustic prosperity, a golden age before the Industrial Revolution and agricultural depression of 1873. During these recessionary times we also share this desire to return to a simpler, happier time. Sales of childhood food brands are booming. Vintage and kitsch is in. We scour charity shops for the ornaments our grandmothers collected. As I added to the numbers wandering around the busy City Museum afterwards, it appears that the Reynolds’s exhibitions have certainly hit a nerve.
Encountering Reynolds – Peninsula Arts Gallery. Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth Universit runs until Saturday, February 20
(image: Reynolds after Raphael by Victoria Hall)