British artists in the last quarter of the eighteenth century knew that the road to success followed the path laid down by Jonathan Richardson. Membership of the Royal Academy or exhibiting paintings at its annual shows were the swiftest means to reach their goal. But the painter had some distance to travel before he could acquire respectability and fame. Richardson’s sketch was only the merest outline, pencilled hints rather than a fully formed picture. There was as yet no exemplary life, no complete portrait, and certainly no biography on which the aspiring painter could draw to fashion himself as a successful artist. The first history of British art, Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762), by the connoisseur

and dilettante Horace Walpole, did not offer what the artist required. Based on the notebooks of George Vertue, an engraver who devoted his life to the collection of gossip, anecdote and personal observation, Walpole’s work, as one would expect from a gentleman who frequently complained about the insubordinate behaviour of painters, writers and performers, was not intended to elevate the artist. Though he considered that the successful modern artist had to have classical training, connoisseurship, an interest in history painting, and critical as well as painterly skills, a skilled memorialist had yet to record these qualities in an artist’s life. Many artists aspired to play the leading role of exemplary modern painter, but all were

understudies compared to the man who was offered first refusal. Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy and London’s most fashionable painter (though not, it must be added, the favourite of the court), was inevitably invited to perform the lead (Figure 7.1). He embraced the part with alacrity; most of his contemporaries thought his performance outstanding. When Reynolds died in 1792 his body lay in state at Somerset House in the Royal Academy. The final respects that his fellow Academicians paid to him are understandable; more remarkable was the homage offered by polite society: at the funeral before his interment in St Paul’s Cathedral, forty-two mourning coaches attended the cortège, followed by nearly fifty carriages filled with nobility and gentry. Everyone who attended the obsequies was given an engraved memorial ticket after a drawing by Edward Francis Burney, Charles Burney’s son, depicting Fame mourning over a tomb with the inscription ‘SUCCEDET FAMA, VIVUSQUE PER ORA FERETUR’ (Figure 7.2). But Reynolds overcame a great deal to achieve this renown. Two incidents that occur-

red in the 1770s illustrate the prevailing prejudices against even the most famous English painter. The first, recorded by Frances Burney, the novelist and member of the circle encompassing Dr Johnson, Mrs Thrale, Edmund Burke and Reynolds himself, recounts the conversation of a ‘Mr. B-‘. This gentleman, Burney recalls, was

notorious for his contempt of all artists, whom he looks upon with little more respect than upon day-labourers, the other day, when painting was discussed, he spoke of Sir Joshua Reynolds as if he had been upon a level with a carpenter or farrier … I knew him many years ago in Minorca, he drew my picture there, – and then he knew how to take a moderate price; but not now, I vow, ma’am, ’tis scandalous indeed! to pay a fellow here seventy guineas for scratching out a head!