Sir Joshua Reynolds RA FRS FRSA (Plympton, Devon, England, 16th July 1723 – London, England, 23rd February 1792)
Regular visitors here will know that I hold something of a soft spot for Joshua Reynolds, the legendary portrait artist of the long 18th century. We have seen him here at the Guide on more than one occasion and it is a pleasure to feature him again,with a closer look at A Child’s Portrait in Different Views: Angel’s Heads, painted between 1786–7.
The unusual painting depicts five studies of the head of Lady Frances Isabella Keir Gordon, five year old daughter of Frances Ingram and her husband, Lord William Gordon. The work was begun in summer 1786 and that fifth study was added to the painting in March of the following year. The canvas was displayed at the Royal Academy and Reynolds took as his inspiration a drawing of cherubs' heads by Carlo Maratta.
The portrait is clearly very different to those works with which Reynolds has become better associated, a far from formal or traditional work. Instead, he has painted the same child five times and each of the heads shows a different expression, from wonder to concern to happiness. In only one part of the canvas does she look directly out of the painting, her attention briefly caught and held by the world beyond the frame.
It is a painting commissioned by parents who clearly adored their child and wanted to remember her in those early years as she grew into a woman. In fact, this picture would far outlast the little girl and when she died in 1831, her bereaved mother passed the work to the National Gallery.
The cherubic style and the unusual execution of the work is is not, in all honesty, one to which I am particularly attached. However, it is a work that I have never forgotten in the years since I first saw it and for that reason I present it to you today - after all, one can never have too much Reynolds!