Papers relating to Reynolds's discourses

RA Collection: Archive

Reference code



Papers relating to Reynolds's discourses


c. 1769-1790



Extent & medium

66 pieces

Historical Background

'The Royal Academy opened on 2 January 1769. To mark the occasion Reynolds read out an address, published the following month as A Discourse, Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy. Reynolds wrote fifteen discourses between 1769 and 1790, each one (with the exception of the inaugural Discourse and the ninth) delivered on the occasion of the distribution of prizes to the academy's students. From 1769 to 1772 they were delivered annually, thereafter biennially. Each discourse was published shortly after its delivery, Reynolds presenting a copy to each member of the academy, and each member of The Club. The first seven discourses were published together in 1778, and were subsequently made available in Italian and German editions. A French edition of thirteen appeared in 1787. The first collected edition of all fifteen, together with Reynolds's other writings, appeared in 1797. A second edition appeared in 1798: William Blake's extensively annotated copy belongs to the British Library. Over thirty other editions of the Discourses have since been published, including those by Sir Edmund Gosse (1884), Roger Fry (1905), and more recently by Robert Wark (1975) and Pat Rogers (1992).

'One principal difference between the essays in The Idler and the Discourses was that the latter were addressed to a live audience prior to publication. Even in their published form, the Discourses adopt a very personal approach. Even so, Reynolds's measured prose masks the uncertainty of his spoken delivery. He had an undemonstrative speaking voice and the majority of those attending his lectures at the Royal Academy would not have been able to hear what he was saying (Hilles, Literary Career, 33–4). Reynolds organized his ideas, as well as the transcriptions taken from various reading materials, in folders with themed headings, including ‘Method of study’, ‘Colouring’, and ‘Michael Angelo’. In the weeks leading up to the presentation of each discourse Reynolds made copious notes and rough drafts, working late into the night to give form to his thoughts. At the last minute pupils were inducted as scribes, working against the clock to provide a fair copy to be read out at the academy, James Northcote telling his brother, ‘I writ out sir Joshua's discourse and he left it till the last day that he was to speak it in the evening so that if Gill had not assisted me it could not have been done soon enough’ (Whitley, 2.293). Reynolds also received editorial assistance from friends, notably Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and, latterly, Edmond Malone. Even so, envious contemporaries who underrated Reynolds's abilities as a writer (Hilles, Literary Career, 134–40, 217–48) unjustly exaggerated their respective contributions.

'In his first discourse Reynolds stressed the vital role played by the living model, a linchpin of academic training since the Renaissance. Subsequent discourses went beyond the scope of art education, synthesizing ideas found in a wide range of aesthetic treatises including classical authors, Horace and Longinus; Renaissance artists, Leonardo da Vinci and Lomazzo; French seventeenth-century theorists, Charles Le Brun, Henri Testelin, André Félibien, and Roger de Piles, as well as more recent texts by Algarotti, Winckelmann, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith. In the earlier discourses, particularly the third and fourth, Reynolds set out his ideas on the guiding principles of high art, which he believed were embodied in the ‘great style’. According to Reynolds, the ‘great style’ endowed a work with ‘intellectual dignity’ that ‘ennobles the painter's art; that lays the line between himself and the mere mechanick; and produces those great effects in an instant, which eloquence and poetry, by slow and repeated efforts, are scarcely able to attain’ (Reynolds, Discourses, ed. Wark, 43). Reynolds was in no doubt that the artists who had come closest to this ideal were the Roman, Florentine, and Bolognese masters of the Italian Renaissance, especially Michelangelo, Raphael, and Lodovico Carracci. While he greatly admired the Venetians Titian and Tintoretto, Reynolds considered that their preoccupation with colour and effect militated against the purity and severity of the ‘great style’. In his later discourses Reynolds addressed major aesthetic concepts, including the nature of genius, originality, imitation, and taste. Here, again, he explored his themes with reference to the leading masters of the ‘great style’, although he appears increasingly to acknowledge the contributions of artists lower down the scale, such as Rubens and Rembrandt—both of whom greatly influenced his own art. As it has been argued (Reynolds, Discourses, ed. Wark, xxx–xxxii; ed. Rogers, 21–2) , Reynolds's Discourses do not, with the passage of the years, incline him more towards a more ‘Romantic’ viewpoint, but retain an essentially empirical outlook that would have satisfied earlier generations. Yet while the Discourses collectively represent Reynolds's views on art theory and practice, they do not form a seamless, or even consistent, argument. Over the twenty-year period in which they were written events and experience modified his views. At times he wished to address specific issues: in the tenth discourse sculpture, in the fourteenth the art of Thomas Gainsborough. He also allowed different facets of his own intellectual make-up to surface, tempering his insistence on the primacy of rules with a willingness to countenance arguments based on custom, emotion, or gut instinct.' [DNB]

Content Description

Notes for, and drafts of, Reynolds's discourses on art, all undated. [REY/3/51 is said by Hilles to include emendations in the hand of Dr Johnson.] REY/3/65 includes a sketch of the head and shoulders of a female figure. The group includes a draft letter of Reynolds [to the Royal Academy, REY/3/17]stating that he will not stand for election as President again because of the state of his eyes [1791. The letter is transcribed and discussed in Ingamells and Edgcumbe, p. 228f.].


According to the 1972 finding aid, the papers had already been numbered in pencil in a modern hand, and that arrangement had been retained.


The mss are discussed by F. W. Hilles in The Literary Career of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Cambridge, 1936, (chapter 8 and appendix II).

John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe, The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Yale, 2000.