Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723 - 1792)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds, was considered the leading portrait painter of his day and a key figure in the Academy. Still in print today, and widely translated, his groundbreaking Discourses in Art were hugely influential on the development of British art.

The son of a Devonshire reverend and schoolmaster, Reynolds received a comprehensive education before being apprenticed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson aged 17. In 1749, he was invited to join the HMS Centurion on a voyage to the Mediterranean; Reynolds disembarked in Rome and stayed there for two years, studying the Old Masters. While in Rome he suffered from a bad cold which left him partially deaf so that he often carried an ear trumpet round with him, and was often depicted carrying the trumpet.

Soon after his return, Reynolds set up a studio in London and quickly established himself as a sought-after portrait painter, making important aristocratic connections in the process. His circle of friends included 18th-century notables such as the writer Dr Samuel Johnson, actor and playwright David Garrick and statesman Edmund Burke. He painted memorable portraits of all of them.

Despite remaining somewhat aloof from the politics that, even then, dogged London’s art-world, Reynolds was pre-eminent among England’s painters. His works were a key feature in London’s earliest exhibitions of contemporary art and he was the obvious choice to lead the artistic community as the President of the Royal Academy, upon its creation in 1768. However, Reynolds was not a court favourite and painted the King only once, in a commission for the opening of the Royal Academy’s first official home at Somerset House in 1780.

Between 1769 and 1790, Reynolds set out his theories on art in a series of fifteen lectures in the Royal Academy Schools, published as Discourses on Art. He argued that painters should look to classical and Renaissance art as their model and should seek to idealise nature rather than copy it, setting out what would become known as the “grand manner” of painting. Reynolds positioned paintings of epic, historic scenes as the highest genre of art, despite the fact that high demand for his portraits meant that he rarely painted them himself.

Reynolds used his knowledge of the Old Masters to invigorate many of his portraits. His full-length portrait of Captain Keppel depicting the naval commander energetically striding forward is actually based on the classical statue of the Apollo Belvedere. Some artists such as Nathanial Hone felt he was too reliant of Old Masters and painted a picture titled The Conjurer in which prints of Old Masters whirl around the conjurer which was a veiled reference to his practice. Another Royal Academician, Thomas Gainsborough, fell out with Reynolds for years before seeking reconciliation on his deathbed, writing that he had always “admired and sincerely loved Sir Joshua Reynolds”.

Reynolds’s death was greatly mourned. When he died in 1792, Edmund Burke’s eulogy honoured him as “the first Englishman who added the praise of the elegant arts to the other glories of his country”. His body lay in the Royal Academy before being moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the procession included ninety one carriages carrying many distinguished persons, and was followed by all the Academicians and students from the RA Schools. There is a statue by Alfred Drury, installed in 1931 and around this statue which still greets visitors to the Royal Academy today. The fountains and lights arranged around the statue reflect the alignment of planets, the moon and stars at midnight on the night of Reynolds’s birth.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Case Study

According to an account by the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, Reynolds stated his opposition to the slave-trade at a dinner with friends around 1787. Clarkson had shown the group samples of African cloth, and Reynolds ‘gave his unqualified approbation of the abolition of this cruel traffic’ (see Notes, 1). Reynolds also supported through subscription the second edition of the anti-slavery tract written by Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and sentiments on the evil of slavery (1791) (see Notes, 2). Cugoano had been a servant in the household of the artists Richard and Maria Cosway, and through the Cosways had met many prominent artists, writers and politicians.

Reynolds had a Black servant who appears to have joined his household around the mid-1760s. Unlike Cugoano, however, his name is not recorded despite the artist and writer James Northcote suggesting that the servant modelled for several of Reynolds’ paintings (see Notes, 3). Northcote stated that the man had been brought to Britain (presumably from the Caribbean) by the wife of Valentine Morris, a British landowner and politician who also owned plantations in Antigua and who was Governor of St Vincent from 1772-79. There are, however, inconsistencies and conflicting chronologies in this account (see Notes, 4).

Reynolds’ servant is described in Northcote’s Memoirs in connection with an incident in which he was the victim of a crime. After accompanying an elderly lady who had dined with Reynolds to her home, he met some friends and found himself locked out on his return. He spent the night at a watch-house – an early form of a police station that also provided overnight accommodation for those unexpectedly with nowhere to sleep – where his watch was stolen by one of the ‘miserable company’ there. The thief was charged, with the servant as witness, and Northcote recalls that Reynolds learnt of this from reading an account of the Old Bailey proceedings in a newspaper (see Notes, 5). Hearing that the thief was to be condemned to death, Reynolds became angry with his servant and made him deliver his own food to the thief in prison, ‘as a penance’. Meanwhile, Reynolds successfully asked Edmund Burke to have the thief’s sentence changed to transportation.

The same servant was said to be the model for the groom in the portrait of John Manners, Marquis of Granby (c.1766-70). This is one of a number of paintings by Reynolds which depict Black people, mostly as servants in portraits of wealthy white patrons, for example The Temple Family (1780-2), a portrait of Frederick William Ernest, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe, and a portrait of Lieutenant Paul Henry Ourry MP (c.1748). The Black model depicted as the groom in the latter painting has been identified as ‘Jersey’, but he was not Reynolds’ servant (see Notes, 6).

The following paragraph includes offensive language cited from an archival document. The original wording has been used to preserve its historical significance.

A Black servant also features in Lady Elizabeth Keppel (1761). Details of eight appointments with Lady Keppel are recorded in Reynolds’ sitters’ book for 1761 (Reynolds used these books to log his sitters throughout his career – see Notes, 7). In December 1761, there are two separate appointments to capture the likeness of her female servant; Reynolds records these with the word ‘negro’ rather than recording her name. Such disregard for people of colour and their individuality was common in British society at this time.

Reynolds’ most famous depiction of a Black person is the portrait thought to show Francis Barber, the servant and heir of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson. The unfinished portrait, now in the Menil Collection, Houston, casts Barber as a romantic, almost heroic, figure against a stormy sky. The identity of the sitter is not completely certain, and it may even portray Reynolds’ own servant, but the careful treatment of the subject implies that Reynolds – or the person who commissioned the painting – held this sitter in high esteem. By the 1770s when this portrait was painted, Barber was likely assisting Johnson with revising his Dictionary of the English Language and it is possible that he commissioned the portrait of Barber, whom he held in great affection.

Interestingly, there are several versions of the original painting of Barber by Reynolds, copies by later artists and those in Reynolds’ immediate circle. It may be that Reynolds encouraged his students to copy and learn from this portrait. The original was also exhibited at the British Institution in 1813, when it would have been seen and possibly reproduced by many artists (see Notes, 8).


  1. Thomas Clarkson, History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (London, 1839), I:160-1; (accessed 2 March 2022).

  2. Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and sentiments on the evil or slavery; Or, the nature of servitude as admitted by the law of God, compared to the modern slavery of the Africans in the West-Indies; in an answer to the advocates for slavery and oppression. Addressed to the sons of Africa, by a native (London, 1791); James Northcote, Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds (London, 1813), p. 117; (accessed March 2, 2022).

  3. (accessed 2 March 2022).

  4. James Northcote, Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds (London, 1813), pp. 117-18; (accessed 2 March 2022). The chronology of events is difficult to determine due to inconsistencies in the biographies of Valentine Morris, his wife Mary Mordaunt and his daughter. Although according to Northcote, Reynolds’ Black servant was brought to England by Morris and entered Reynolds’ service after Morris’ death, this does not seem possible given that the anecdote described in his Memoirs is said to have taken place around 1768-9 but Morris died in 1789.

  5. A search of the Old Bailey proceedings online has so far failed to identify this case and therefore the name of the servant remains unknown.

  6. Nicholas Penny (ed.), Reynolds (1986), p. 173.

  7. Joshua Reynolds’ pocket book for 1761, RA Archive reference code REY/1/5; (accessed 7 March 2022).

  8. (accessed 7 March 2022).

Relevant ODNB entries

Postle, Martin. “Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723–1792), portrait and history painter and art theorist.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.


Royal Academician

Foundation Member

Born: 16 July 1723 in Plympton, Devon, England, United Kingdom

Died: 23 February 1792

Nationality: British

Elected RA: 10 December 1768

President from: 1768 - 1792

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the RA Collection

17 results

Works after Sir Joshua Reynolds in the RA Collection

30 results

Works associated with Sir Joshua Reynolds in the RA Collection

182 results

Associated books

74 results

Associated archives

249 results