Discover the diary of Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA

Published 14 July 2023

On the 300th anniversary of the birth of our first president Sir Joshua Reynolds, we’ve digitised his diary for the first time. Here’s what we’ve learnt from this intriguing historical document.

  • In 1757 Joshua Reynolds was a busy man.

    He had arrived in London earlier that decade and quickly established himself as a sought-after portrait painter. The man who would go on to become the first President of the Royal Academy and receive a knighthood from George III for his efforts, was busy building his network of social connections and painting prolifically.

    We know what Reynolds was doing in 1757 by looking at his pocket book. He used books like these to keep track of the demands of his professional life: sittings for portraits, appointments with associates and meetings of his various clubs.

    There are 27 of Reynolds’ pocket books in our archive. For the first time, one of them – the volume for 1757 – has been digitised and can now be seen on our website.

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA (detail)

    Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA (detail), ca. 1780.

    Oil on panel. 1270 x 1016 mm.

  • Sunday doodler

    There are several sketches by Reynolds in this pocket book. On one of the earliest pages in the diary, for the first weekend of the year, Reynolds has sketched two characterful portraits with grim faces and exaggerated features. He has also sketched what look like clouds on the inside back cover – we like to think that he would have enjoyed our weekly Friday Doodle on Twitter.

  • Pen sketches of clouds in Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA pocket book

    Pen sketches of clouds in Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA pocket book

    © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • The ugliest man in Britain?

    On the page for the last week of November, Reynolds has sketched a characterful profile portrait of a man. It’s not clear who this figure is, but the book might contain some clues.

    The name “Mr. Wilks” appears more than once on the page, though it is far from certain that there is a connection to the drawing. “Wilks” is probably John Wilkes, then a newly elected Member of Parliament, yet to embark on his career as a radical politician. Wilkes was well known in some quarters as the “ugliest man in Britain”, something which may have appealed to Reynolds’s artistic eye.

  • A portrait sketch in profile in Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, pocket book

    A portrait sketch in profile in Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, pocket book

    © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • Doctor Johnson, we presume

    Another notable name in the book is “Mr. Johnson”. Reynolds had appointments with him on 25 January, 3 February and 10 February.

    These are probably sittings for a portrait of the great lexicographer (a person who compiles dictionaries), Samuel Johnson, which is now back on display in the newly re-opened National Portrait Gallery.

    Reynolds produced a number of other portraits of Johnson, who was a member of his circle of friends. Reynolds painted other notable friends too, including actor and playwright David Garrick, actresses Kitty Fisher and Sarah Siddons and the statesman Edmund Burke.

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Samuel Johnson

    Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Samuel Johnson, circa 1756.

    Oil on canvas. 127.6 cm x 101.6 cm. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

  • Happy Birthday Mr President

    16 July 2023 is the 300th anniversary of Reynolds’ birth. What does his pocket book tell us about how he spent his 34th birthday? The answer is, disappointingly little. His birthday week is emptier than some, but on the day itself Reynolds had an afternoon appointment with an Admiral Knowles.

    Hopefully the absence of portrait sittings meant that he spent the rest of the weekend celebrating.

    266 years on, we’re marking his 300th anniversary with a series of talks by Royal Academicians, which explore art-making, art education and creativity now. Don’t miss talks from Lubaina Himid RA, Isaac Julien RA and Sonia Boyce RA.

    • Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA, pocket book

      See the pocket book in full

      Browse the 1757 pocket book and discover the daily life of our first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds.