After Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA FRS FRSA, 1723-1792
Portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson 1709 - 1784
Portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson
oil on panel
21 x 16.6 cm (8.1/4 x 6.1/2in.)


after the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the Tate N00887


Engraved by James Heath from the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. This engraving is  the frontispiece to Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, published 1 January 1799 by Longman.  The dedication notes that the portrait was at this time in the possession of B Langton.  James Heath also engraved a different portrait of Johnson used in an earlier Dictionary, 1791 edition.


Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784), author and lexicographer, was born in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield, on 7 September 1709 (after the change of calendar in 1752 he celebrated his birthday on 18 September), the first child of Michael Johnson (1657–1731) and his wife, Sarah Ford (1669–1759); later the couple had another son, Nathaniel (1712–1737), of whom little is known apart from the fact that he went into the family trade of bookselling and did not enjoy good relations with his elder brother. Samuel's birth took place in the Johnsons' home, a new four-storey house on the corner of Breadmarket Street and the Market Square; it survives today as the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. Overlooking the property stands St Mary's Church, where Samuel may have been baptized on 17 September 1709, although he appeared so frail at first that a baptismal ceremony was carried out in his home within hours of his birth. Attending his birth was George Hector, ‘a man-midwife of great reputation’ (Yale Edition, 1.3), whose nephew Edmund Hector (1708–1794), a Birmingham surgeon, became a close lifelong friend. As godfathers the parents chose Richard Wakefield, the town clerk, and Samuel Swynfen (c.1679–1736), a prominent local physician. The child was named after his maternal uncle Samuel Ford.

Michael Johnson's bookshop occupied the ground floor. Originally apprenticed to a member of the London trade in 1673 and made a freeman of the Stationers' Company in 1685, he had set up business in Lichfield in 1691. He published a few books and operated in other local towns on market days. In later years he also practised as a tanner and parchment manufacturer, though with little success. Michael Johnson held a number of civic offices in the borough, including those of senior bailiff and magistrate: Samuel was born during his term as sheriff. Michael was a high-churchman and possibly, as Boswell believed, a Jacobite, although outwardly at least he conformed to the Hanoverian dispensation. Plagued by ‘a vile melancholy’ that he may have passed on to his son (Boswell, Life, 1.35), he possessed some learning and ambition. At the same time he was evidently subjected to Sarah's consciousness of her own superior social origins. Awkward in company, strictly pious, and uninterested in books, she can hardly have found an ideal companion in Michael; later in life her son respected her memory, but gave little sign that he enjoyed a warm or loving relationship with his mother.

Almost immediately the parents placed Samuel in the care of a wet-nurse named Marklew, who lived in George Lane nearby. By the time he returned home a few weeks later, he was already suffering from maladies, which affected him all his days. ‘A poor, diseased infant, almost blind’ (Yale Edition, 1.5), he had an infection in his left eye and a severe case of scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph nodes), possibly contracted from the nurse's milk. An operation was later carried out on the glands in his neck, which left visible scars. At some stage he also underwent a bout of smallpox which caused further disfigurement. When he was two, in March 1712, he was taken by his mother to London, in order to be ‘touched’ for the scrofula by Queen Anne. Johnson was almost totally deaf in his left ear, and this may well have been apparent from infancy. The convulsions that marked his behaviour in adult life may have derived from congenital factors or from these infant diseases; one theory is that his condition can be diagnosed as Tourette's syndrome, where the symptoms often grow more apparent in adolescence. The only result of his contact with the queen seems to have been the gift of a gold ‘touchpiece’, which he wore round his neck as an amulet until his death.


Samuel was taught to read by his mother, perhaps assisted by a maid named Catherine. He then gained the rudiments of learning at a dame-school kept by a widow, Ann Oliver, whose kindness he recalled with pleasure. Precocious from infancy, he was made to perform in public by his fond father. At the age of six or seven he studied for some time with Thomas Browne, a former shoemaker turned schoolmaster, and then in January 1717 he became a day boy at the ancient grammar school of Lichfield, to embark on Latin under the usher Humphry Hawkins. Two years later he entered the upper school, where he was placed at first under the Revd Edward Holbrooke, a less experienced and effective teacher, and then under the headmaster, John Hunter, whom the boy found ‘very severe, and wrong-headedly severe’ (Boswell, Life, 1.44). Despite Hunter's cruel discipline, Johnson came to respect his ability to drum Latin into his charges, and attributed much of his humane learning to the thorough grounding he received from the headmaster. In addition, the solitary and physically challenged boy spent much of his time leafing through the stacks of the family bookshop, and there he could explore works which would never have been on any official syllabus. Later he displayed predictable knowledge of classical literature, but also curious learning in less obvious fields, including humanistic lore.

While at school, Johnson made the acquaintance of boys who were to be among his friends, including John Taylor, subsequently a clergyman in Ashbourne, and Robert James, who became a physician celebrated on account of his fever powder. The youth's closest ally remained Edmund Hector, who lived near by in Sadler Street. Opposite the cathedral close lived the family of Captain Peter Garrick, who was on good social terms with Michael Johnson: when the captain's son David entered the school, Samuel had moved on, but the two young men (seven years apart in age) certainly knew one another from this period. In 1725 Johnson went to spend nine months near Stourbridge with his sophisticated and, some thought, dissolute cousin, the Revd Cornelius Ford (1694–1731). When the youth returned to Lichfield in June 1726, he was refused permission by Hunter to return to the school, and instead Ford arranged for him to enter King Edward VI School at Stourbridge as a boarder. It is possible that he taught the younger boys in exchange for his own advanced tuition. Meanwhile he pursued the study of literature, with a special emphasis in his exercises on translations from Horace and Virgil: he also wrote a number of English poems and consorted with Ford's circle, including a relative by marriage, Gregory Hickman, who was a leading citizen in the town.

When Johnson left Stourbridge late in 1726, apparently after suffering an illness, his regular schooling came to an end. This was the prelude to a spell of two years back in Lichfield, which he himself considered to be a period of idleness, even though he read widely in a desultory fashion. His father possibly thought that Samuel was serving an apprenticeship in the bookshop. Perhaps it was at this stage, in a fit of late adolescent moodiness, that he refused on one famous occasion to help his father on a bookstall at Uttoxeter market—a show of disobedience which shamed him so much in later life that he stood on the spot for a considerable time, bareheaded as the rain fell, to expiate his fault. This aimless existence might have continued indefinitely, but for some outside impulse. Michael's financial affairs had declined to a point at which it was impossible for him to support a university education for his son, while Samuel himself lacked the energy to take any useful initiative. A kind offer on the part of an old schoolfellow, Andrew Corbet, made the difference, although this turned out to be no more than a gesture. Corbet had proceeded to Pembroke College, Oxford, and suggested that he should pay some of Johnson's fees to allow his friend to enter the college and provide companionship for the rich young country gentleman. Though the offer was taken up, Corbet never acted upon this promise, and Johnson's days at Oxford were clouded by uncertainty over money. A small legacy which his mother received from her cousin about this time may have helped to pay his fees.

Oxford and unemployment

Samuel travelled to Oxford with his father and was admitted to Pembroke College on 31 October 1728, shortly after his nineteenth birthday. His residence lasted little more than a year, and outwardly bore the marks of failure: his poverty, social immaturity, and youthful contempt for authority were compounded by renewed fears of idleness. Allegedly he was often to be found lounging around the college gate. His career was abruptly cut short, and he held no degree until the university conferred an MA on him in 1755 in recognition of the forthcoming Dictionary. Yet Johnson preserved for the rest of his life a deep affection for Oxford and an abiding loyalty to his college, which he termed ‘a nest of singing birds’ on account of the number of poets it had nurtured. Ever afterwards ‘he took a pleasure in boasting of the many eminent men who had been educated at Pembroke’ (Boswell, Life, 1.75). Equally, he ‘delighted in his own partiality’ for the university at large (Piozzi, Anecdotes, 26). In his mature years he made regular visits to Oxford: his most durable friendship from Pembroke days was with William Adams, a junior fellow who served as Johnson's nominal tutor after the rebellious young man had sparred for some time with the ineffective William Jorden. In 1775 Adams became master of the college, where he often acted as host when his former pupil visited Oxford. When Johnson was an undergraduate he resumed friendship with earlier acquaintances, relishing in particular the company of his schoolmate John Taylor, who had arrived soon after him. At this time Taylor planned to follow his father and take up a legal career—something Johnson would have loved to do. It was only a short step across the road to Taylor's college, Christ Church, and the two men shared academic interests as well as social relaxations. Johnson even borrowed notes on the lectures of an admired tutor at Christ Church. When Taylor entered the church, his intellectual concerns fell by the wayside, but at this period he provided stimulating company to his friend, who evidently left an unfavourable impression on others. Many members of the university saw no more than an impoverished Jude with a provincial accent and uncouth manners.

According to the later account by Adams, Johnson achieved some popularity with those who knew him, and even passed for a ‘gay and frolicsome fellow’, but when this description was reported to him he responded, ‘It was bitterness which they mistook for frolic’ (Boswell, Life, 1.73–4). Intending to fight his way to success by his literary accomplishments and his wit, he deliberately flouted authority. Moreover, his schemes for study were more grandiose than anything he actually achieved. Some of his work helped to promote his reputation in the academic community, notably a translation of Pope's already Latinate Messiah into Latin verse, prepared as a college exercise at Christmas 1729. This became Johnson's first published piece when it appeared in a miscellany two years later, and it allegedly impressed Pope himself. On other occasions Johnson failed to deliver required work on time, and no other substantial pieces of writing survive from this period. He probably stayed up for much of the long vacation, as was then quite usual, but pressures were mounting. His father's business was floundering more than ever, his own debts were accumulating, and he had to battle with depressive illness. A renewed burst of religious faith, derived from reading William Law, alleviated but did not dispel these problems. The exact sequence of events is not known, but when Johnson left Oxford for good just before Christmas in 1729, he was already a full term behind with his college fees and had sunk into profound dejection.

This melancholia, which probably started in the previous summer, lasted about three years. Well-placed and sympathetic observers such as Edmund Hector considered that the illness amounted to a full-scale breakdown, and wondered whether Johnson might be subject to a constitutional disease which would impair his faculties for life. The patient tried such remedies as the hapless physicians of this age prescribed, and regularly walked the 30 miles between Lichfield and Birmingham in futile attempts to dissipate his feelings of anxiety. A major symptom was what Johnson called indolence, which might be construed in modern terms as resembling clinical depression rather than laziness. For his godfather, Samuel Swynfen, now practising in Birmingham, he compiled a state of his case in Latin: this does not survive, but it went the rounds in Johnson's own day when Swynfen, impressed by the cogency with which it was written, passed it on to his acquaintances. Understandably Johnson was outraged by this circulation of private disclosures, and he was never fully reconciled to Swynfen. Meanwhile Michael Johnson had just managed to cling on to his failing business, thanks to a timely loan. But in December 1731 the bookseller died of a fever, only three months after his cousin Cornelius Ford had suddenly expired in a Covent Garden bagnio. Unemployed and suffering from nervous prostration, Samuel now had to face the loss of the two most important male mentors of his youth. It was perhaps the low point of his entire life.

Johnson had already made his first efforts to gain a regular job. A post as usher at his old school in Stourbridge had come up that summer, and Johnson went across to the town about September. Despite the support of his kinsman Gregory Hickman, which should have proved influential, he failed to obtain the appointment; this was the first of several such disappointments in the years to come. While Sarah Johnson attempted to keep the family business going, her son expanded his sorties in quest of a teaching position. Briefly he seemed to have turned the corner when he succeeded in landing a job at Market Bosworth grammar school, some 20 miles east of Lichfield. However, he had to live with the patron of the school, Sir Wolstan Dixie, a boorish embodiment of the caricature squire, and even to act as domestic chaplain. It must have been still worse than idleness, because Johnson lasted only a few months in the post, from March to July 1732. He walked back to Lichfield, with little beyond the paltry inheritance of £19, which was all he could expect from his father's estate during the lifetime of his mother. Soon afterwards, on hearing of the death of an usher at Ashbourne School, he made efforts to gain this post and wrote to Taylor, who was now an attorney in the town. He explained to his friend that his departure from Market Bosworth had been like escaping from a prison. However, when the governors of the school met on 1 August they chose another candidate.

Late in the year Johnson was invited to stay with Edmund Hector, who had become a surgeon in Birmingham, and he remained there for more than a year. Two notable events took place during his stay: he embarked on his first sustained literary work—a translation of the account of Father Jerome Lobo, a Portuguese Jesuit, of his journey to Abyssinia—and he met his future wife. The book was based on a French translation of Lobo's account, which Johnson had read at Oxford. It was early 1735 before the work appeared, not surprisingly since Johnson's indolence had slowed its progress—so badly, indeed, that it became Hector's role to take down copy which the translator dictated as he lay in bed, and then to carry the manuscript to the printer. A Voyage to Abyssinia, which runs to 400 pages, earned Johnson 5 guineas from Thomas Warren, a Birmingham bookseller, although the actual publishers were members of the London trade. Again it was through Hector that a significant meeting occurred: Warren owned the house in which Johnson came to live with his friend. During 1733 Johnson stayed for a time with Warren and began to write for a newspaper which the bookseller had recently set up, entitled the Birmingham Journal. Here some of his first published writing, now lost, made its appearance.


An even more important contact was established when the young man changed his lodgings about June 1733. His new landlord was a certain Jervis, one of whose relatives was a woman named Elizabeth Porter, née Jervis (1689–1752): it was not long before Johnson made the acquaintance of Elizabeth and her husband Harry Porter. The couple's three children included a daughter, Lucy, then aged eighteen. Initially the omens looked bad since Porter, a struggling textile dealer, was the brother-in-law of Johnson's feared schoolmaster, John Hunter. However, matters took an unexpected turn in September 1734 when Harry died and Johnson began to court the widow, who was twenty years his senior. Within a few months he brought his pursuit of the lady to a successful conclusion, and the couple were married on 9 July 1735. They rode the 30 miles to Derby, perhaps stopping at Lichfield, as Johnson had once more taken up residence in his home town. The ceremony took place at St Werburgh's Church, perhaps for the simple reason that it was safely removed from Birmingham, where the widow's family had opposed her wedding: they probably thought that the young man was attracted by his bride's fortune, which amounted to something like £600 (Reade, 6.34–5). There are no grounds for believing this, as Johnson himself acknowledged that it was a love match on both sides (Boswell, Life, 1.96). Unkind observers drew attention to the groom's strange appearance and deportment, while portraying the bride, known as Tetty, in the guise of a blousy and ageing woman who struck absurd postures in an effort to seem youthful. The oddly assorted couple had little by way of a regular income, and family and friends on both sides showed an understandable lack of enthusiasm for the marriage.

The truth was that Johnson had still failed to advance himself in any career. He tried to interest the proprietor of the Gentleman's Magazine, Edward Cave, in occasional contributions to the popular new journal, which Cave had founded in 1731; however, nothing came of this for the time being. Instead he turned once again to the teaching profession, and just before his marriage he served for two months as private tutor to the family of Thomas Whitby, who lived at Great Haywood, near Stafford; there were five children in all, though Johnson's primary responsibility lay with a son of nineteen preparing to enter university. Soon afterwards he learned that the mastership of Solihull School had become vacant. Again an application failed: despite his unquestioned scholarship, the governors were put off by his reputation as ‘a very haughty, ill-natured gent.’, as well as by the way he had of ‘distorting his face’ (Reade, 6.29–30). The fresh rebuff must have wounded Johnson, especially as this time he had the backing of an old acquaintance, Gilbert Walmesley, a lawyer and official in the ecclesiastical court of Lichfield. Johnson had been familiar since boyhood with his mentor, who lived a comfortable bachelor existence in the bishop's palace adjoining the cathedral. Walmesley stands out as the most supportive member of the Lichfield community who had watched the precocious Samuel grow up in the town, and Johnson afterwards paid a warm tribute to his humanity, learning, and tolerance: ‘I honoured him, and he endured me’ (Boswell, Life, 1.81).

By the time Johnson got the news of this latest reverse, he had already formulated an alternative plan. His scheme was to set up a school, no doubt funded by his wife's small fortune. Optimistically he wrote to a friend, ‘I am now going to furnish a house in the country, and keep a private boarding-school for young gentlemen whom I shall endeavour to instruct in a manner somewhat more rational than those commonly practised’ (Letters, 1.10). The premises were duly acquired in the shape of a large brick house for rent at Edial, a village 3 miles west of Lichfield, and the would-be proprietor inserted an advertisement in the Gentleman's Magazine. But the enrolment of pupils was tiny, perhaps as low as three or four boys, all recruited by Gilbert Walmesley, and little more than a year after its opening in late 1735 the school had to close. The episode is remembered chiefly because one of the few students happened to be David Garrick, then aged eighteen and a favourite of Walmesley on account of his wit and vivacity. Neither the master nor the pupil was well attuned to the process of turning Garrick into a classical scholar, and a visit to Lichfield by strolling players may have stimulated the young man more than any instruction he received from Johnson.

Life went on in this cramped fashion until the school closed in January 1737. We know nothing of the state of Johnson's marriage, apart from what may be gleaned from cruel performances Garrick later improvised to mimic the connubial dealings of Samuel and Elizabeth. Even Hester Piozzi, who reported these ‘comical scenes’, was not sure whether they were accurate (Piozzi, Anecdotes, 97). But the surviving diary entries are somewhat gloomy, suggesting that Johnson was still morbidly conscious of wasting his time on footling pursuits and still devising a harsh regimen to put himself on to a more productive track. In addition, he applied for yet another scholastic post, on this occasion at Brewood on the other side of Cannock Chase, but he met with no more success than before, as the master had heard something of the applicant's peculiar deportment and thought it might cause ridicule among the pupils. The money which Elizabeth had brought to the marriage had probably all gone. So Johnson had reached twenty-eight with very little concrete achievement. At this low point he took the decision to seek his fortune in London as a writer: his sense of the need for a fresh start may have been strengthened when his brother Nathaniel, who had been living at Frome in Somerset, died without apparent warning at the start of March 1737. But by that time the die was cast, and Johnson was already making his way to the capital.

Going to London

When Johnson left Lichfield on 2 March 1737, he had a companion—but this was not Elizabeth, who remained at home until he could find work. It was Garrick, who was due to enter a school at Rochester. The pair shared a single horse, each riding ahead in turn and tying the horse ready for his companion to arrive on foot: they were certainly impoverished, even if Johnson exaggerated in later years when he claimed that he arrived with 2½d. in his pocket, while his young friend had only three halfpence. These straitened circumstances forced him to take humble lodgings with a staymaker named Richard Norris just off the Strand, where he lived very abstemiously. He spent much of his time working on a tragedy entitled Irene, which he had begun at Edial. For a period he took lodgings in Church Street, Greenwich, and attempted to compose his play in the nearby park, but the task remained unfinished. Late in the summer he returned to his home town and managed to get Irene completed. After three months he took Elizabeth back with him to London, and he remained ever after a resident of the capital. His mother meanwhile carried on the family bookshop with the help of Samuel's stepdaughter Lucy Porter.

The overtures made to Edward Cave finally paid off in 1738, when the bookseller accepted some verse and then printed a short life of Father Paolo Sarpi in his journal. From this time forward Johnson was Cave's right-hand man in running the Gentleman's Magazine from its office at St John's Gate, Clerkenwell. He contributed in almost every issue to regular features of the work, including foreign and domestic news, book reviews, and illicit parliamentary reports. In this last department Johnson brought special renown to the Magazine: his stylized accounts of proceedings in the senate of Lilliput, which allegedly came from the pen of Lemuel Gulliver's grandson, gave the substance of the debates, even though verbatim reporting was specifically banned as a breach of privilege by a Commons resolution in April 1738. The series ran from the following June until 1745: Johnson is likely to have had a hand in the reports throughout, and he was solely responsible for their composition between 1741 and 1744. These years saw some tumultuous passages in the final phase of Robert Walpole's long political ascendancy, most notably the contentious events leading to the start of the War of Jenkins's Ear in 1739. Johnson and his collaborators evolved a complex code to record the debates, mixing allegorical byplay in the manner of Swift with studied Ciceronian oratory: speeches were put into the mouths of characters whose names transparently revealed their real identity (as ‘Walelop’ or ‘Ptit’). For all these devices, the Magazine's transactions of the senate in Lilliput achieved a plausible enough effect to be cited by later historians as though they were the speakers' ipsissima verba. Meanwhile Cave provided his protégé with further opportunities, notably a planned translation of Sarpi's history of the Council of Trent (1619): Johnson was paid almost £50 for the work in progress, but it had to be abandoned in 1739 owing to a rival version. The same year saw him complete a translation from the French of a commentary on Pope's Essay on Man, written by the Swiss theologian Jean-Pierre Crousaz. Johnson is said to have worked with frenzied energy on the task, producing up to six sheets (almost fifty pages) in a single day. His version, published in 1741, provides comments on the text by way of annotation, correcting errors in Crousaz and setting out his own view of the Essay.

During the late 1730s Johnson's career was at last beginning to flourish, although he was unable to get Irene staged. His first original work of importance, London: a Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, was issued by the leading publisher Robert Dodsley about 13 May 1738: he received 10 guineas as payment. It is a satire of 263 lines, composed in heroic couplets intended to match the vigorous Latin hexameter. The poem is closely based on its model, substituting London for Rome and France for Greece; quotations from the original are placed at the foot of the appropriate page to emphasize some of the choice effects achieved. Johnson captures some of Juvenal's bleak humour, along with his talent for terse epigrammatic phrasing and power of invective. The discontented Umbricius, fleeing the horrors of Rome, is recast as Thales, seeking repose in Wales from a London which offers little beyond urban blight, pollution, crime, and disorder: ‘And now a rabble rages, now a fire’. Thales has been dubiously identified with Richard Savage, the troubled bohemian poet, whom Johnson may or may not have met at the time when the poem was written. But the work certainly contains a good deal of autobiographical reference, as in the oblique self-pity of the couplet

This mournful truth is everywhere confessed,
Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.

Although London came out anonymously, the identity of the author was soon discovered. The greatest living English poet, Alexander Pope, whose versions of Horace had recently pushed the ‘imitation’ of classical models to a new level of sophistication and daring, quickly recognized the merits of the poem and sought out the name of its creator. ‘He will soon be déterré’, Pope accurately predicted to a friend (Boswell, Life, 1.129).

Further success came with the appearance in the spring of 1739 of two political satires. The first, Marmor Norfolciense, draws on Swift's methods again to attack Walpole's policies through the supposed discovery of an ancient inscription in Latin. The second, A Complete Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage, ironically praises the government's repressive measures against the theatre, as embodied in the Licensing Act of 1737. In addition, Johnson continued to take an active share in the monthly offerings of the Gentleman's Magazine. However, although he gradually became more visible in the literary world, his private life remained, and remains, shrouded in mystery. He and his wife first took lodgings near Hanover Square, and then moved to Castle Street, on the edge of the fashionable new Harley estate in the West End. By this time Johnson seems to have become friendly with Savage, and according to some reasonably dependable anecdotage the two writers took to walking the streets of the city by night ‘reforming the world’, as Johnson himself put it, in default of the money to pay for a drink in the taverns (Hill, 1.371). Savage was of course hardly the best role model for a young man bent on achieving worldly success, and it would be understandable if Elizabeth felt neglected. At some stage the couple appear to have separated for a period, and Elizabeth sought refuge with a friend. In July 1739 matters came to a head when Savage, racked by debts and unable to concentrate on writing, decided to leave London and rusticate in Wales; the two men never saw one another again.

As these problems beset him, Johnson came up with an answer: to resume his former quest for a post in a provincial school. In August he set off for the midlands without Elizabeth, in the hopes of becoming headmaster of Appleby grammar school in Leicestershire, 10 miles from Lichfield. He was given a letter of reference by Pope to a prominent Staffordshire peer, Lord Gower (later first earl of Gower), who in turn wrote to Dublin to see whether Trinity College might award Johnson an MA degree with the intercession of Swift. The dean was almost past such endeavours, and in any case the degree (had it been granted) would not have met the qualifications for Appleby grammar school, which required its master to be a graduate of an English university. Once more Johnson's bid failed, and in his place a certain Mr Mould was appointed. After his rebuff Johnson went on to Lichfield and then to the home at Ashbourne of John Taylor, who had now entered the church. While in the midlands he fell under the spell of some local women of exceptional charm and humanity. One of these was Mary Meynell, who ‘had the best understanding he ever met with any human being’ (Boswell, Life, 1.83); she subsequently married the politician William Fitzherbert, whom Johnson held in warm regard. Another was her pious kinswoman Hill Boothby (1708–1756); and a third was Mary Aston (1706–c.1765), member of a large Lichfield family. Two of Mary Aston's sisters were married respectively to Gilbert Walmesley and Henry Hervey, another close friend of Johnson by this date. All three women exercised a powerful effect on the unattached traveller, and it is generally thought that Miss Boothby was the strongest candidate when he contemplated remarriage after the death of Elizabeth, only for the chosen bride herself to fall sick and die within a short time. The visits spread over into 1740, with Johnson attempting to assure his wife in a letter that his ‘rambles’ had served only to confirm his ‘esteem and affection’ for her (Letters, 1.24). Elizabeth felt some jealousy over Mary Aston, although her husband assured her she had no cause (Piozzi, Anecdotes, 103). In April, Johnson returned to London, and he did not see Lichfield again for more than twenty years.

The couple resumed life together in the Strand, but their monetary problems caused them to move regularly over the next few years, finding lodgings generally in the area of Fleet Street. Some of Johnson's work in the Gentleman's Magazine now achieved a separate life in the form of pamphlets, including a life of Admiral Robert Blake (1740). Short biographies constituted his most prolific genre at this period, with subjects ranging from Francis Drake to the physicians Hermann Boerhaave and Thomas Sydenham. In the next year Johnson took over as prime author of the reports of parliamentary debates, and he wrote more of his brief lives. A larger undertaking was to compile the catalogue of the huge Harley collection of books and tracts, which the bookseller Thomas Osborne had bought when the second earl of Oxford died in 1741. The task, enlivened by a memorable passage of arms when Johnson knocked Osborne down with a hefty folio, resulted in a work of five volumes (1743–5) describing the collection in detail, as well as an eight-volume sampler of its contents known as The Harleian Miscellany (1744–6), on which Johnson collaborated with the noted antiquarian William Oldys. He also made a number of contributions to a large Medicinal Dictionary (1743–5) by his schoolfriend Robert James. Little is known of other activity until the death of Savage, which took place in Bristol gaol on 1 August 1743 and prompted Johnson to compose his famous life of the renegade poet. The author received 15 guineas from Cave for the book, which was published anonymously on 11 February 1744. Ever since, The Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage has remained one of Johnson's most admired works, as a pioneering exercise in psychological biography, as a graphic sociological study of Grub Street, and as a testament of friendship. Johnson gives a vivid account of Savage's struggle to establish his parenthood, and a fair-minded narrative of the poet's trial for murder. Moreover, he manages to steer a course between excessive praise and blame, and reveals much about his own situation through his profound identification with the financial and personal crises Savage had undergone.

Soon afterwards Johnson began to contemplate the first literary project of any scale which he had devised independently. This was an edition of Shakespeare, one of a whole series of undertakings since Nicholas Rowe's innovative venture in 1709. The most recent production was that of Sir Thomas Hanmer, and Johnson's trial publication, a pamphlet entitled Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, incorporated some parting shots at Hanmer's performance when it appeared in April 1745. This appeal for subscribers to the edition might possibly have succeeded, but the project received a body blow when the publisher Jacob Tonson the younger intervened with Cave. The firm of Tonson had long claimed a perpetual copyright in the text of Shakespeare, and under threat of legal action Cave backed down. Johnson again found himself baulked: he was doing less work for the Gentleman's Magazine, and it appears that about this time he seriously considered entering the legal profession, even though his lack of a degree made this impossible. Underemployed as he may have been, there is no basis for the story that he joined Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender) in Scotland during the failed rising of 1745–6.

The Dictionary

At this juncture there arrived the most significant career opportunity of Johnson's entire life. A group of booksellers headed by Robert Dodsley perceived the need for a new English dictionary to replace the semi-standard Dictionarium Britannicum of Nathan Bailey (1730). They found a receptive ear in Johnson, who had pondered for many years on the absence of an English equivalent to the great continental glossaries sponsored by public bodies and academies. What was envisaged was something quite different, a commercial venture financed by a consortium of leading figures in the trade, and one which would be compiled essentially by a single hand—that of a poverty-stricken journalist and pamphleteer, who had dropped out of university and who had never left England. Johnson prepared a short prospectus for the undertaking, and then signed a contract on 18 June 1746. The compiler was to be paid 1500 guineas, out of which he had to defray the cost of his copyists, and delivery was due in three years. It seems miraculous today that the job took as few as nine years to complete.

For this task, the Johnsons took a substantial house in Gough Square, which survives today off the north side of Fleet Street as a Johnson museum. The garret was fitted out as workroom for the staff, which amounted to five or six assistants, most of them Scots. Johnson used an interleaved copy of Bailey's dictionary in its 1736 edition; he also consulted a wide range of technical and specialist manuals to expand the range of vocabulary. He sought out illustrative quotations in a huge collection of books, from which his amanuenses transcribed marked extracts. Before the mammoth work was completed, a number of distractions held up its progress. Johnson quarrelled with his intended patron, the earl of Chesterfield, to whom he had dedicated a recast version of the prospectus as The Plan of the English Dictionary (1747); one outcome was a famous letter of dignified rebuke to the peer. ‘Is not a patron, my lord’ asked Johnson sardonically, ‘one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?’ (Boswell, Life, 1.262). It is possible, too, that Johnson revised his editorial methods and made a fresh start about 1750. Ultimately the work appeared in two folio volumes on 15 April 1755, garnished with preliminary matter including a preface of extraordinary dignity and eloquence.

The Dictionary left an immense mark on its age. It soon became recognized as a work of classical standing, and in spite of some minor blemishes it has never lost its historical importance as the first great endeavour of its kind. Notable above all for definitions of pith and occasional wit, the dictionary was even more original in the way in which every word, as Johnson put it, had its history. Each entry is organized under the headword to exemplify graduated senses of a term, a procedure which redirected the course of English lexicography. Further, the quotations used to exemplify the usage of a given word combined to form an anthology of moral sayings and helped to define the canon of literature: they show Johnson's taste and piety, for he would not admit extracts from irreligious writers such as Hobbes, Bolingbroke, and Hume. Notoriously, a handful of entries display some of the author's prejudices, as when he glossed ‘whig’ as ‘the name of a faction’, or when he defined a ‘patron’ as ‘commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery’. Some of the preliminary matter reaches a less distinguished level: the grammar and history of the language, for example, come over as perfunctory compared with the main entries. In addition, Johnson's etymologies betray the limit of what was possible in an age when this branch of linguistic study owed as much to inspired guesswork as to scientific enquiry. But for the most part the Dictionary was able to demonstrate the fecundity of the language more comprehensively than any of its predecessors. Conscious that his primary role was to record the state of English vocabulary, rather than to legislate for its usage, Johnson registered the entire sweep of words from the crude and demotic to the most rarefied scientific terms and to recent fanciful forms imported from other languages.

The work soon came to be regarded as a standard authority, almost like the statute book. There were several new printings in Johnson's lifetime, but only the ‘fourth’ edition of 1773 involved an extensive programme of revision, which he carried out in 1771 and 1772. After Johnson died, the cheaper quarto version continued to appear at regular intervals, while a spate of editors offered variously to augment, abstract, and otherwise improve the original work; from 1818 the main such recension was that of the Revd Henry John Todd. Meanwhile the first American edition appeared at Philadelphia in 1819. By this time the Dictionary stood for everything that was correct, proper, and of good report; no wonder that Becky Sharp flung a copy out of her carriage, at the start of Vanity Fair, in a gesture of youthful rebellion. To more staid spirits such as Noah Webster or Sir James Murray, the book proved a source of inspiration for lexicographic triumphs to come. For all the labour involved, Johnson himself would have liked to do more in this field; as a result, he was disappointed in 1774 when he did not get the chance to revise the Cyclopedia (1728) of Ephraim Chambers, one of the models for his own undertaking, since he admitted to having a fondness for ‘that muddling work’ of compiling reference books.

During the years spent on the Dictionary, Johnson made his name in other branches of writing. First came a curious fantasy entitled The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe, contributed to an educational manual by Dodsley called The Preceptor (1748); Johnson also supplied the preface. The next year, his long-delayed tragedy Irene finally achieved a production. It was presented at Drury Lane by David Garrick, by then a star of the London stage as actor and producer—indeed, Johnson had written a special prologue to mark the start of Garrick's managerial reign at the playhouse on 15 September 1747. The first night of Irene on 6 February 1749 had its share of minor disasters, a scene rendered with appropriate dramatic energy in Boswell's account, and the play lasted for only nine performances in all, but it was not a total flop. Johnson managed to survey its fate with sang-froid, comporting himself ‘like the Monument’ (Boswell, Life, 1.199). In fact he received almost £200 from the takings, as well as £100 from Robert Dodsley when the work was published. It is perhaps the only considerable work by Johnson which has not been rehabilitated in modern times: for this we can blame the strenuous neo-classicism of its form and style, together with its remote setting in medieval Turkey. Just one month earlier, on 9 January, appeared Johnson's greatest poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, a reworking of Juvenal's tenth satire. The work comprises a bitter reflection on the disappointments of mortal existence, especially those incident to writers and artists:

There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the garret, and the gaol.

A particular strength of the poem lies in its compressed portraits of Wolsey and Charles XII, used within the running argument ‘to point a moral [and] adorn a tale’. Dodsley paid the author 15 guineas for the copyright. Again Johnson showed a mastery of the satiric couplet which few beyond Chaucer, Dryden, and Pope in the history of English verse have equalled.

A year later, on 20 March 1750, Johnson instituted his series of 208 essays entitled The Rambler, which came out twice a week until 14 March 1752; he received 2 guineas for each issue. It is perhaps the most characteristic work Johnson ever wrote, addressing as it does a wide range of social, religious, political, and literary themes in a stately style. An important series of essays dealt with Milton; others addressed humanitarian issues such as prostitution and capital punishment. Johnson's moral outlook lends his papers a depth seldom attained even by his avowed model, The Spectator of Addison and Steele, while his criticism includes some of the first serious discussion of the emerging novel. Aptly, among the coadjutors who supplied a few of the essays for The Rambler was Johnson's friend Samuel Richardson, the author of Clarissa; others were the learned ladies Elizabeth Carter, Catherine Talbot, and Hester Chapone. By this date Johnson had become something of a champion of women writers, and he gave particular support to the novelist Charlotte Lennox, although it is unlikely that he contributed more than a few lines (if that) to The Female Quixote (1752). A sequel to The Rambler came out as The Adventurer (1752–4), on which Johnson assisted the editor John Hawkesworth by contributing at least thirty papers, mostly grave in tone and philosophical in scope. A thoughtful example is the essay of 16 October 1753, defending the role of visionary ‘projectors’ in extending human control of the world: ‘Many that presume to laugh at projectors would consider a flight through the air in a winged chariot, and the movement of a mighty engine by the steam of water, as equally the dreams of mechanic lunacy’ (Yale Edition, 2.434).


Three days after Johnson's last issue of The Rambler, a moving discourse on the concept of finality, Elizabeth Johnson died at the age of sixty-three. She was buried at Bromley in Kent on 26 March 1752. Johnson, greatly distressed, did not attend the funeral, and while he wrote a sermon for the occasion Dr Taylor refused to deliver it, and it remained unpublished until 1788. The sermon takes as its text the opening words of the Anglican burial service, from St John's gospel, and admits candidly that ‘to show that grief is vain, is to afford very little comfort’ (Yale Edition, 14.267). Johnson praises his wife for her devotion, patience, and kindness—and this testimony ought to count for more than the second-hand account of scenes where Garrick mimicked a bibulous Tetty. For the remainder of his days Johnson composed special prayers in memory of his ‘dear’ wife, and on the last occasion, two years before his death, he wrote in his diary of the ‘repentance’ both partners had undergone for their faults and misdeeds (ibid., 1.319).

When the Dictionary came out Johnson was approaching forty-six. Now finally established as a writer, with a secure base in Gough Square, he had a growing circle of male and female friends. For a time he continued to think about remarriage, but potential brides either died or were found unworthy to succeed Elizabeth. Over the years Johnson's domestic life gradually took on an eccentric air as he admitted to his home a strange cast of derelicts and waifs. These included the blind poet Anna Williams, noted for her fractious ways; the black servant Frank Barber, who had arrived from Jamaica as a boy; the shabby Robert Levet, an unlicensed surgeon who had made a disastrous marriage; an obscure woman named Poll Carmichael, who may have been a former prostitute; and a widow called Elizabeth Desmoulins, who was the daughter of Johnson's godfather Samuel Swynfen and a conceivable candidate to be Johnson's intended second wife. It was a dysfunctional household, as Johnson told Hester Thrale: ‘Williams hates everybody. Levet hates Desmoulins and does not love Williams. Desmoulins hates them both. Poll loves none of them’ (Letters, 3.140). By the late 1770s, after the move to Bolt Court, there were at times seven awkward house-mates in residence, plus a servant. Johnson looked after this peculiar bunch of people with long-suffering kindness, and he helped Anna Williams to bring out a volume of her Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766). Those who tried to shift for themselves by leaving their protective environment soon got into trouble: Mrs Desmoulins was summoned for debt, while Frank Barber had to be rescued when he ran away to sea. Barber also made an unhappy marriage and after Johnson's death apparently frittered away the sizeable bequest made by his old master.

For all the disturbance produced by these living conditions, Johnson's career continued to blossom. He remained poor, and once in March 1756 Samuel Richardson came to his aid when he was arrested for a debt of about £5. Other signs were more hopeful: he had now been awarded the degree of master of arts by Oxford University, in time for the letters ‘A.M.’ to appear as an imprimatur on the title-page of the Dictionary. He had established a solid base in the university, and regularly visited Trinity College to call on the scholar and poet Thomas Warton, who became professor of poetry in 1757. A year before this Johnson was appointed editor of a new journal called the Literary Magazine. Among the most notable of his many contributions was a review published in the summer of 1757, devoted to a complacent book on metaphysics by Soame Jenyns. Johnson rips apart the Panglossian sentiments of his unfortunate adversary and substitutes his own hard-headed appraisal of life as it is actually lived by the majority of humankind. Some of Johnson's most incisive shorter pieces appeared in other journalistic outlets at this stage. The Literary Magazine carried forceful, if brief, essays on the opening phase of the Seven Years' War, including the martyrdom of Admiral Byng and the unsuccessful raid on Rochefort in September 1757. Johnson reviewed a wide selection of books, including a manual of beekeeping, a catalogue of Scottish bishops, a work by Stephen Hales on distilling sea water, and an onslaught on tea drinking by Joseph Hanway, which provoked a strong defence of the habit by Johnson, a confirmed addict. Hanway, he claimed, had exaggerated the harmful effects of ‘this watery luxury’, which he himself had not yet felt despite ‘soliciting them … year after year’ (Yale Edition, 11.252–3).

Johnson's concerns were as varied as ever at this date. One month he would be writing a short life of Frederick the Great; soon afterwards he would be attacking the management of the Foundling Hospital, London's prime charitable institution. Presciently he fixed on a work dealing with the struggles for the Ohio valley as a harbinger of imperial conflicts to come. But amid these miscellaneous writings he had a much larger undertaking now under way, although it was making slow progress: this was a renewed effort to carry out the edition of Shakespeare projected a decade earlier. Subscription proposals were issued in June 1756, with the firm of Tonson now on board as part of the promoting group of booksellers. Delivery was originally promised for 1757, but the years went by and the work remained incomplete until 1765.

This dereliction aside, Johnson had not been inactive. Between April 1758 and April 1760 he provided over 100 essays to a weekly journal called the Universal Chronicle. These papers, written in the guise of ‘the Idler’, were in a more relaxed style than those of The Rambler, dilating often on the follies incumbent on the literary life. The series gained great popularity and was reprinted in other organs up and down the country. Johnson made £84 from the collected edition, published in 1761. Among the best-known essays are nos. 60 and 61, satirizing the irresistible rise of a superficial man of the literary world called Dick Minim. ‘Criticism’, the first paper drily opens, ‘is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense’ (Yale Edition, 2.184). About the same time, on 20 April 1759, a very different work came before the world: this was Rasselas, otherwise known as The Prince of Abyssinia, an adaptation of the French conte grafted on to the Oriental tale. The central characters embark on an educative grand tour of an imaginary Africa, proceeding into Egypt, and encounter as they go a succession of mortifying episodes which show the delusive nature of most quests for human happiness. The book cost 5 shillings for two small volumes; Johnson is said to have written the work in the evenings of a single week. He was paid £100 for the first edition, money used to defray costs of the funeral service for Samuel's mother. Sarah Johnson had died about 20 January 1759 at the age of almost ninety and had been buried in Lichfield on 23 January. Once more there was an absentee, as her son did not put in an appearance, although Samuel knew of her final illness and had written to her three times in her final week on earth. ‘I am very much grieved at my mother's death’, he told his stepdaughter Lucy Porter soon afterwards, ‘and do not love to think nor to write about it’ (Letters, 1.183). It was not until the winter of 1761–2 that Johnson, somehow liberated by bereavement, returned to his home town after a long unbroken sojourn in London.

Pensioner and clubman

The accession of George III in 1760 meant that for the first time in his adult lifetime Johnson could look on the monarchy with some approval, and hope for a loosening of the grip that the whig ascendancy had maintained for almost half a century. He began to appear in the eyes of many a figure of authority, ‘Dictionary Johnson’, even though financial pressures made him move to smaller lodgings, first in Gray's Inn and then in Inner Temple Lane. In July 1762 relief came when he was awarded a pension of £300 a year by the first lord of the Treasury, the earl of Bute, perhaps less for services rendered than as an encouragement to support the new administration. Opponents were quick to leap on this as an act of corrupt compliance with the unpopular Bute regime, and for many years Johnson had to endure savage attacks on his integrity as a writer.

Johnson's rise to greater prominence brought with it a widening array of social contacts. At a philanthropic meeting on 1 May 1760 he had his only recorded meeting with Benjamin Franklin. Johnson had been a member of the Society of Arts since 1756, and took a hand in promoting its major exhibition of paintings in 1760. Among his colleagues was Joshua Reynolds, whom he first met c.1756 and with whom he took a holiday jaunt to Devon during the late summer of 1762. The nucleus of the familiar Johnson circle was already in place: by now his acquaintances included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Thomas Percy, Topham Beauclerk, Bennett Langton, and Charles Burney. In May 1763 there burst into this constellation a startling newcomer named James Boswell, who achieved a long-standing desire at the age of twenty-two when he chanced to encounter Johnson in a bookshop off Covent Garden. Something in the ambitious young man lifted the spirits of the great man, who allowed him access almost daily until Boswell left for the continent on 6 August; the two drove to Harwich, where they ‘embraced and parted with tenderness’ on the quayside (Boswell, Life, 1.472). Most of the group surrounding Johnson served as founder members of the famous Literary Club, although Boswell and Percy were forced to wait a few years for admission, as was (most pointedly) Johnson's old ally Garrick.

A different world opened up in 1765 when Johnson made the acquaintance of the rich Thrale family. The husband Henry was a businessman and MP, while his wife Hester was a well-born woman with literary interests and considerable social gifts. She soon became Johnson's most confidential friend. In addition to their home at the family brewery in Southwark, the Thrales had inherited a country estate at Streatham, 10 miles south of central London. Johnson first visited the couple in 1766, and within a few years he was allocated his own quarters at Streatham Park, where he spent prolonged periods. A chemical laboratory was even set up there in 1771 for his use, until Henry Thrale decided that the would-be scientist might have an accident owing to his short sight and go up in smoke. A library wing was added to the house, and here in 1780 Thrale hung up thirteen portraits by Reynolds, with pictures of his own wife and daughter joined by the principal members of Johnson's circle. Some of the most detailed knowledge available of Johnson's daily existence comes from the Anecdotes which Hester Thrale (then Piozzi) compiled after his death, drawing on their intimacy in the last fifteen years of his life. It has even been speculated that he engaged in masochistic practices with Hester. The evidence for this includes a mysterious padlock left in her care in 1768; a line in Johnson's diary for 1771, referring in Latin to some ‘mad reflection on shackles and hand-cuffs’ (Johnson, Yale Edition, 1.140); and a strange letter in French, which he addressed to her in June 1773 (Letters, 2.38–9) and which alludes persistently to bondage. The suggestion may go along with other ‘dark hints’ in the biography by Sir John Hawkins (1787) that Johnson harboured some guilty secret about his sexual past. In the present state of knowledge it is impossible to confirm or deny the stories.

Altogether, as he moved through his fifties, Johnson was travelling more. He began to pay regular visits to his old haunts in Lichfield, Birmingham, Ashbourne, and Oxford, meeting long-standing friends such as Hector, Taylor, and William Adams. A further contact in the midlands was the local poet Anna Seward; her father, a canon of Lichfield, was married to a daughter of the schoolmaster John Hunter. In later years Anna turned violently against Johnson. Other trips took him to Lincolnshire, to Northamptonshire, and to Cambridge, where he conversed on the subject of his old acquaintance Christopher Smart. As he became less rooted in the metropolis, and found himself distracted by his social engagements, his literary productivity slowed in the 1760s, with only a few smaller items such as his exposure of the notorious Cock Lane ghost in February 1762. This brought on him the obloquy of Charles Churchill, a dissolute clergyman and friend of Wilkes, who possessed great skill as a satirist; Johnson found it hard to live down his sneering portrayal of the overbearing Pomposo. One of the more effective thrusts in Churchill's poem, The Ghost, concerns the long-delayed edition of Shakespeare:

He for subscribers baits his hook,
And takes their cash—but where's the book?

At last Johnson completed his work, and he was able to meet his critics in the eye when publication took place in October 1765. The eight volumes contain the full canon of accepted plays by Shakespeare, excluding Pericles, but none of the poems; the volumes are famous for pithy textual commentary, as well as discreet analysis of earlier editions. They contain decisive critical judgments on each play, with a masterly aside on Falstaff and a candid admission by the editor of his feelings of shock at the death of Cordelia, together with a humanely poised preface. The work further confirmed Johnson's stature, and a second edition was soon required. He obtained a total of £475 for the two editions. During the summer Johnson had received the degree of doctor of laws from Dublin University, thus permitting the designation ‘Dr Johnson’ which has been his regular public appellation ever since. He moved house again, taking his strange menagerie along with him to another lodging off Fleet Street which happened to be named Johnson's Court.

Although he was now comfortably into middle age, Johnson retained a sprightly and almost boyish side. With his younger friends Beauclerk and Langton he had always been ready for a ‘frisk’ at any hour of the day or night. According to one story he used to walk the streets at night with the Italian writer Giuseppe Baretti; there was a strange sequel in October 1769 when Baretti found himself charged with committing a murder in the Haymarket. The Johnson circle turned out in force to support their friend, and to give character references in court when he was tried at the Old Bailey. Their evidence had its effect, as Baretti was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence. More opportunities for relaxation arose when Johnson met Hester Thrale: he spent many happy hours improvising light verse and playing with her children, especially the precocious Hester Maria, known as Queeney. A great believer in pleasure, he commended innocent amusements and refused to join the fashionable clamour against the dissipations of luxury. He understood the therapeutic benefit of trifling pursuits, and as he ‘delighted in exercising his mind on the science of numbers’ (Boswell, Life, 3.207) he took great satisfaction in performing feats of mental arithmetic when feeling disturbed. Among his numerous pieces of miscellaneous writing in middle life was introductory material to the first book in English on the game of draughts, written by William Payne, ‘teacher of mathematics’ (1756). Characteristically Johnson remarked in his dedication, ‘The same skill, and often the same degree of skill, is exerted in great and little things’.

By February 1766 Boswell had returned from an extended grand tour, and from then on he contrived to spend a good deal of time with his idol whenever he could escape his responsibilities in Scotland. The importunate Boswell arranged for Johnson's circle of acquaintance to grow. Sometimes this was agreeable, as when the Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli was presented to Johnson in October 1769; sometimes it took more manipulation, as when Boswell lured him into dining in company with John Wilkes on 15 May 1776—a meeting Johnson enjoyed more than he expected. Another young friend was Robert Chambers, who succeeded Sir William Blackstone in 1766 as Vinerian professor of law at Oxford. Chambers found great difficulty in producing the lectures required by his post, and Johnson travelled to the university to assist in their composition. His role remained virtually an unbroken secret until the 1980s. He lent support generously to other scholars, often supplying dedications anonymously, and advising Percy in the compilation of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). At the end of 1768 Johnson rejoiced to see Joshua Reynolds installed as the first president of the Royal Academy, an event that was quickly followed by a knighthood, and in the following year he himself became an honorary professor in ancient literature at the academy. Though never deeply versed in painting, he attended the presidential lectures Reynolds delivered at regular intervals, and gave his friend some help when these were published collectively as Discourses.

However, it was the Literary Club, formed at the instigation of Reynolds in 1764, that saw Johnson's intellect shining most radiantly in a semi-public forum. One of the founder members, John Hawkins, grated on his colleagues and soon left the group. Johnson had no regrets, as he thought Hawkins a brute and, worse, ‘a most unclubable man’ (Diary and Letters, 1.40–41). During Johnson's lifetime the group expanded from nine to thirty-five, and he had little relish for the company of some newcomers: Adam Smith was one with whom he apparently preferred not to consort. Nevertheless, he attended quite faithfully as long as health permitted, and served as the focus of conversation and collegiality. Many of the most distinguished minds of the age came together in the club, even though women were excluded and political and social factors ruled out men such as John Wilkes and Joseph Priestley. Leading practitioners in almost every field became members, ranging from Reynolds, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith, Boswell, Burney, Edward Gibbon, Smith, Percy, and Chambers to the politicians Charles James Fox and William Windham, the orientalist William Jones, the dramatists Richard Brinsley Sheridan and George Colman, the Shakespearian scholars Edmond Malone and George Steevens, the writers Joseph and Thomas Warton, the virtuosi Lord Charlemont and Sir William Hamilton, the lawyer William Scott, and the scientist Joseph Banks. Yet every one of these willingly ceded pre-eminence to Johnson, who was able to cow even the most self-confident speakers such as Burke, Fox, and Garrick into submission. This he did less by purely aggressive behaviour than by his stunning range of knowledge, his speed of thought, his verbal articulateness, and his command of argumentative technique. The club had no agenda, no platform, and no transactions to record, but it left an indelible mark on the high culture of the age.

Home and abroad

As a new decade opened, Johnson—now into his sixties—turned again to politics. A serious proposal came from William Strahan, the publisher of major works by Adam Smith, David Hume, and William Robertson, that Johnson should join him as a member of parliament. In 1771 Strahan recommended his friend to the Treasury as one with ‘perfect good affection to his Majesty’. It was a long shot, and nothing came of this bold initiative, even though Burke gave it as his opinion that, had Johnson entered the Commons early in life, he would have proved himself ‘the greatest speaker that ever was there’ (Boswell, Life, 2.137–9). At this point Johnson chose to resume the career as a political writer which he had largely abandoned a generation earlier. His first pamphlet, The False Alarm, published on 17 January 1770, dealt with the struggle between parliament and the renegade member John Wilkes, and put the government case with wit and energy. In the following year he wrote Thoughts on a territorial dispute between Spain and Britain concerning the Falkland Islands, issued on 26 March 1774. In The Patriot, which came out on 12 October 1774, he backed Lord North's ministry against Wilkites and other opposition groups, in the hope of assisting Henry Thrale to retain his parliamentary seat in Southwark, as did indeed occur. The last pamphlet in this sequence, Taxation No Tyranny (issued on 8 March 1775), was concerned with the thorny question of American independence, then just on the point of boiling over into violent insurrection. Yet amid this activity Johnson had not abandoned his old role as lexicographer: in 1773 he supervised publication of a revised ‘fourth’ version of his Dictionary, incorporating many important additions in its coverage. A fresh edition of the Shakespeare edition appeared in the same year, with help from George Steevens. At this time Johnson's physical condition and psychological health were equally fragile; his old bouts of melancholy sometimes returned to plague him. He spent much of his time with the Thrales, often visiting them in their new house at Brighton.

However, it was a much longer expedition that did most to raise his spirits. In August 1773 he set off on a three-month journey to the highlands and islands of Scotland, in company with the assiduous Boswell, who had set up the trip. Together with a servant, the two men travelled up the east coast from Edinburgh via St Andrews and Aberdeen, reaching Inverness on 28 August; from this point they encountered a much harsher world, necessitating some rugged hikes over desolate mountain regions. Passing through the western highlands to Skye, the voyagers repeatedly came across vestiges of the epic events of 1745–6, when Prince Charles Edward had mounted his unsuccessful rising and then undertaken his desperate flight through the heather. Johnson and Boswell spent a month on Skye, their stay prolonged by bad weather. Next they proceeded through the Inner Hebrides to Iona and Mull before they returned to the mainland on 22 October, not without relief after some perilous moments on their journey. They visited Glasgow and Auchinleck, Boswell's family home, before they got back to Edinburgh on 9 November. This courageous venture into an almost uncharted world resulted in two extraordinary books. Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) has the chatty informality of a ‘rough’ guide: its focus is on Johnson, as it describes his charged encounters with the native population, whether humble cottagers or important personages like Lord Monboddo and Boswell's formidable father Lord Auchinleck. Johnson's very different work, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, was published in January 1775; it earned him 200 guineas, as well as the admiration of George III and considerable success in terms of sales. While on the trip, Johnson had not thought it beneath himself to engage in horseplay, imitating a kangaroo (which James Cook's first voyage had recently brought to the attention of the West) and allowing Boswell to dress him up in highland costume; but the book shows nothing of these episodes.

The Journey aroused some adverse comment in Scotland, on account of its alleged bias against the nation, but Johnson was able to shrug off most of this criticism. In the text he had treated with disdain the supposed epics of the ancient Gaelic warrior-bard Ossian, describing the exploits of his father, Fingal, which had become an exemplar of sublime and unclassical writing. Johnson expressed his view that the poems were in fact a modern concoction by their ‘editor’, James Macpherson. When an incensed Macpherson complained about this treatment, Johnson repeated his challenge for the original manuscripts to be produced, if they could be. Macpherson's demand for retraction produced a famous response in which Johnson defied his opponent in the face of his ‘impudent and foolish’ letter. Such quarrels aside, the book is a profound meditation on the nature of primitive society, especially on one reliant on an oral culture; Johnson confronts a realm of experience foreign to the Enlightenment illuminati of London and Edinburgh, including a Gaelic legacy and vestiges of a Catholic past, as well as a degree of poverty and deprivation. The Journey stands as one of its author's most eloquent and challenging works, a great document of cultural studies before the topic was invented.

In the following year Johnson embarked on a more modest venture. Virtually the whole of the three months from July to September was devoted to a tour of north Wales, the home country of Hester Thrale. She joined the party along with her husband and the nine-year-old Queeney, who had long been a favourite with Johnson. This trip was less eventful than its predecessor, although there were significant stops at Lichfield and Ashbourne when the travellers met Lucy Porter, Anna Seward, and John Taylor, as well as a long-time friend, Mary Cobb, and the doctor and writer Erasmus Darwin. Johnson never turned the journal he kept into a book, although it was ultimately published in 1816; Hester Thrale wrote her own account. The final jaunt took place from September to November 1775, when the Thrales and their language tutor Giuseppe Baretti took Johnson to Paris—the sole occasion on which he left Britain. Johnson left only brief notes concerning the journey, while Hester wrote a fuller report: the accounts were published together as The French Journals of Mrs Thrale and Dr Johnson (1932).

Plans were subsequently laid to fulfil an ambition Johnson had long held when the Thrales and Baretti arranged to conduct him to Italy in 1776. The scheme perished when the Thrales lost their only surviving son at the age of nine, so that Johnson never made his anticipated journey to the centre of Christendom. Equally, his life had been saddened by the sudden death of Goldsmith on 4 April 1774. Against this he made some new friends among the learned ladies of the day, including Hannah More when she went to London in 1774. In March 1777 he met Frances, known as Fanny, the daughter of his old acquaintance Dr Charles Burney. Her spectacular début as a novelist with Evelina (1778) was encouraged by Johnson, as well as by the Thrales and their friends, and she continued to delight the circle in the following years. Another occasion of pride was the award in March 1775 of a doctorate from Johnson's alma mater. The memory of his reckless and severely curtailed spell in the university was now largely effaced.

The year 1776 witnessed great events in the world, and despite his frustration over the Italian trip Johnson too found his life full of incident. He moved a small distance to his last home at 8 Bolt Court, located in yet another alley leading off Fleet Street. A springtime ramble to Oxford, Lichfield, and Ashbourne is known from a detailed report by Boswell, who was permitted to accompany his elderly friend. Another jaunt followed to Bath, to see the Thrales: while there Johnson and Boswell took the chance of visiting Bristol, where they met Hannah More and investigated the store of manuscripts left by Thomas Chatterton, whose Rowley poems had become a cause célèbre of the day. Late in the year Johnson was in Brighton with the Thrales, but his health was not good. The following year saw a similar pattern: spells of sickness, interrupted by a journey to Oxford and to the midlands where he was joined for a memorable week in Ashbourne by Boswell, whose account of this episode forms a high point in the Life. In the summer Johnson's other main concern had been the expected execution of the Revd William Dodd, who had been convicted of forgery; even though Johnson had only a slight acquaintance with Dodd, he threw himself energetically into an unsuccessful campaign to save the clergyman's life. By comparison the following year was uneventful, although it did feature one immortal sequence in Boswell's narrative, describing an unexpected meeting between Johnson and a forgotten college mate from his early days at Oxford, named Oliver Edwards. Though basically comic, it is an episode fraught with a range of human emotions, as Johnson struggles to recapture his youthful self amid the trite importunities of his contemporary.

The last phase

As he approached seventy Johnson underwent more distressing experiences. The death of Garrick on 20 January 1779 was followed by a resplendent funeral at Westminster Abbey, which the Literary Club attended in full force. Johnson himself was in poor health and repeatedly under the doctor's care. Then in June Henry Thrale suffered the first of a number of severe strokes from which he never fully recovered. The brewery had long been mismanaged by the indolent Thrale, and for much of the time Johnson had to help Hester to keep it afloat. None the less the old man was able to initiate one more literary project, which proved to be the ultimate success in his career. This took the form of a series of prefaces to a new collection of the English poets, best-known today as The Lives of the Poets. In a contract signed on 29 March 1777, Johnson had agreed with a consortium of booksellers to supply ‘a concise account’ of some fifty poets: he undertook to do the work for £200, and though he eventually received twice this amount it is generally accepted that he could have held out for a much bigger sum. The first instalment came out in March 1779, the second in 1780, and the third in May 1781. Although Johnson's brusque treatment of well-connected nonentities gave rise to some hostile commentary, his major lives were quickly recognized as setting a new standard for English literary biography. In particular, the surveys of Cowley, Milton, Dryden, Swift, and Pope exemplify Johnson's serious concern with the deepest springs of creativity, as well as his ability to explore with considerable insight some individuals whose character and work aroused profound antipathy in him. Even in an age of greater theoretical sophistication, his reading of mainstream poetry from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries remains canonical, by reason of its attention to verbal detail, its decisive judgments, and its robust expression.

One aspect of Johnson's career illustrated by the Lives is the good state of relations he maintained with the London publishing world. Born into the family of a bookseller, he enjoyed a close affinity with many of the leading figures in the trade—from Cave and Dodsley through to Andrew Millar, Thomas Longman, and William Strahan. Several of these men were personal friends: Strahan acted as his banker in later years, and the Revd George Strahan, son of the publisher, edited Johnson's prayers in 1785. A number of his later volumes were issued by Thomas Cadell, among the most respected booksellers of the age. Johnson was equally intimate with printers such as Richardson and Edmund Allen. It is natural that he should be regarded as an exemplary figure in the history of the book, one who helped to develop a strong publishing industry while advancing his own literary career by exploiting the market forces of the day.

Despite the triumphant achievement of the Lives, the shades were closing in on Johnson. He lost more of his friends—Beauclerk in 1780, the enfeebled Henry Thrale in 1781, and then successively his long-time house-mates Levet in 1782 and Anna Williams in 1783. One result was the noble elegy ‘On the Death of Dr Levet’, commending the useful life of this rough and dishevelled individual. Johnson's own health deteriorated steadily, with emphysema and dropsy added to the list of ailments. On 17 June 1783 he suffered a stroke and was rendered speechless for two days. Gradually he recovered from this blow, and he thought for a while that his general health had taken a turn for the better. But the respite was not long. A painful tumour on the scrotum made his last days excruciating, even after some courageous surgery performed by the patient on himself. It became apparent to his friends that he was unlikely to live long. In June 1784, after consulting Reynolds and other friends, Boswell approached Lord Chancellor Thurlow for the grant of a royal pension to enable the invalid to spend some time in Italy, as he dreaded the English winter, but eventually plans fell through.

One more incident clouded Johnson's final days: for a while it had been apparent that Hester Thrale was seeking to detach herself from her old friend. Any decision on her part to remarry in 1784 might well have brought a jealous reaction from Johnson, but when he learned that her new husband was to be the singing teacher Gabriel Piozzi—poor, Italian, and Catholic—his repressed feelings burst out. On 2 July he wrote her a short and bitter letter upbraiding her on the step she had ‘ignominiously’ taken (Letters, 4.338). The marriage took place on 23 July, and the Piozzis left for the continent at the start of September, with the breach between the two old friends only partially healed. For the remainder of her long life Hester Piozzi revered the memory of Johnson and did much to keep his name before the public. As for Boswell, his own final meeting with Johnson took place on 30 June, when the old man walked away into Bolt Court for ever ‘with a kind of pathetick briskness’ (Boswell, Life, 4.339). Once the news of Johnson's death reached Boswell back in Edinburgh, he was left deeply distressed. This was one reason why it took him years to make progress on the biography in which he had invested so much for so long.

The last months of Johnson's life were diversified by an occasional social outing, including dinners at the Literary Club as late as June 1784, as well as evenings with a new group which began to meet at the Essex Head tavern, off the Strand, late in 1783 [see Essex Head Club]. He was able to make visits to Lichfield, Ashbourne, and Oxford, completing cycles of alliance and attachment which went back well over fifty years. But his illness grew worse, and on 8 December 1784 he made his final will, with a codicil on the following day. As he sank into death, numerous friends including Reynolds, Langton, Windham, and Burney called on him at 8 Bolt Court: at first he spoke about his spiritual condition, and then towards the end he lay composedly, enduring the pain with calm resignation. About seven in the evening on 13 December he died at his home, without any struggle, supposedly after uttering the words ‘iam moriturus’ (‘now about to die’). He was seventy-five. His funeral and burial took place at Westminster Abbey on 20 December. A monument, to which his friends subscribed, was erected in St Paul's Cathedral in 1796. In his will he made many bequests to his friends, leaving the residue of the estate to his servant Francis Barber. His library of some 3000 volumes was sold by James Christie the elder on 16–19 February 1785, realizing £242.

Johnson and posterity

Already a celebrity in his lifetime, Johnson was catapulted into further fame by his death. Half a dozen biographers quickly launched themselves on the market, so that the Anecdotes of Hester Piozzi (1786) and the life by Sir John Hawkins (1787) entered what was already a crowded and contentious field. However, it was the appearance of Boswell's magisterial biography (1791), filled with a new density of personal detail, that made the quiddities of a single individual so familiar to an immense range of readers. In the early nineteenth century Thomas Babington Macaulay gave a faintly comic reading of Johnson, deploring his bigotry while commending his mental powers, and Thomas Carlyle hailed the sage as a tragic hero embodying the destiny of the man of letters. Both these writers wove their assessments around reviews of Boswell's life, and for generations it was this ‘Johnsoniad’, as Carlyle termed it, that kept alive the picture of Johnson as a doughty and difficult man, battling with resilience and good humour against the onslaughts of fate. In this guise he has turned up as a character in novels, films, and television comedies, and has even made a fictional appearance as a private investigator. Overall it is not altogether a false picture, even though commentary in the second half of the twentieth century sought to roll back this stereotypical view. Academic scholarship has gone a long way to reclaim Johnson as a serious figure in intellectual history, but a stubborn popular image has grown up of a learned and aggressive conversationalist, brawling against his friends and adversaries with a bad temper but a tender heart. This version of Sam Johnson contains enough glimmerings of the complex truth to survive even today.

Almost 6 feet tall and raw-boned, Johnson towered over most of his contemporaries. His physique was as clumsy as his appearance was unprepossessing: he had a face disfigured by scrofula, and a body afflicted by involuntary convulsions. He suffered too from defective eyesight and hearing. More disconcertingly, his behaviour was marked by odd grunts and head-rolling, and despite heroic efforts at politeness, his manners and personal habits struck fastidious people as gross. A lengthening list of ailments finally made his invalid condition obvious to everyone, and often his psychological distress caused him to look still more peculiar in company. On first introduction, Johnson appeared to William Hogarth an ‘idiot’, until the monstrous figure began to speak with such eloquence that he seemed rather to be inspired (Boswell, Life, 1.147). He even contrived to master physical activities like swimming, rowing, and riding, and more than once gave evidence of prowess with his fists in self-defence. His whole life was a triumph of the mind over the recalcitrant body, a victory of an inspired savage over the timid proprieties of good breeding and complacent orthodoxy.

Wracked by acute states of anxiety and depression, doubtful of his own industry, Johnson produced works of immense scope and energy. Uncertain of his own salvation, he lived a life of almost exemplary piety. Humble before God and respectful of established authority, he was without a grain of snobbery. Never rich, he behaved with the utmost generosity to the poor, whose condition he viewed without sentimentality. He showed kindness towards the weak and the lowly, children, and animals, his attitude to the last reflected in a gesture of gruff affection towards his cat Hodge. Even his attitude to women could be called fairly enlightened by the standards of the time. Nothing is more indicative of his nature than his tenderness towards beggars and prostitutes. The Life contains one ‘well attested’ example, when Johnson found a poor woman of the town lying exhausted in the street, carried her home, and had her taken into care for a long period ‘at considerable expense’ (Boswell, Life, 4.321–2). On the other hand he had the purest scorn for foolish idlers, however well connected socially, and he showed himself willing to defy the proprieties by delivering a verbal battery on the person of Lord Chesterfield, one of the most punctilious and blue-blooded members of the aristocracy. Often irascible, he seldom bore a grudge.

Johnson was arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history. His range as a writer is astonishing: he excelled in criticism, satire, biography, the moral essay, fiction, scholarly editing, travel writing, political pamphleteering, journalism, and lexicography. He produced distinguished poetry both in English and in Latin. Apart from this, he composed noteworthy sermons, impressive prayers, a moving diary, and superb letters. Although he did not write any sustained historical work, his library was full of books dealing with the ancient world, besides medieval and modern Europe: much of his output shows the extent of his immersion in the study of the past. Well versed in the law, theology, and medicine, plus several branches of science and practical endeavour, he had the logical rigour of an advocate, the common sense of a successful businessman (as his role in shoring up the Thrales' brewery indicates), the hands-on abilities of an engineer, and the curiosity of a research chemist. He survives both as the fount of amusing and instructive anecdotes, a tribute to his human worth, and as the author of enduring masterpieces, a tribute to his intellectual distinction. Outside Shakespeare, perhaps no one in English history has become such a representative figure of his age, and no one has done more to dignify the literary profession in Britain.

Pat Rogers  DNB

Artist biography

Reynolds was the leading English portraitist of the 18th century. Through study of ancient and Italian Renaissance art, and of the work of RembrandtRubens and Van Dyck, he brought great variety and dignity to British portraiture.

Reynolds was born at Plympton in Devon, the son of a headmaster and fellow of Balliol College, Oxford: a more educated background than that of most painters. He was apprenticed in 1740 to the fashionable London portraitist Thomas Hudson, who also trained Wright of Derby. He spent 1749-52 abroad, mainly in Italy, and set up practice in London shortly after his return.

He soon established himself as the leading portrait painter, though he was never popular with George III. He was a key figure in the intellectual life of London, and a friend of Dr Johnson. When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, Reynolds was elected its first President. Although believing that history painting was the noblest work of the painter, he had little opportunity to practise it, and his greatest works are his portraits. 

Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723–1792), portrait and history painter and art theorist, was born on 16 July 1723 at Plympton, Devon, the seventh of the eleven children of Samuel Reynolds (1681–1745), schoolmaster, and his wife, Theophila Potter (1688–1756) of Great Torrington, Devon. Reynolds's maternal grandfather was Humphrey Potter, rector of Nymet Rowland and curate-in-charge of Lostwithiel, his great-grandfather being the eminent mathematician the Revd Thomas Baker. Samuel Reynolds's family also numbered several prominent clergymen. His father, John, had been vicar of St Thomas's, Exeter, and prebendary of Exeter. His uncle, also John, was a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and Eton College, while another uncle, Joshua, was a fellow and bursar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and rector of Stoke Charity, Hampshire. The young Joshua Reynolds was probably named after this uncle. Yet in the baptismal register of Plympton St Maurice, Reynolds's name was entered on 30 July 1723 as ‘Joseph son of Samul Reynolds Clerk’, the entry being amended only after his death. This may have been a simple clerical error, or perhaps Samuel Reynolds had a change of heart and renamed his seventh child.

Education and apprenticeship, 1723–1743

On 9 December 1711 Samuel Reynolds, a former scholar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, had married at Monksleigh, near Torrington, Devon, having given up his fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford, earlier that year. Four years later, at the age of thirty-four, he was appointed master of the free grammar school, Plympton. It was here that Joshua Reynolds was educated by his father. Classes were small and the curriculum, in line with more advanced Lockean precepts, would have extended beyond the parameters of classical scholarship, to include geography, arithmetic, and drawing. In addition to his teaching Reynolds's father maintained regular correspondence with friends on topics ranging from medicine to metaphysics. He observed the stars through his telescope, cast horoscopes, and wrote treatises on subjects as diverse as theology and gout. Reynolds, too, conversed with his father's friends, notably the Revd Zachariah Mudge, whom Edmund Burke later described as ‘very learned & thinking & much inclined to Philosophy in the spirit of the Platonists’ (Hilles, Literary Career, 7). In addition to formal lessons, the young Reynolds was encouraged to read independently. Into his commonplace book (MS, Yale University) he copied passages from classical authors: Theophrastus, Plutarch, Seneca, Marcus Antonius, and Ovid, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Addison, Steele, and Aphra Behn. Significantly, the commonplace book also includes extracts from the writings on art theory by Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, and André Félibien. The most influential text studied by Reynolds, however, was Jonathan Richardson's An Essay on the Theory of Painting of 1715. Lost for nearly 200 years, Reynolds's own annotated copy of Richardson's Essay turned up in a Cambridge bookshop, bearing the signature ‘J. Reynolds Pictor’ (G. Watson, ‘Joshua Reynolds's copy of Richardson’, Review of English Studies, 14, 1991, 9–12).

Reynolds's parents encouraged all their children to take a practical interest in art, his elder sister, Elizabeth, recalling how they had been allowed to draw on the whitewashed walls of a long passage with burnt sticks. As James Boswell later noted, Reynolds's ‘two eldest sisters did little things … and he copied them. He used to copy all the frontispieces and plates in books’ (Hilles, Portraits, 20–21). Several of these copies have survived (J. Edgcumbe, ‘Reynolds's earliest drawings’, Burlington Magazine, 129, 1987, 724–6). They include a slight perspective drawing from The Practice of Perspective by Jean Dubreuil, a detail of a library from William Parson's English translation of Félibien, The Tent of Darius Explain'd, and a figure adapted from Jacob Cats's Spiegel of 1656.

Reynolds's first recorded portrait, made at the age of twelve, dates from 1735. The subject was a local clergyman named Thomas Smart, tutor to Reynolds's boyhood friend Richard Edgcumbe. The painting, apparently made at the behest of Lord Edgcumbe, was executed in a boathouse using shipwright's paint and a piece of sailcloth. In 1738, when Reynolds was fourteen, his father entered into correspondence with a neighbouring landowner, James Bulteel, concerning his son's career prospects. Bulteel suggested that Joshua should go to London, offering to introduce him personally to ‘those in artistic circles’ (Hudson, 14). It was also suggested that Reynolds might train under his father as an apothecary, Reynolds himself declaring that he would rather be an apothecary than ‘an ordinary painter’ (ibid., 15). However, in the spring of 1740 it was agreed that Reynolds should be bound to the Devonian artist Thomas Hudson for a period of four years, rather than a full seven-year term as stipulated by the artists' guild, the Painter–Stainers' Company.

Hudson lived and worked in Newman's Row, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, although he still spent a good deal of time catering to his native west country clientele. Reynolds's daily routine at this time involved running errands, preparing canvases, painting accessories in portraits, and perhaps even making replicas of Hudson's pictures. He also made drawings from casts of antique statuary, including one of the Laocoön. Even so, in later life Reynolds regretted that he had not received a proper academic training, lacking ‘the facility of drawing the naked figure, which an artist ought to have’ (Works, 1.xlix). In 1821 over fifty of his academic studies from both the male and the female figure were sold at auction. In terms of sheer numbers alone these drawings suggest that Reynolds had been in the habit of drawing from the living model, probably at the St Martin's Lane Academy.

In Hudson's studio Reynolds also made copies after pen-and-ink drawings by Guercino. They are uniformly of a very high quality, and Hudson retained several of them among his own old-master drawings collection. Reynolds's knowledge of old-master paintings also developed during this time, principally through attending auctions, Hudson being in the habit of allowing him to bid on his behalf. It was at one such auction, at the sale of the earl of Oxford in March 1742, that Reynolds managed covertly to shake the hand of one of his boyhood heroes, Alexander Pope.

Early career, 1743–1749

Reynolds's apprenticeship with Hudson ended abruptly in the summer of 1743, occasioned apparently by a minor disagreement over Reynolds's refusal to carry out an errand. The quarrel was quickly patched up, and their relationship resumed on a more equal footing. By December 1744 Samuel Reynolds reported that ‘Joshua by his master's means is introduced into a club composed of the most famous men in their profession’ (Leslie and Taylor, 1.28). This club, composed of artists and connoisseurs with a common interest in old-master prints and drawings, probably met at Old Slaughter's Coffee House in St Martin's Lane, which the contemporary engraver and diarist George Vertue described as ‘a rendezvous of persons of all languages and nations, Gentry, artists and others’ (Vertue, Note books, 3.91).

By the autumn of 1743 Reynolds was dividing his portrait practice between London and Plymouth Dock. He made the most of the opportunities presented, his father reporting in January 1744 that he ‘has drawn twenty already, and has ten more bespoke’ (Cotton, Works, 58). In order to expedite the process, he briefly went into partnership with an unnamed artist who painted the bodies while Reynolds concentrated on the heads. On one occasion this resulted in the inadvertent production of a portrait of a man with two hats, one on his head and the other tucked under his arm (Whitley, 1.104). It was during this time, according to Reynolds, that he ‘became very careless about his profession, and lived … in a great deal of dissipation with but indifferent company’ (J. Prior, Life of Edmond Malone, 1860, 404–5). The few surviving portraits of this period, notably those of the Kendall family (Mannings, Reynolds, 1285–6), indicate that Reynolds was then working very much in the manner of Hudson, turning out competent, if unexceptional, works.

Reynolds's burgeoning talent emerges more clearly in the portraits of his immediate family, painted about 1745–6, notably those of his sister Frances (known as Fanny) Reynolds, his father (City Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth), and his own self-portrait (priv. coll.). The principal pictorial influence on all three portraits is Rembrandt, the artist who was to influence Reynolds more profoundly than any other, especially in his earlier career. During this period Reynolds also painted a number of self-portraits in the manner of Rembrandt, of which the most celebrated (c.1749; NPG) shows him peering out towards the viewer, shading his eyes with his hand.

After his father's death on Christmas day 1745 Reynolds's mother, Theophila, vacated the schoolhouse at Plympton and moved to Torrington, where she lived with her eldest daughter, Mary, until her own death in 1756. Reynolds, meanwhile, took a house in Plymouth Dock with two of his unmarried sisters, Fanny and Jane. Although he was active in London, his principal patrons were from the west country, notably Richard Eliot, MP for St Germans and Liskeard and auditor and receiver-general to Frederick, prince of Wales, in Cornwall. In addition to his various portraits of members of the Eliot family, Reynolds painted their friend Captain John Hamilton (priv. coll.). When he saw this portrait many years later, Reynolds was ‘surprised to find it so well done; and comparing it with his later works, with that modesty which always accompanies genius, lamented that in such a series of years he should not have made a greater progress in his art’ (Malone, 1.xi).

By 1747 Reynolds was spending extended periods in London, now maintaining a studio in apartments on the west side of St Martin's Lane. Little is known about his personal life at that time, although he appears to have been romantically attached to a Miss Weston of Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, who may have been related to Bishop Stephen Weston of Exeter. The tone and content of the letters he wrote to her on his way to Italy (including one signed ‘From your slave’) indicate that they were on intimate terms. Other friends included the painters Robert and Simon Pine and John Wilkes, the radical. In November 1748 the Universal Magazine included Reynolds's name in a list of fifty-seven ‘Painters of our own nation now living, many of whom have distinguished themselves by their performances, and who are justly deemed eminent masters’. Of those named only Thomas Gainsborough was younger. In 1748 Reynolds was also commissioned by the corporation of Plympton to paint portraits of Lieutenant Paul Henry Ourry (Saltram, Devon) and Commodore George Edgcumbe (NMM), younger brother of Reynolds's boyhood friend Richard Edgcumbe. Through Edgcumbe, Reynolds became acquainted with Augustus Keppel, a younger son of the second earl of Albemarle, who on 26 April 1749 made an unscheduled stop at Plymouth on board the Centurion. Two weeks later, on 11 May, Reynolds set sail with Keppel for the Mediterranean.

Italy and France, 1749–1752

Reynolds travelled with Keppel from Plymouth to Minorca, with brief stops at Lisbon, Cadiz, and Gibraltar, and a detour to Morocco in order to secure the release of the imprisoned British consul. Reynolds had a pleasant journey, taking wine with Keppel in his cabin, reading his books, and observing a bull-fight in Spain. They arrived at Port Mahón on 18 August 1749. Here Reynolds suffered a riding accident in which he sustained injuries to his face, telling Miss Weston that his lips were ‘spo[iled now for] kissing’ (Letters, 7). Reynolds was compelled to remain on Minorca for longer than he had planned, although it gave him the opportunity to paint portraits of the British garrison stationed there, and earned him upwards of £100. Many years later an old soldier recalled to Fanny Burney: ‘He drew my picture there, and then he knew how to take a moderate price; but now I vow, ma'am, 'tis scandalous—scandalous indeed! To pay a fellow here seventy guineas for scratching out a head!’ (The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, ed. L. Troide, 1994, 3.414).

In January 1750 Reynolds left Port Mahón for Italy, and by Easter was in Rome. There he set about making copies of old-master paintings. They included a small copy of Raphael's School of Athens and a full-scale copy of Guido Reni's St Michael, which Reynolds recorded having made in Santa Maria della Concezione between 30 May and 10 June, and which his niece later presented to George IV. Reynolds spent many hours in the Vatican scrutinizing the work of Michelangelo and Raphael's frescoes in the Stanze. As he later recalled:

I found myself in the midst of works executed upon principles with which I was unacquainted: I felt my ignorance and stood abashed. Notwithstanding my disappointment, I proceeded to copy some of those excellent works. I viewed them again and again; I even affected to admire them, more than I really did. (Works, 1.xvi)

He also made a thorough inspection of the city's myriad churches and religious foundations, and the spacious private palaces owned by patrician families such as the Colonna, Borghese, and Barberini. His impressions, in the form of both sketches and written description, were recorded in notebooks (MSS, department of prints and drawings, BM; Sir John Soane's Museum, London; Harvard U., Fogg Art Museum; Metropolitan Museum, New York; Beinecke Library, Yale University; priv. coll.). Collectively the notebooks reveal that while Reynolds respected the high Renaissance he was instinctively drawn to the art of the later sixteenth century and seventeenth century, including a number of lesser-known artists such as Federico Barocci, Andrea Sacchi, and Sacchi's pupil Carlo Maratta.

Reynolds was a diligent student. He also had a keen sense of humour, as the series of caricatures he produced during his time in Rome reveal. Of these, the most ambitious was an inventive parody of Raphael's School of Athens (NG Ire.), depicting a rabble of assorted ‘milordi’, tutors, painters, and picture dealers, many of whom were close personal friends. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Reynolds did not undergo any sort of formal training in Italy. However, he formed friendships with a number of continental artists, including the young French decorative painter Gabriel-François Doyen, with whom he swore a vow of friendship before the statue of Marcus Aurelius, and Claude-Joseph Vernet, then among the most popular painters of Roman landscapes and seascapes. He also met an Italian youth, Giuseppe Marchi, who returned with him to England, becoming his pupil and lifelong factotum.

Reynolds left Rome on 5 April 1752. Following a brief visit to Naples he set out for Florence on 3 May, accompanied by the artists John Astley and Samuel Hone. They travelled via Assisi, Perugia, and Arezzo. In Florence the sculptor Joseph Wilton, whom he had known in Rome and whose portrait he now painted (NPG), acted as Reynolds's guide. Reynolds made a careful study of works in the Pitti Palace, including Raphael's Madonna della sedia, Titian's Mary Magdalen (‘an immense deal of hair, but painted to the utmost perfection’; Reynolds, ‘Notebooks’, BM, LB 12, fol. 29v), and two large paintings of Henry IV by Rubens (now in the Uffizi gallery, Florence). His predilection for mannerism surfaced once more in his enthusiastic comments on the art of Barocci and Matteo Rosselli and on the sculpture of Giambologna, whom he then rated as highly as Michelangelo.

On 4 July 1752 Reynolds left Florence for Bologna, where he expressed a particular admiration for Lodovico Carracci, an artist whom he was to regard with exaggerated respect throughout the rest of his life. After ten days in Bologna, Reynolds travelled to Venice via Modena, Parma, Mantua, and Ferrara, reaching Venice on 24 July 1752. There he spent time with the Italian painter Francesco Zuccarelli, analysing the technical methods of the great Venetian colourists Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. He also found time to make sketches of paintings by Giambattista Tiepolo. Improbably, his greatest praise was reserved for a large crucifixion in the church of San Lio, by the minor baroque artist Pietro Muttoni della Vecchia (1605–1678), a work which he declared to be ‘equal to any masters whatsoever’ (Reynolds, ‘Notebooks’, BM, LB 13, fols. 78r and 48v).

Reynolds left Venice on 16 August 1752, and travelled to Padua, Milan, and Turin. Late in August, accompanied by Marchi, he crossed the Alps, where he had a chance encounter with his old master, Thomas Hudson, and the French sculptor François Roubiliac, who were on their way to Rome. Temporarily short of money, Reynolds journeyed alone to Paris by coach, Marchi following behind on foot. Reynolds arrived in Paris on 15 September, Marchi three days later (sketchbook, Metropolitan Museum, New York, fol. 178). In Paris Reynolds spent time with the architect William Chambers, whose fiancée he then painted (Kenwood House, London). He also looked at works by the old masters, including Van Dyck, Jordaens, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Titian. However, he concluded that the French ‘cannot boast above one painter of a truly just and correct taste’, Nicholas Poussin (Leslie and Taylor, 1.86–7). After a month Reynolds headed for Calais, where he was reunited with Hudson and Roubiliac. They crossed the channel to England together, Reynolds arriving in London with Marchi on 16 October. Reynolds did not return to Italy. However, he was to make two further visits to Paris in 1768 (9 September – 3 October) and 1771 (15 August to early September).

Appearance and character

Reynolds was about 5 feet 6 inches tall, with ruddy, rounded facial features. He was partially deaf, which caused him in later life to affect a large silver ear-trumpet. He blamed the affliction upon a chill caught in the Sistine Chapel, although it was probably hereditary, as was his slight harelip. ‘His pronunciation’, recalled a female acquaintance, ‘was tinctured with the accent of Devonshire; his features coarse, his outward appearance slovenly’ (C. Knight, Autobiography, ed. J. W. Kate, 1861, 1.9). Although he could, when occasion demanded, dress smartly, he preferred to assume a casual demeanour, taking snuff while he painted, and often spilling it down his waistcoat. Among friends, of whom he had many of both sexes, Reynolds was admired for his generosity, even temper, and capacity for listening. His dinner parties were notorious for their air of anarchic bonhomie, Reynolds invariably inviting far more guests than could be accommodated at his table. He was addicted to card games and was an incorrigible gambler. As a fellow artist observed: ‘If He went into a Company where there was a Pharo table, or any game of chance, He generally left behind him whatever money He had abt. him’ (Farington, Diary, 2.307). Yet in private Reynolds could be cynical and aloof, particularly towards his pupils and his younger sister, Fanny, who acted as his housekeeper during his middle years.

Early maturity, 1752–1760

Following a short reunion with family and friends in Devon, Reynolds resumed his portrait practice in London, initially in apartments at 104 St Martin's Lane and subsequently at a large house at 5 Great Newport Street (afterwards demolished), where his sister Fanny joined him as housekeeper. Among the first portraits he painted on his return one depicted Giuseppe Marchi (RA) in an exotic ‘oriental’ headdress and crimson coat, which he retained in his studio as an advertisement. He also made portraits of a number of prominent whig grandees, including the fourth duke of Devonshire, Lord Grafton, and the secretary of state, Lord Holdernesse. However, it was his full-length portrait of Augustus Keppel (NMM) that revealed the extent of his ambition. The figure's pose was modelled on a statue of Apollo by the seventeenth-century French sculptor Pierre Legros the younger, the treatment of light and colour being inspired by Tintoretto.

During the 1750s Reynolds began to experiment increasingly with his painting technique, employing an unusually wide range of pigments, oils, and varnishes. While these experiments often resulted in brilliantly coloured and highly textured works, the instability of certain pigments (notably red lake, carmine, and orpiment) and his incautious combining of incompatible materials resulted in fading and cracking. These shortcomings did not appear to concern Reynolds, who, when challenged, retorted, ‘all good pictures crack’ (Leslie and Taylor, 1.112–13). At this time Reynolds also began to tender out the painting of costume in his portraits to professional drapery painters, notably Peter Toms and George Roth, who also painted drapery for Hudson. By now Reynolds was extremely busy, producing over 100 portraits a year. And as he became more successful so his prices rose accordingly. In 1753 he charged 48 guineas for a full-length portrait; by 1759 the price had risen to 100 guineas, and by 1764 to 150 guineas (Cormack, 105). Reynolds often worked a seven-day week, save for a hiatus in the months of July and August, when his fashionable clientele deserted the city. From 1755 until he ceased painting in 1790 Reynolds noted appointments with his sitters in small diaries, or ‘pocket books’, of which most have survived (RA; Cottonian Library, Plymouth), and which provide detailed information on his working life and social engagements.

By the late 1750s Reynolds had established a systematic method of determining the attitudes chosen for portraits, keeping a portfolio of engravings after his own and other artists' works from which sitters could choose and adapt poses. The first mezzotint engraving after one of his paintings was Lady Charlotte Fitzwilliam, made by the Irishman James MacArdell, who before his death in 1765 engraved thirty-seven plates after Reynolds. Subsequent engravers included James Watson, John Dean, John Raphael Smith, Valentine Green, and his own pupils, Marchi and William Doughty. These engravings, as much as the paintings themselves, were responsible for promoting Reynolds's work at home and abroad, and were exhibited by engravers in their own right, occasionally even prior to Reynolds's original paintings. Reynolds, who did not charge engravers to copy his works, recognized the importance of prints, allegedly stating after MacArdell's death, ‘by this man I shall be immortalized’ (Waterhouse, 1973, 20).

By the mid-1760s Reynolds's painting style was emulated by a number of his contemporaries, notably Francis Cotes and Tilly Kettle. Reynolds's own relations with his fellow artists were generally cordial, although he seldom became close. An exception was the Scottish portraitist Allan Ramsay, who exerted a considerable influence over Reynolds's own work, and whom Reynolds befriended in 1757. As Horace Walpole memorably remarked, ‘Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Ramsay can scarce be rivals, their manners are so different. The former is bold, and has a kind of tempestuous colouring; yet with dignity and grace; the latter is all delicacy’. He added somewhat unfairly, ‘Mr. Reynolds seldom succeeds in women; Mr. Ramsay is formed to paint them’ (Walpole, Corr., 15.47). As his portrait of Georgiana, Countess Spencer, and her daughter reveals (1760–66; priv. coll.), Reynolds was capable of conveying the same air of intimacy and naturalism which pervades Ramsay's portraiture, although he possessed a directness to which Ramsay seldom aspired.

The middle period, 1760–1768

In the summer of 1760 Reynolds purchased a lease on a house at 47 Leicester Square, then among the most fashionable residential areas of the capital. (It was subsequently converted into auction rooms and demolished in 1937.) Reynolds remained there for the rest of his life. He marked his arrival with a grand ball, and set about completely refurbishing the property, adding a series of studios and a picture gallery to the rear of the premises where he displayed his paintings alongside his growing collection of old-master paintings. He also acquired a secondhand coach in which he encouraged his sister to ride, to her considerable embarrassment. Reynolds's studio was a small octagonal room, lit by a single window situated high above the ground. Portrait sitters occupied an upholstered armchair (now in the RA), revolving on castors and raised about 18 inches from the floor on a dais. Reynolds stood, observing his sitters at eye level, looking directly at them or at their reflection in a mirror. According to one sitter he would ‘walk away several feet, then take a long look at me and the picture as we stood side by side, then rush up to the portrait and dash at it in a kind of fury. I sometimes thought he would make a mistake and paint on me instead of the picture’ (W. P. Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, 1888, 3.124).

In April 1760 Reynolds participated in the first annual exhibition of works held by the Society of Artists at the Society of Arts on the Strand. He exhibited five pictures including Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), the first in a long line of public female full-length portraits in the ‘grand manner’. Reynolds exhibited with the Society of Artists every year (except 1767) until 1768. Among the works he showed there were Laurence Sterne (1761; NPG), Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy (1762; priv. coll.), Nelly O'Brien (1763; Wallace Collection, London), Lady Sarah Bunbury (1765; Art Institute, Chicago), and Mrs Hale as ‘Euphrosyne’ (1766; priv. coll.). Of these Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy provides the clearest indication of Reynolds's ambition. On a formal level it displays Reynolds's knowledge of the tenets of Western post-Renaissance art theory, the figures of Comedy and Tragedy representing the choice to be made by the artist between the allure of colour and the strictures of line. It also reveals, through a parodic allusion to the classical theme of the Choice of Hercules, how Reynolds perceived that painting could aspire to the level of poetry and claim its rightful place among the liberal arts.

Like so many of Reynolds's paintings Garrick borrowed pictorial devices from a number of other artists (in this case Rubens, Guido Reni, and William Dobson). During his lifetime critics believed that these ‘borrowings’ indicated a lack of creativity. And it has since been suggested that Reynolds himself hoped that they would not be detected (E. Wind, ‘Borrowed attitudes in Reynolds and Hogarth’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 2, 1938–9, 182–5). Yet for Reynolds and his contemporaries, pictorial references to old-master paintings were visual counterparts to the Augustan literary cult of imitation. For Reynolds, as for Johnson, imitation was a ‘kind of middle composition between translation and original design, which pleases when the thoughts are unexpectedly applicable, and the parallels lucky’ (The Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. A. Murphy, 1792, 11.132). To Reynolds these borrowings constituted an intellectual and visual game, as he plundered his own sketchbooks, his portfolios of prints, and paintings in order to enrich the iconography of otherwise formulaic society portraits.

In 1759 Reynolds painted a portrait of George, prince of Wales (Royal Collection), presumably with the hope of securing further royal patronage. In the following year his hopes were dashed when the prime minister, Lord Bute, recommended Allan Ramsay to the post of principal painter to the king. From this moment there was increasing antipathy between Reynolds and the king. Professionally it did Reynolds no harm whatsoever for, as Johnson remarked, ‘it is no reflection on Mr. Reynolds not to be employed by them; but it will be a reflection on the Court not to have employed him’ (G. B. Hill, ed., Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1897, 2.401–2).

Johnson, whom Reynolds had met about 1756, was the single most important influence on Reynolds's life during the 1750s and 1760s. ‘For my own part I acknowledge the highest obligations to him. He may be said to have formed my mind and brushed off from it a great deal of rubbish’ (Hilles, Portraits, 66). Later, in August 1764, when Reynolds was struck with a serious illness, Johnson wrote to him, ‘if I should lose you, I should lose almost the only Man whom I call a Friend’ (Boswell, Life, 1.486). Reynolds painted Johnson on a number of occasions; the earliest (NPG) portrayed him, as Boswell recalled, ‘in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation’. Later, in a painting for the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale, Reynolds attempted to capture Johnson's short-sightedness, which resulted in the celebrated retort, ‘He may paint himself as deaf if he chuses … but I will not be blinking Sam’ (H. L. Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D, 1786, 248). In 1759 Johnson commissioned Reynolds to write three essays for The Idler, thus launching his literary career. The essays addressed the concepts of beauty, imitation, and nature, and prefigured arguments that were to underpin his Discourses on Art, begun some ten years later.

In the summer of 1762 Reynolds and Johnson made a six-week tour of the west country, which included visits to family and friends. Back in London, in February 1764, Reynolds formed a dining club for Johnson's immediate circle. The Literary Club, or the Club, as it became known, was originally restricted to nine members, including Reynolds, Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Oliver Goldsmith, who were then Reynolds's closest companions. Reynolds painted Goldsmith between 1766 and 1767, in a dignified profile (Knole, Kent), Reynolds's sister Fanny referring to it as ‘the most flattered picture she ever knew her brother to have painted’ (Northcote, Life, 1.326). At about the same time Reynolds also painted a half-length portrait of Burke (priv. coll.), and a double portrait of him in the role of private secretary to the earl of Rockingham (FM Cam.). The picture was never completed, possibly owing to the collapse of Rockingham's ministry in July 1766. Even so, it is of great value for the light it sheds on Reynolds's working practices, the slightly sketched outlines of the figures forming a marked contrast to the painstaking details of the Turkey rug and inkstand, produced by his pupils and drapery painters.

Aside from Marchi, Reynolds's first recorded pupil was Thomas Beach, who studied with him from about 1760 to 1762. Other pupils included John Berridge, Hugh Barron, William Parry, and, in the 1770s, James Northcote and William Doughty. These pupils were not formally indentured but exchanged their services in return for board, lodging, and, if they were lucky, a little ad hoc tuition. Reynolds's pupils remained surprisingly ignorant of his working methods and, as one remarked, he ‘never saw him unless he wanted to paint a hand or piece of drapery from them, and then they were dismissed as soon as he had done with them’ (Gwynn, 49). Of Reynolds's pupils, the most successful, if not the most gifted, was James Northcote, who studied under him from 1771 to 1776, and who was to be Reynolds's biographer. Northcote's admiration for Reynolds was tempered by jealousy, and an abiding resentment that he had not enjoyed the same intimacy as Reynolds reserved for his friends and patrons. He later recalled that if ‘Sir Joshua had come into the room where I was at work for him and had seen me hanging by the neck, it would not have troubled him’ (Leslie and Taylor, 2.601). Reynolds was generally kinder to those who did not work directly under him. He assisted the careers of several young foreign artists, notably the Americans Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, whose Boy with a Squirrel (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), he exhibited next to his own work at the Society of Artists in 1766. Reynolds's greatest personal encouragement was reserved for the young Irish artist James Barry, who was introduced to him by their mutual friend Edmund Burke in 1764.

The Royal Academy and the Discourses on Art

In the years immediately following his return from Italy Reynolds took a keen interest in plans by the St Martin's Lane Academy and the Society of Dilettanti to form a Royal Academy [see Founders of the Royal Academy of Arts]. During the early 1760s he was intimately involved in the planning of exhibitions by the Society of Artists. However, in 1765 he quite deliberately distanced himself from the internal politics of the society owing to the growing rivalry between the committee and its members. Reynolds's name is a notable omission from the twenty-two signatories to the memorial presented to George III on 28 November 1768, requesting his ‘gracious assistance, patronage, and protection’ in founding a Royal Academy. And it was only after some considerable hesitation, involving private consultation with Burke and Johnson, that on 14 December 1768 Reynolds agreed to accept the presidency of the Royal Academy. In the following year, on 21 April, the king knighted Reynolds at St James's Palace. On that day Johnson broke his vow of abstinence and ‘drank one glass of wine to the health of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (Hudson, 93).

Reynolds was intimately involved in the day-to-day running of the Royal Academy, rarely missing council or general assembly meetings. Occasionally he entertained his fellow academicians at home, treating the members of the council on one occasion to a supper of turtle (‘callipash and callipee’ (The Letters of Henry Fuseli, ed. D. Weinglass, 1982, 12). In 1771 Reynolds inaugurated the annual Royal Academy dinner in order to strengthen the link between the academy and connoisseurs. It was held annually on 23 April, the feast of St George, and continues to this day. In 1775, in an attempt to confer increased formality upon the academy, Reynolds proposed the introduction of ceremonial gowns for members. The idea was rejected, principally because of opposition voiced by the academy's treasurer William Chambers, who was from this time increasingly antagonistic towards Reynolds. Chambers features with Reynolds and Joseph Wilton, keeper of the Royal Academy, in an official portrait of 1782 by John Francis Rigaud (NPG).

Reynolds's greatest critic within the Royal Academy was James Barry, who in 1782 was elected as its professor of painting. Barry's differences with Reynolds were primarily ideological. Even so, he used his position and his annual academy lectures to mount increasingly personal attacks on Reynolds, who was apparently reduced ‘to so awkward a situation in his chair as an auditor, that he was obliged at last either to appear to be asleep or to absent himself from the place’ (Northcote, Life, 2.146). Although Reynolds affected indifference, he confessed privately that ‘he feared he did hate Barry, and if so, he had much excuse, if excuse be possible’ (ibid., 2.196).

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.

The 1770s

Between 1769 and 1779 Reynolds exhibited over 100 pictures at the Royal Academy, considerably more than he had exhibited during the previous decade at the Society of Artists. These included portraits of close friends, actors and actresses, scientists, clergymen, aristocrats, and children, as well as subject pictures and character studies. Among his friends he showed portraits of Johnson and Goldsmith (1770), Giuseppe Baretti (1774), and David Garrick (1776). John Frederick Sackville, third duke of Dorset, who assembled an entire room of Reynolds's paintings at Knole, purchased all these portraits, excepting that of Baretti (who at the time had been indicted for murder). Lord Sackville also purchased Reynolds's first major history painting, Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773. Ugolino was based on an episode from Dante's Divina commedia. Reynolds regarded this picture as a manifesto for his theories on high art, combining within it motifs from Carracci's Pietà (National Gallery, London) and Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, as well as theories derived from Richardson and Le Brun.

Although history painting formed a relatively small part of Reynolds's artistic output, he devoted increasing time to it from the early 1770s onwards. His acolytes, moreover, promoted Reynolds's history paintings as testimony to his genuine commitment to the cause of high art. In the decades following his death they were even counted among his greatest achievements, fetching great prices at auction and forming the focus of critical attention. Unlike his commissioned portraits, which he dispatched with due efficiency, Reynolds's history pictures are known to have taken months, even years, to complete. During the summer, when his portrait business was slack, Reynolds employed a variety of models, using them to explore his ideas on high art and to test out new painting techniques. In the early 1770s he employed an old beggar named George White who, as well as modelling the figure of Ugolino, sat to Reynolds as a pope, an apostle, and as a captain of banditti. He also painted beggar children. Indeed, more successful than Reynolds's history paintings were his character studies of children, known as ‘fancy pictures’. They included a Strawberry Girl (Wallace Collection, London), the Infant Samuel (Tate collection), and the pendant pictures Cupid as a Link Boy (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York) and Mercury as a Cut Purse (Farington Collection Trust, Buscot Manor, Oxfordshire. These last two were not exhibited in public, possibly because of the sexual innuendo they contained. Fancy pictures played an increasingly important role in Reynolds's oeuvre in the 1770s and 1780s, allowing him to paint more freely in the manner of old masters such as Murillo, Rembrandt, and Correggio, and to experiment with his technique. According to his pupil James Northcote, when Reynolds:

was at any time accused of having spoiled many of his portraits, by trying experiments upon them, he answered that it was always his wish to have made these experiments on his fancy pictures, and if so, had they failed of success, the injury would have fallen only on himself, as he should have kept them on his hands. (Northcote, Memoirs, lxxxi)

Reynolds also made imaginative ‘character’ portraits of women and children. Of these among the most successful are the pendants Master Crewe as Henry VIII (exh. RA, 1776; priv. coll.) and Miss Crewe as ‘Winter’ (1775; priv. coll.). At times Reynolds elided the two genres of fancy picture and portraiture, as in the portrait of his niece Theophila Palmer, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771 as A Girl Reading (priv. coll.). She bitterly complained to him that she ought to have been described as ‘A Young Lady’. Reynolds retorted, ‘don't be vain, my dear, I only use your head as I would that of any beggar—as a good practice’ (Maria Edgeworth: Chosen Letters, ed. F. V. Barry, 1931, 380).

Aside from history painting and fancy pictures, among Reynolds's most ambitious works were the series of full-length female grand-manner portraits painted during the 1770s. They included The Duchess of Cumberland (exh. RA, 1773; priv. coll.), The Montgomery Sisters (exh. RA, 1774; Tate collection), The Countess of Harrington (exh. RA, 1775; priv. coll.), and Lady Bamfylde (exh. RA, 1777; Tate collection). In these portraits the subjects were dressed in voluminous robes which Reynolds hoped would endow them with a timeless quality and elevate the image towards the level of high art. Only occasionally did he resort to quasi-historical costume in male portraits, notably in the double portrait of Colonel John Acland and Lord Sydney (exh. RA, 1770; priv. coll.), portrayed in theatrical tunics as archers, and the Polynesian Omai (exh. RA, 1776; priv. coll.), whom he depicted in white robes and a turban—a form of dress apparently adopted by Omai during his sojourn in England.

Further honours were bestowed on Reynolds during the 1770s. In September 1772 he was elected an alderman of the borough of Plympton, and a year later, on 4 October 1773, he was sworn in as mayor. In 1775 Reynolds was elected a member of the academy at Florence, following the presentation of his self-portrait to the grand duke of Tuscany. The honour Reynolds undoubtedly valued most was the doctorate of civil law awarded him in July 1773 by the University of Oxford: in subsequent self-portraits (notably that painted for the Royal Academy in 1780) he often portrayed himself in his academic robes. In 1774 Reynolds also painted a portrait of his friend James Beattie in doctoral robes, Beattie having received his doctorate at the same ceremony as Reynolds. The portrait (Marischal College, Aberdeen), depicted Beattie holding his Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism, while an avenging angel drives away his enemies, whom Reynolds characterized as David Hume and Voltaire. The painting was attacked by Goldsmith, who told Reynolds that while Beattie's book would soon be forgotten ‘your allegorical picture, and the fame of Voltaire will live for ever to your disgrace as a flatterer’ (Northcote, Life, 1.299).

By the late 1770s Reynolds's most influential patrons were invariably members of the country's leading whig dynasties. Between 1775 and 1778 he exhibited portraits of members of the Crewe, Bedford, and Spencer families, as well as George Townshend (Lord de Ferrars), Viscount Althorp, Lord Palmerston, the duke of Leinster, the duke and duchess of Devonshire, and the family of the duke of Marlborough. He made frequent visits to their country seats and entertained them in London. And although he continued to work hard during the day, evenings were increasingly given over to drinking, gaming, attending masquerades, and even dancing lessons. His pupil James Northcote recalled that ‘though the frequent dining-out probably shortened his life, it was of great advantage to him in his profession’ (Conversations of James Northcote R.A. with James Ward on Art and Artists, ed. E. Fletcher, 1901, 186). He belonged to several prestigious clubs including the Star-in-Garter in Pall Mall, Almacks, and the Society of Dilettanti, where he had been official ‘limner’ since 1769. Between 1777 and 1779 Reynolds painted two large group portraits of the members of the Society of Dilettanti, enjoying the communal pleasures of wine, conversation, and connoisseurship.

The deterioration of relations between Reynolds and his sister Fanny by the late 1770s resulted in her enforced departure from his house. Their niece Mary Palmer, who remained with Reynolds for the remainder of his life, assumed Fanny's duties as housekeeper. Unlike Fanny, whose artistic efforts Reynolds had belittled, Mary was encouraged to paint. Her own niece Theophila Gwatkin recalled: ‘Everybody in the house painted. Lady Thomond [Mary Palmer] & herself, the coachman & the man servant Ralph & his daughter, all painted, copied and talked about pictures’ (The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. W. B. Pope, 1963, 5.487). At this time Reynolds also volunteered to take on his nephew Samuel Johnson (the eldest son of his sister Elizabeth) as his pupil. His mother refused the offer, on the grounds that she considered Reynolds to be thoroughly degenerate, informing him that his soul was ‘a shocking spectacle of poverty’ (G. B. Hill, ed., Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1897, 2.455–6n.). Reynolds did not attend church. However, he seldom missed a social gathering of the Sons of the Clergy.

In 1779 rumours were circulated in the popular press concerning Reynolds's liaisons with the ‘amiable’ daughter of a naval officer and ‘Lady G—r’, who, it was said, sat to Reynolds in the evening as well as the morning so that ‘the knight should give a resemblance of her in the most natural way’ (Town and Country Magazine, Sept 1779, 401–4). His interest in Fanny Burney, whom he met in September 1778, shortly after the publication of her début novel, Evelina, is more certain. Over the next few years Reynolds (who was a close friend of her father) met Fanny Burney frequently, fuelling suspicions that he intended to offer her his hand in marriage. However, any prospect of nuptials was diminished in November 1782, when Reynolds suffered a severe paralysis. ‘How, my dear Sissy’, she told her younger sister:

can you wish any wishes about Sir Joshua and me? A man who has had two shakes of the palsy! What misery should I suffer if I were only his niece, from terror of a fatal repetition of such a shock! I would not run voluntarily into such a state of perpetual apprehension for all the wealth of the East. (Leslie and Taylor, 2.385)

Towards the end of his life, in 1788, Reynolds told Boswell he had never married, because ‘every woman whom he had liked had grown indifferent to him’ (Hudson, 137).

Home and abroad, 1780–1785

In 1780 Reynolds painted several works for the Royal Academy's private rooms at Somerset House, recently completed by Sir William Chambers. They included an allegorical figure, Theory, for the library ceiling, pendant portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte, and portraits of himself and Chambers for the academy's assembly room. At the annual exhibition of 1780 he showed seven works, including a striking full length of Lady Worsley in military riding attire (priv. coll.), a portrait of Edward Gibbon (priv. coll.), and an allegorical figure, Justice (priv. coll.). This last painting was one of seven Virtues made as designs for a painted glass window, the west window of New College, Oxford. The central design, a Nativity, had been exhibited at the Royal Academy the previous year, although the window itself was not completely installed until 1785. The final result, as Reynolds himself admitted, was disappointing.

In 1781 Reynolds exhibited fifteen works at the Royal Academy. They included a portrait of Charles Burney (NPG), Horace Walpole's nieces, the ladies Waldegrave (NG Scot.), and his young godson, Henry Edward Bunbury (Philadelphia Museum of Art). This picture remained in Reynolds's collection until his death when he bequeathed it to the boy's mother, his close friend Catherine Horneck. The portrait was described in the contemporary press as that of a boy ‘supposed to be listening to a wonderful story’, a comment which reflected Bunbury's own recollections that Reynolds had entertained him with fairy tales while sitting for the portrait (Whitley, 1.369). That year Reynolds also exhibited two major subject pictures, Thaïs (priv. coll.), modelled upon a notorious courtesan, Emily Pott, and The Death of Dido (Royal Collection), a composition inspired by his admiration for seventeenth-century Bolognese art and the antique (the central figure being an adaptation of a classical figure of Cleopatra in the Vatican).

During the 1780s Reynolds turned increasingly for inspiration to the art of Flanders and the Low Countries, an interest which prompted a two-month tour in the late summer of 1781. Accompanied by his Devon friend Phillip Metcalfe, Reynolds embarked from Margate to Ostend on 24 July, travelling to Ghent, Brussels, Mechelen, Antwerp, Dordrecht, The Hague, Leiden, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Aachen, Liège, and Louvain, and returning via Brussels and Ostend. Reynolds was already well acquainted with Dutch and Flemish art, owning major works by Van Dyck, Rubens, Jordaens, and Rembrandt, genre paintings by ‘old Breughel’ and Teniers, and landscapes by Cuyp, Hobbema, Ruisdael, and van Goyen. Reynolds's detailed journal entries, which were intended ultimately for publication, reveal that the tour was organized around major private collections in the Low Countries and the great altarpieces of Flanders. Reynolds admired Dutch art, but its appeal was confined primarily to ‘the mechanical parts of the art’. ‘Painters’, he said, ‘should go to the Dutch school to learn the art of painting, as they would go to a grammar school to learn languages. They must go to Italy to learn the higher branches of knowledge’ (Reynolds, Journey, 110). He was unmoved by Rembrandt's Nightwatch, confessing that it was ‘with difficulty I could persuade myself that it was painted by Rembrandt’ (ibid., 91). He attributed it tentatively to Ferdinand Bol. Reynolds was less ambivalent about Rubens, whose art conformed more closely to his own tenets on the form and function of high art, and to the Italianate ideal, which remained his benchmark. He reserved his highest praise for Rubens's Conversion of St Bavo in St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, and his Virgin and Child with Saints in the Augustinuskerk, Antwerp. Even so, he was disturbed by the poor condition of many of these works which he had only known previously through engravings, observing sadly that the Descent from the Cross in Antwerp Cathedral was ‘chilled and mildewed’ (ibid., 31).

Reynolds went to Flanders once more in late July 1785, this time with the specific intention of purchasing pictures auctioned off by those religious houses and monasteries dissolved by the Holy Roman emperor, Joseph II. As a potential purchaser, Reynolds was deeply disappointed by the standard of work on offer, and bought nothing. However, in order that the visit would not be a complete waste of time he rapidly scoured the country, spending over £1000 in Antwerp on works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Snyders, and Murillo.

During the 1780s Reynolds made some headway in preparing notes from his journeys to Flanders and the Low Countries for publication, although they did not appear in print until after his death, when they were incorporated into the second volume of Malone's Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1783, however, Reynolds published a related piece of work, annotations to William Mason's translation of De arte graphica, Charles Alfonse Du Fresnoy's Latin poem of 1667 on colour theory. The timing was significant because, following his visit to Flanders, Reynolds was eager to express his current opinions on the primacy of colour. Less dogmatic than the Discourses, Reynolds's annotations on Du Fresnoy allowed him to make extensive comments on the art of Titian, Veronese, Watteau, and Rubens without qualifying his remarks with reference to the Roman school. The lessons learned from an intense study of Flemish art emerged forcibly in Reynolds's paintings of the 1780s. In 1782 Reynolds exhibited the Infant Academy at the Royal Academy. According to a contemporary critic the picture was painted immediately after Reynolds had returned from Flanders and thus ‘recollected all the beauty and force of colouring so characteristic of the Flemish School’ (St James's Chronicle, 30 April 1782). In 1786 Reynolds exhibited a portrait of Lady Anne Bingham (priv. coll.), which he himself referred to as ‘Sir Joshua's Chapeau de Paille’—a reference to Rubens's celebrated portrait (National Gallery, London), which he had seen in a private collection in Antwerp in 1781.

Reynolds's Victorian biographer, Tom Taylor, was among the first to speculate whether ‘Whiggism could have so preponderated his society and sitters had he not been a very decided Whig’ (Leslie and Taylor, 2.155). By the 1780s Reynolds's allegiance to the whig party was becoming increasingly evident, both in his choice of friends and in his portrait sitters. When Lord Rockingham finally came to power briefly in spring 1782, many of Reynolds's closest friends assumed key positions in government. They included Augustus Keppel, as first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Ashburton, as privy seal, Charles James Fox, as secretary of state, and Edmund Burke, as paymaster of the forces. In 1783 Burke, in the course of reinstating two Treasury officials accused of embezzlement, was satirically ‘observed to have a miniature of Count Ugolino, from Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his hand, in order to give sublimity to the description’ (Postle, Subject Pictures, 149). Johnson ruefully observed the increasing influence of Fox and Burke on his erstwhile protégé: ‘He is under the Fox star and the Irish constellation. He is always under some planet’ (Boswell, Life, 3.261). In April 1784 Reynolds exhibited Fox's portrait at the Royal Academy, just as Fox was engaged in a bitter election to retain his parliamentary seat at Westminster. At Fox's suggestion Reynolds included in the portrait his recently defeated East India Bill and his representation of the Commons to the king, the very policies that had precipitated George III into dissolving parliament.

On 1 October 1784 Reynolds was sworn in as principal painter-in-ordinary to the king, following the death of Allan Ramsay. Although the post conferred considerable kudos and a guaranteed income from replicating royal portraits, Reynolds poured scorn on the token annual salary of £50, complaining that the post was ‘a place of not so much profit and of near equal dignity with His Majesty's Rat-catcher’ (Letters, 112). Yet Reynolds coveted the post deeply, to the point of being prepared to resign the presidency of the Royal Academy. Ultimately Reynolds used his influence in the corridors of power to sway the issue in his favour, Thomas Gainsborough remarking that the post was originally to have been his except that Reynolds's friends ‘stood in the way’ (The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, ed. J. Hayes, 2001, 161). Several weeks later, on 18 October, Reynolds was granted the freedom of the Painter–Stainers' Company at its annual dinner in the City of London.

Among the seventeen works which Reynolds exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784 were a full-length military portrait of George, prince of Wales, reining in a charger (priv. coll.), a coquettish Nymph and Cupid (Tate collection), and a portrait, Mrs Siddons as ‘The Tragic Muse’ (Henry E. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California. This last portrait was greeted by admirers as a form of ‘confined’ history painting, the general attitude of the figure being modelled upon the figure of Michelangelo's Isaiah from the vault of the Sistine Chapel. The enhanced aesthetic and intellectual appeal of Mrs Siddons was mirrored in the 1000 guinea price tag Reynolds placed on the picture. The price proved too high, and in 1786 the picture was still on Reynolds's hands, ‘which it would not be was this the period of the Tenth Leo, or the family of the Medici’ (Public Advertiser, 1 March 1786). In 1790 he sold it to a French collector for 700 guineas, then a record price for a portrait by Reynolds.

The later years, 1785–1790

The death of Samuel Johnson in December 1784 caused Reynolds to forge a closer bond with several mutual friends, and during the summer of 1785 what became known as ‘the Gang’ was formed by Reynolds, Boswell, Edmond Malone, and John Courtnay. Boswell and Reynolds were seen increasingly in public together, notably on 6 July 1785 when they attended the public execution of a former servant of Edmund Burke at Newgate gaol. In the same year Reynolds painted Boswell's portrait (NPG), which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1787. ‘This is a strong portrait’, observed one critic, ‘and shews an artist can do with paint more than nature hath attempted with flesh and blood, viz—put good sense in the countenance’ (Morning Herald, 2 May 1787). Reynolds also acted as a general adviser on Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and, with Malone, encouraged him to complete his biography of Johnson, which was published in May 1791, with a dedication to Reynolds, ‘the intimate and beloved friend of that great man; the friend whom he declared to be “the most invulnerable man he knew; whom, if he should quarrel with him, he should find the most difficulty how to abuse”’.

During the mid-1780s Reynolds found new friends and patrons among a younger generation of intellectuals and connoisseurs, including George Beaumont, John Julius Angerstein, Abraham Hume, Henry Englefield, Richard Payne Knight, and Uvedale Price. Of these Beaumont was Reynolds's principal disciple, taking advice and painting lessons from Reynolds, and after his death erecting a cenotaph to his memory in the grounds of his country seat at Coleorton (celebrated in Constable's Cenotaph of 1836; National Gallery, London). Reynolds's most prestigious young patron, however, was George, prince of Wales, who in May 1786 sat to Reynolds for a full-length portrait (priv. coll.), commissioned by Louis Philippe, duc d'Orléans, and shown at the Royal Academy the following year. The picture was widely criticized owing to the prominent position in the centre of the composition of a black servant adjusting the prince's ceremonial robes, an idea that apparently came from the duc d'Orléans (The World, 27 November 1787). In 1786 Reynolds also painted a full-length portrait of the duc d'Orléans for the prince of Wales. Following its exhibition at the Royal Academy, the portrait was displayed at Carlton House, until early 1792, when it was abruptly moved, following the news that Orléans had voted for the execution of Louis XVI.

By the beginning of 1785 Reynolds's name was a byword for diligence: he was now working harder than ever, exhibiting seventy-nine pictures at the Royal Academy between 1785 and 1790. As The Times noted on 10 January 1785; ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds is shaved and powdered by nine in the morning, and at his canvass; we mention this as an example to artists, and as a leading trait in the character of this great painter’. Significant portraits from this period include Mrs Musters as Hebe (1785; Kenwood House, London), Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her Daughter (1786; priv. coll.), Lord Heathfield (1788; National Gallery, London), Lord Rodney (1789; Royal Collection), and Mrs Billington as St Cecilia (1790; Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick). Lord Heathfield, portraying the subject clasping the key to the rock of Gibraltar, rapidly acquired the status of an icon, Constable referring to it in the 1830s as ‘almost a history of the defence of Gibraltar’ (Leslie and Taylor, 1.517). It has recently been suggested that the picture may also have had religious overtones, through an intended comparison between Heathfield and St Peter, the great military hero transformed into ‘the rock upon which Britannia builds her military interests’ (D. Shawe-Taylor, The Georgians: Eighteenth-Century Portraiture and Society, 1990, 49).

While portraiture continued to be the mainstay of Reynolds's professional life, he now spent much of his time, particularly during the summer months, working on subject pictures. In 1782 he had exhibited a painting of a young girl leaning on a pedestal, a composition which he repeated on several occasions, and which became popularly known as the Laughing Girl (Kenwood House, London). In the mid-1780s he followed this up with a series of fancy pictures depicting little girls with pets: Robinetta with a robin, Lesbia with a sparrow, Felina with a cat, and Muscipula with a caged mouse. These paintings, light-hearted allegories on the theme of captive love, proved extremely popular and were extensively engraved and copied into the nineteenth century. In 1784 Reynolds exhibited a more overtly sensual picture on the theme of love, A Nymph and Cupid and in 1785 a Venus (priv. coll.)—‘a picture of temptation from her auburn lock to her painted toe’ (Public Advertiser, 5 April 1785). The popularity of Venus among his aristocratic patrons prompted Reynolds to repeat the composition several times, it being rumoured in 1787 that a version exported to France was destined for Louis XVI (Postle, Subject Pictures, 205).

In 1785 Reynolds received a prestigious commission for a historical painting from Catherine the Great. The subject chosen by Reynolds was The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). He devoted more time and attention to this picture than to any picture he had ever painted, working on it intermittently between early 1786 and the spring of 1788, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. After completing the painting Reynolds admitted the difficulties he had encountered, observing that there were ‘ten pictures under it, some better, some worse’ (Northcote, Life, 2.219). In addition Reynolds painted two subject pictures for Prince Potemkin, a version of A Nymph and Cupid and The Continence of Scipio, shown at the Royal Academy in 1789, shortly before its departure for Russia. By this time Reynolds was also working on three subject paintings for Boydell's Shakspeare Gallery: Puck (priv. coll.), The Death of Cardinal Beaufort, and Macbeth and the Witches (both Petworth House, Sussex).

Reynolds's relations with Boydell were invariably strained. Having agreed in December 1786 to paint a scene from Macbeth, Reynolds was vexed to see himself described in Boydell's newspaper advertisement for the scheme as ‘Portrait-Painter to his Majesty, and President of the Royal Academy’. He sent Boydell a curt note:

Sir Joshua Reynolds presents his Compts to Mr. Alderman Boydell. He finds in his Advertisement that he is styled Portrait Painter to his Majesty, it is a matter of no great consequence, but he does not know why his title is changed, he is styled in his Patent Principal painter to His Majesty. (Letters, 176)

Reynolds was also unhappy at the very idea of being employed by Boydell, believing that he was ‘degrading himself to paint for a print-seller’ (Northcote, Life, 2.226). His reluctance to become involved was eventually overcome through the intervention of the Shakespeare editor George Steevens (Reynolds's friend and fellow member of the Club), and a large cash advance of £500 from Boydell for Macbeth, the canvas and stretcher for which he also supplied gratis.

In the late 1780s Reynolds appeared to be in good health, despite a considerable deterioration in his eyesight. His physical appearance at that time can be gauged from his self-portrait with spectacles of about 1788 (Royal Collection). Edmond Malone, to whom Reynolds presented a version of the painting, stated that the self-portrait with spectacles showed the artist ‘exactly as he appeared in his latter days, in domestick life’, suggesting that it was a private rather than a public image (Works, 1.1xxvii, note). That he presented copies of the portrait to Malone, Mason, and Burke suggests that it represented the way in which Reynolds wished to be seen by his close friends. Reynolds had worn spectacles at least since 1783, when he had complained of a ‘violent inflammation’ in the eyes. He had probably worn them for a lot longer, an examination of two pairs of his spectacles revealing that he was short-sighted, and would have needed spectacles to read and to paint (Penny, 337).

During the spring and early summer of 1789 Reynolds continued to take portrait clients virtually on a daily basis, including weekends. On Monday 13 July 1789 he had scheduled a 10 a.m. appointment relating to the double portrait of Miss Cocks and her niece (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London). On the same day he wrote in his sitter book, ‘prevented by my Eye beginning to be obscured’, the first reference to the failing sight in his left eye. Reynolds attempted to carry on with scheduled portrait sittings over the next few days, although within less than a week he was compelled to stop, the portrait of the misses Cocks being completed by another hand.

Within a fortnight Reynolds's retirement was announced in the press:

Sir Joshua has mentioned to several of his friends that his practice in the future will be very select in respect to portraits, and that the remnant of his life will be applied chiefly to fancy subjects which will admit of leisure, and contribute to amuse. Sir Joshua feels his sight so infirm as to allow of his painting about thirty or forty minutes at a time only and he means in a certain degree to retire. (Morning Herald, 27 July 1789)

The blank pages of the two remaining sitter books, punctuated only by details of social calls and business matters, reveal that by the end of July 1789 Reynolds had all but retired. His friend urged him to seek medical attention. ‘We are all uneasy about him from his plethorick habit’, observed Malone to Boswell, ‘lest he should have some stroke’. ‘If anything should happen to him’, he added, ‘the chain of our society at least, would be sadly broken:—but let us hope for the best’ (Boswell's Correspondence, ed. F. Brady, 1986, 4.366).

During the early autumn of 1789 Reynolds's eyesight, and the calibre of medical treatment he was receiving, became a public talking point, as his supporters rallied to counter rumours that the president of the Royal Academy was by now a spent force. ‘It is suspected’, stated the Morning Post, on 9 September 1789,

that some artists who want to bring their own puny talents into estimation have magnified the state of Sir Joshua's disorder in order to injure his reputation, and profit, if possible, by the idea that his faculties begin to suffer too materially to admit of any future works of extraordinary vigour and beauty.

Although he continued to take a keen interest in the affairs of the Royal Academy, Reynolds was also undermined in his presidency. On 22 February 1790, following a disagreement with the academy's general assembly over its opposition to election of the Italian architect Giuseppe Bonomi to the vacant post of professor of perspective, Reynolds tendered his resignation as president, and his membership of the academy. On 13 March he was reinstated, although he never regained the respect he had formerly commanded.

Reynolds's painting activities were by now restricted to retouching and refurbishing works in his collection and those portraits which were already well under way. All the paintings he showed at the 1790 Royal Academy exhibition had been started by the summer of 1789. They included a full-length portrait of Sir John Fleming Leicester in the uniform of the Cheshire provisional cavalry (University of Manchester, Tabley House, Cheshire), repainted by James Northcote, and Francis Rawdon Hastings, second earl of Moira and first marquess of Hastings (Royal Collection). Lord Rawdon may be regarded as Reynolds's final full-length male portrait, since he was working with the sitter right up until the day when he recorded the onset of blindness in his left eye. His final female full-length portrait, completed less than a month earlier, was Mrs Billington in the Character of St Cecilia.

Although no longer capable of working full-time as a portraitist, Reynolds in February 1790 discussed sittings for a new portrait of the prince of Wales for Lord Charlemont. ‘In short’, Thomas Dundas told Lord Charlemont, ‘Sir J. is determined that your picture should be an original’ (Charlemont MSS, 117). However, although Reynolds recorded a single appointment with the prince in his pocket book on 17 February, nothing came of the proposal. By July 1790 Boswell reported that Reynolds was able to do little more than to ‘amuse himself by mending a picture now and then’ (Reynolds, Discourses, ed. Rogers, 405, n.2).

Reynolds remained energetic throughout the spring of 1790, dining out with friends, frequently entertaining, and attending meetings at the Eumelian Club, the Society of Dilettanti, and the Club. As usual he spent the summer in London, except for a short stay at Beaconsfield with Edmund Burke, while in October he journeyed to Winchester and to Broadlands, Hampshire, where he was entertained by Lord Palmerston. Reynolds spent the autumn composing his fifteenth, and final, discourse. The discourse, given at the Royal Academy on 10 December 1790, proved a memorable occasion, not least because it appeared that the timbers supporting the floor of the Great Room at Somerset House were about to give way at any moment. Charles Burney recalled:

Sir Jos. had but just entered the room, when there happened a violent and unaccountable crack wch. astonished every one present. But no inquiry was made or suspicion raised of danger till another crack happened, wch. terrified the Compy. so much that most of them were retreating towards the door with great precipitation, while others call out—gently! gently! or mischief will be anticipated. (Hilles, Literary Career, 182)

Owing to immense sang-froid or possibly deafness, Reynolds was able to complete the reading of his discourse. He did so, succeeding in his desire that ‘the last words which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of—MICHAEL ANGELO’.

The final years, 1791–1792

Throughout the autumn of 1790 Reynolds was in constant contact with Burke, reading in manuscript form, and heartily approving, his Reflections on the Revolution in France. He also began to write down his own ‘Reflections’ on the causes of the revolution, highlighting the limited and exotic nature of the French court's patronage, which ‘cultivated only those arts which could add splendor to the nation, to the neglect of those which supported it’, and arguing that the ‘people who require Baubles are few and consequently little revenue is acquired to the general purse’ (Hilles, Literary Career, 188–9). These notes were written on the back of his fair copy of the fifteenth discourse. It was on the reverse of these sheets also that Reynolds wrote his last extended piece of critical writing, the so-called ‘Ironical discourse’, an entertaining, if heavy-handed, essay. Drafted in the summer of 1791, the ‘Ironical discourse’ was the indirect result of the debates among Reynolds and his friends on the seizure of power by the French people, and the ability of the status quo to achieve a rational consensus. Reynolds's view, as expressed in the preface to the ‘Ironical discourse’, was that the increase in literacy, numeracy, or even the number of practising artists, simply indicated the expansion of mediocrity.

Reynolds remained very active in literary and aesthetic circles, debating the Revd William Gilpin's voguish theories on the ‘Picturesque’, and vigorously defending the authenticity of his miniature of John Milton by Samuel Cooper in the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine. He was even capable of indulging in a little mischief, conning the French picture dealer Noel Desenfans into paying £200 for a copy of a Claude which Giuseppe Marchi had manufactured expressly for the purpose. Reynolds, who eventually gave Desenfans his money back, apparently ‘expressed surprise that a man of such discrimination should have thus been taken in by a contemporary work’, an allusion to the picture dealer's exclusive interest in old-master paintings (Letters, 220–21, n. 1). The trick coincided with a display of Reynolds's own collection of old masters at the Haymarket, and entitled ‘Ralph's Exhibition’, the 1s. entrance fee going to his manservant, Ralph Kirkley. The exhibition contained 183 paintings. All, except three, versions of Correggio's Marriage of St Catherine, Michelangelo's Leda, and the Mona Lisa, were for sale. These pictures were among his most prized possessions, as Reynolds's lengthy catalogue entries revealed. Reynolds, who had acquired his version of the Mona Lisa from the duke of Leeds, was convinced that it, rather than the one belonging to Louis XVI (Louvre, Paris), was Leonardo's original. History has proved him wrong.

In May 1791 T. P. Adelcrantz, president of the Swedish Royal Academy, wrote to Reynolds requesting him to sit for his portrait to Carl Fredrik von Breda, who was then working in England. In this painting, von Breda's reception piece for the Swedish Royal Academy, the subject has the appearance of a blind, dispirited old man. Yet to all intents and purposes Reynolds still enjoyed reasonable health. In September 1791 Edmond Malone accompanied him on a 5 mile country walk, recalling that although he was over sixty-eight, Reynolds had ‘the appearance of a man not much beyond fifty, and seemed as likely to live for ten or fifteen years, as any of his younger friends’ (Works, 1.cviii–cix, n.).

Within weeks Reynolds began to experience intense pain and inflammation in his left eye, caused by undiagnosed liver disease. Fanny Burney, who saw him for the last time the following month, noted the rapid decline in his constitution. ‘He seemed’, she observed,

serious even to sadness, though extremely kind. ‘I am very glad’, he said in a meek voice and dejected accent, ‘to see you again, and I wish I could see you better! but I have but one eye now,—and scarcely that.’ (Leslie and Taylor, 2.625)

During the remaining few months of his life Reynolds endured tremendous physical pain, and depression. His doctors, Sir George Baker and Dr Warren, ascribed his loss of appetite and low spirits to an attack of hypochondria.

Although he was not aware of the immediate cause of his illness, Reynolds knew he was dying, telling a friend who hoped for a recovery, ‘I know that all things on earth must have an end, and now I am come to mine’ (Northcote, Life, 2.286). On 5 November 1791 he wrote his will, bequeathing the bulk of his estate to his niece Mary Palmer (including a cash sum of £4000), gifts of pictures to his friends, and sums of money to his family and his servant Ralph. In his haste to complete the will Reynolds omitted to mention Giuseppe Marchi, although Mary Palmer ensured that he was granted an annuity after Reynolds's death. On 10 November Reynolds asked Benjamin West to stand in for him at a general meeting of the Royal Academy, requesting him to inform the Academicians that he wished to stand down before the annual presidential election the following month. On 10 December Reynolds was re-elected for the last time. He did not return to the academy. By late January 1792, as the physical pain became unbearable, he found some relief through laudanum, which he took in increasingly large doses. A week or so later Reynolds's friend Dr Blagden realized that there might be a specific reason for Reynolds's rapid decline, aside from self-pity. He sought further medical opinion. Liver disease was diagnosed. Baker and Warren agreed with the diagnosis, but by now it was too late for any effective treatment. Reynolds died, unmarried, at his home at 47 Leicester Square, London, on the evening of Thursday 23 February 1792.

Reynolds's executors, Edmond Malone, Edmund Burke, and Philip Metcalfe, asked permission from the council of the Royal Academy for Reynolds's body to lie in state at Somerset House on the night before his burial. Chambers objected, informing them that, owing to the nature of the lease, it was not possible to use the building for purposes other than had been originally designated. However, George III intervened on behalf of Reynolds's executors, and on the night of 2 March 1792 Reynolds's body was laid out in the Life Room of the Royal Academy, which, for the occasion, was draped in black, and lit by candles mounted in silver sconces. On the following day at half past twelve, the body was conveyed from Somerset House for state burial in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral. The coffin was accompanied in great ceremony by a cortège of ninety-one carriages. All ten pallbearers were prominent members of the aristocracy, including three dukes, two marquesses, and three earls. ‘Everything’, Burke told his son, ‘was just as our deceased friend would, if living, have wished it to be; for he was, you know not altogether indifferent to this kind of observances’ (Leslie and Taylor, 2.634–5).

Reynolds dominated the British art world in the second half of the eighteenth century, and any cultural history of the period would not be complete without some recognition of his central role. Many qualities contributed to his success. First and foremost, Reynolds was the most innovative portrait painter of his generation. Despite technical shortcomings and a tendency to sacrifice quality for quantity, his best portraits retain an unrivalled power and physical presence. His professional skills were underpinned by an unswerving personal ambition, tempered with an awareness of what could be realistically achieved in the current artistic climate, and within the bounds of his own particular gifts. Reynolds appreciated the value of patronage and social networks, and despite his own political preferences (he was a thorough whig), established a wide circle of acquaintance. He was a loyal and generous friend and loved company. And while he was guarded about expressing opinions about those he disliked, he did not suffer fools. Reynolds was a born taxonomist, endowed with an ability to absorb an extraordinary range of ideas and opinions which he could distil, organize, and express with clarity and vigour. The honours conferred upon him, his pre-eminent position at the Royal Academy, his reputation as founder of the British school, together with the seeming ease with which this was achieved, reflect an extraordinary desire to channel his energies into gaining public recognition. In the year before his death Reynolds argued with Chambers as he tirelessly campaigned to erect a monument to Samuel Johnson in St Paul's Cathedral. He wrote then of the importance of conferring and achieving honours. It may serve as his epitaph. ‘Distinction’, Reynolds affirmed, ‘is what we all seek after, and the world does set a value on them [sic], and I go with the great stream of life’ (Leslie and Taylor, 2.611).

Reynolds's posthumous reputation

Four years after his death, in 1796, Reynolds's executors disposed of the contents of his studio by auction, including all those works not retained by his niece (whose collection was sold after her death in 1821). The most expensive works in these early sales were subject pictures, which were still considered by Reynolds's acolytes to be his most important works. In 1813 the first retrospective exhibition of over 200 of Reynolds's pictures was mounted by the British Institution in Pall Mall. Although the exhibition was lauded by the mainstream press, the essayist Charles Lamb, writing in The Examiner, used the occasion to attack Reynolds's history paintings, in particular Ugolino and the Death of Cardinal Beaufort. ‘The one stares and the other grins’, he observed, ‘but is there common dignity in the countenances?’ (Postle, Subject Pictures, 293). Over the next two years Reynolds's reputation as a history painter was further undermined in a series of revisionist essays written by William Hazlitt in the radical periodical The Champion. While Hazlitt claimed to have no wish to undermine Reynolds's position as founder of the contemporary British school, he stressed that Reynolds's reputation had been inflated by the uncritical attitude of his friends and the vagaries of fashion. In 1797 Edmond Malone had published two volumes of Reynolds's collected writings, prefaced by a short, laudatory, biographical essay. In 1813–15 James Northcote published the first major biography of Reynolds, which he revised and expanded in a two-volume edition of 1818. In his biography Northcote provided a positive account of his former master's professional career and achievement. However, during the 1820s, in a series of published conversations with Hazlitt, he was far more critical, not least about Reynolds's personal life and character. While Hazlitt confessed that he had exaggerated Northcote's views and even invented some of the opinions attributed to him, his writings none the less contributed to a less reverent attitude towards Reynolds, notably in Allan Cunningham's scurrilous biographical essay of 1829, which appeared in the first volume of his populist Lives of the most Eminent British Painters.

Reynolds's reputation, although it was tarnished by the writings of Hazlitt and Cunningham, continued to rise during the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1865 The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds was published, co-authored by the American artist Charles Robert Leslie and the critic Tom Taylor (who completed the volume following Leslie's death in 1859). Leslie's and Taylor's biography, which contained a great deal of contextual matter on Reynolds's friendships and the politics of the period, reasserted the artist's position as a central figure in the Georgian cultural milieu, as well as suggesting for the first time (largely through Taylor's input) Reynolds's close allegiance to the whig party. Major exhibitions of Reynolds's work continued to appear, notably that mounted at the Grosvenor Gallery in the winter of 1883, which was accompanied by a lavish catalogue by F. G. Stephens, who had also published, in 1867, English Children as Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a book which, in turn, reflected the immense popularity of the artist's child portraits. Indeed, the appeal of Reynolds's child portraiture to Victorian sentiment is reflected by the fact that The Age of Innocence (Tate collection) was copied full-size in oils no fewer than 323 times between 1856 and 1893. During the final decades of the nineteenth century prices for Reynolds's portraits, which had been steadily rising, reached new records, Lord Rothschild paying over £20,000 for Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy in 1886.

In 1900 the first catalogue raisonné of Reynolds's paintings, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, was published in four volumes by the picture dealer Algernon Graves and William Vine Cronin. This magisterial tome, containing detailed biographies of the artist's sitters and excerpts from contemporary criticism, provided an invaluable basis for Reynolds scholarship over the next hundred years. During the earlier decades of the twentieth century the most significant contribution to Reynolds studies was made by the American scholar Frederick Hilles, who in 1929 edited the first edition of the artist's letters. This was followed up, in 1936, by The Literary Career of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a pioneering study of the making of Reynolds's Discourses and the artist's other writings, and, in 1952, by Portraits … of Sir Joshua Reynolds, consisting of hitherto unpublished essays and notes by Reynolds discovered among the private papers of James Boswell. The greatest apologist for Reynolds's art in the twentieth century was Sir Ellis Waterhouse, who in 1941 published a book which, as he stated, illustrated ‘the bulk of Sir Joshua's major work in portraiture from the beginning of his career to the end’ (Waterhouse, Reynolds, 1941, ix). Waterhouse's writings on Reynolds were largely confined to short essays, and to the artist's portraits. However, his unrivalled firsthand knowledge of the paintings, combined with his generosity to fellow scholars, ensured that he dominated Reynolds studies until his death in 1986. That year also marked the biggest exhibition of Reynolds's art mounted in the twentieth century, which was held at the Royal Academy, London. This exhibition in turn sparked new initiatives, notably the project for a new catalogue raisonné of Reynolds's oil paintings, which was published by David Mannings (with Martin Postle) in 2000. However, while scholarly interest in Reynolds has been reinvigorated in recent years, this has not been matched either by a rise in public appeal, or by saleroom prices, which have remained below those of contemporaries such as Stubbs, Zoffany, Gainsborough, and Wright of Derby. A marked exception is Reynolds's Omai (Tate collection), which sold at Sothebys on 29 November 2001 for £10.3 million.

Martin Postle  DNB