Twenty years ago, the Royal Academy put together the Reynolds show to beat all Reynolds shows (we are talking size here, of course, not revelation), and Tate Britain could hardly repeat the effect. So it is Reynolds again, but this time, from an angle — Reynolds viewed inventively, another Reynolds. It is the same blockbuster, but it looks different. The angle they have chosen is tailor-made for now. We live in an age that is addicted to fame and defined by a sad and silly thirst for celebrity. We are, alas, the epoch that came up with Celebrity Love Island. But although we are certainly the worst offenders, we are seemingly not the first. Tate Britain is outing the second half of the 18th century, Reynolds’s age, as the source of that terrible descent into vacuity that has culminated in us. We are the hard-core junkies without a future, slumped in the gutter in pools of Abi Titmuss-flavoured vomit. But it was Reynolds who took the first puff.
What the Tate show achieves, and what is special about it, is an intelligent sifting of the evidence. It is not a journey packed with great art: fine paintings alternate with feeble ones. But it is a journey packed with great insights. Reynolds’s pursuit of fame had some virtue to it; ours has none. So the Tate show opens not with actresses, which would have been cheap and more up our street, but with a ring of preposterous male posers who surround you as you enter and seek immediately to convey their importance to you with showy stares and calculating gestures.
One is a young gun who shades his eyes with an upraised hand as he dares to look into the sun. Another has dressed as a shepherd who attended the Nativity and adored Christ. A third is a grand professor who stands next to a bust of Michelangelo and demands you compare them. A fourth is an old man in glasses, grey-haired and podgy, with a gaze that would shame a stalking tiger in its refusal to waver. They are all Reynolds, of course, a parade of self-portraits through his ages that fix you jointly with expressions of such intense alertness that giving them back anything less than full-on concentration is barely an option. It is immediately clear that Reynolds valued himself ridiculously highly.
Getting everyone else to agree was his mission.
The next room presents a different array of male celebrities. This lot are the footballers of their time: soldiers. In Reynolds’s day, the game was played on real battlefields and was genuinely a matter of life and death. But with one war following another so regularly during his lifetime, with home battles against the French leading so quickly to away battles in the American war of independence, the appetite for disposable action heroes was already in need of sating.
First come the players, the fearless young bucks, the Rooneys, the Ronaldos, such as Lord Cathcart, who managed to get himself seriously injured on three different occasions in a decade and whom Reynolds paints smirking down at us from an Italianate balcony instead of an open-top bus. Cathcart sports what I took to be a giant beauty spot on his cheek. This turned out to be a black silk patch he wore to cover up an injury received at the Battle of Fontenoy, where he was shot in the face. They are ridiculously glamorous, these dashing officers and gentlemen in their pillar-box-red England kits (sponsored by Corpse and Sons, undertakers to the empire), and posed so flashily, horses to the right of them, cannons to the left. Those elder statesmen of the game, the managers, are here as well: Admiral Keppel, Lord Heathfield, podgy old warriors who bring out the best in Reynolds and star in the finest of his military portraits; they are the saddest, the least dashing, because he was never a fool and recognised a troubled inner life when he saw one.
Reynolds was ferociously well connected. He was one of Britain’s first great networkers. Admirals, actresses, men of action, men of letters, poets, philosophers, pimps, prime ministers — he mixed with all of them if the need arose and assembled the most impressive address book of his age. Apart from the soldiers, whose fame proved transient, most of the sitters girning before us still have reputations to reckon with: a fearsome Samuel Johnson, like Ian Paisley in a wig, wild-eyed and bellicose; Boswell, puffy from drink, yes, but noble too, in a minor key; Charles James Fox, in whom the demeanour of a spaniel masked the alertness of a whippet.
Reynolds seems to have understood before anyone else that ages are defined by the people who shape them. And if you are the portraitist who comes up with the images that end up in the textbooks, then you, too, are quids in. It is a venal game plan, pursued with utter ruthlessness. Having made himself the president of the Royal Academy, Reynolds threatened to resign unless the king gave him a knighthood. The more melodramatic identities recorded here strike you as entirely liquid, as easily doffed as a masquerade costume, and just as artificial. On various occasions among the paintings, the act of achieving a fine portrait seems secondary to the act of collecting a famous face.
But, encouragingly, these moments are not as common as you might dread. This is a well-selected box of worthies. And among Reynolds’s saving graces was a fierce loyalty to his friends, who happened to be the notables of his times. Although he flattered the nobodies far too readily, he was honest to the point of cruelty with the somebodies. Thus, the unusually ugly Oliver Goldsmith is comprehensively out- uglied by Edward Gibbon. Never mind The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, what about the recession and disappearance of Gibbon’s chin? Here is a truly tragic jowl line that makes Ian Hislop’s look like Jimmy Hill’s.
Interestingly, Reynolds was usually a better painter of men than he was of women. It is the most telling of the many differences between him and the infinitely more wristy and talented Gainsborough. This show doesn’t reach Reynolds’s women until just before it finishes. But with women as with men, his responses were dependent on his relationship with the sitter. Duchesses rarely brought out anything worthwhile in him. Actresses and prostitutes usually did. The show explains Reynolds’s fondness for scandalous women as another cunning manoeuvre on his part, a deliberate courting of notoriety undertaken by someone who understood the rules of the celebrity game all too presciently. That must be true, but surely there was more to it than that? With Nelly O’Brien, the age’s most notorious courtesan, there was constant talk of an illicit relationship. Certainly, his portraits of her, and those of the equally infamous Kitty Fisher, are unexpectedly warm and loving. The quickening of his pulse is obvious, but so, too, is the sudden onset of tenderness. It is as if women such as Nelly and Kitty allowed Reynolds to be a real painter where the duchesses didn’t. They brought out the Rembrandt in him, and, amazingly, there was some in there.
Thus, the cult of the celebrity that Reynolds helped to germinate can count him among its cultivators, but not among its victims. Much of this unusually intelligent arrangement is spent in the company of hams, feigning whatever plays best in the circumstances: tragedy here and comedy there. But among his proper friends, allowed to paint proper portraits of them, Reynolds was strikingly inventive. Few pictures here take the easy route to an effect, as so many of Gainsborough’s do. In discerning much in Reynolds that was authentic, this exhibition achieves some excellent propaganda of its own.