Spotlight on Reynolds exhibition review, Kenwood House, London

Sir Joshua Reynolds “dominated the artistic life of England in his age”, said Melanie McDonagh in the Evening Standard. As the co-founder and first president of the Royal Academy, Reynolds (1723-1792) held immense power over the country’s art establishment, and was generally “revered” by his fellow painters. Constable, for one, described his work as “the finest feeling of art that ever existed”. 

This summer marks 300 years since his birth, and Kenwood House on the edge of Hampstead Heath is celebrating the occasion by putting its full collection of 17 Reynolds paintings on display, alongside works by “rivals and contemporaries” including Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney. Together, the pictures form a treasure trove of portraiture, mostly depicting aristocratic ladies and children, sometimes “dignified with classical or literary references”, others captured without frill or fuss. Taken as a whole, the display offers “a splendid opportunity” to revisit the work of a wonderful artist, and to appreciate “the full span” of his talents. 

There are some “truly stunning” works of art here, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. Unfortunately, though, none of them are by Joshua Reynolds. Gainsborough’s marvellous portrait of Mary, Countess Howe, also on display, eclipses anything by the ostensible star of this show. The trouble is that Reynolds was at best a “minor talent”, a well-connected hack with no imagination. His “idea of creating a great work of art” seemed to be “to dress someone in a splendid costume, place some props behind them and flatly record the scene”. His “Mrs Tollemache as Miranda” is a case in point – a bad picture “of someone who clearly can’t act, attempting a Shakespearean role”. Indeed, even “the best painting” here, a self-portrait “from which he gazes back at you through spectacles” fails to capture any hint of “fire” in his “myopic eyes”. “This man was hired to depress art,” William Blake once complained of Reynolds. Centuries on, he’s “still at it”. 

Reynolds has long been out of fashion, said Laura Freeman in The Times. “Dead white man paints assorted aristos, actors and actresses you’ve probably never heard of” dressed up as obscure mythological figures – and the results can be dreadful. A “dim, coquettish” picture of a young shepherdess here, replete with “baalambs and all”, sees him at his “most revoltingly fey and sentimental”. His “fancy pictures”, depicting “precocious cherub children playing at allegories”, are “emetically cute”. Yet he can “still dazzle”. His portrait of the 11-year-old Lady Mary Leslie (1764), for instance, is a fine likeness. A Rembrandt-style painting of Catherine Moore (1752) is “a perfect illustration of how a homely looking woman” can be “lent mystery” by the shadow of a bonnet. This selection of paintings might not be “the cream of Reynolds”, but it makes for “a nice, tight exhibition”.

Kenwood House, London NW3 (0370-333 1181, Until 19 November