The subject of this portrait is Mrs Elizabeth Field, sister-in-law of the artist’s uncle the Rev. Joshua Reynolds, and is one of the very earliest works that can be attributed to Reynolds’s hand.

In some senses, it is quite unlike the portraits for which he was later to become famous. The sitter is not one of the grand aristocratic ladies whom Reynolds was to paint with such bravura, but is a more modest figure, drawing from the most intimate of Reynolds’s circles in his native Devon. Dating from before Reynolds’s transformative Grand Tour of 1749-1752, moreover, it lacks the conscious – and at times mannered – allusiveness to the works of Italian masters of the likes of Titian, whom Reynolds was later to revere. Instead, it provides an excellent example of Reynolds’s unstudied yet closely observed early manner, when he was most under the influence of his similarly Devon-born master Thomas Hudson (c.1701-1779), to whom he was apprenticed for...

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The subject of this portrait is Mrs Elizabeth Field, sister-in-law of the artist’s uncle the Rev. Joshua Reynolds, and is one of the very earliest works that can be attributed to Reynolds’s hand.

In some senses, it is quite unlike the portraits for which he was later to become famous. The sitter is not one of the grand aristocratic ladies whom Reynolds was to paint with such bravura, but is a more modest figure, drawing from the most intimate of Reynolds’s circles in his native Devon. Dating from before Reynolds’s transformative Grand Tour of 1749-1752, moreover, it lacks the conscious – and at times mannered – allusiveness to the works of Italian masters of the likes of Titian, whom Reynolds was later to revere. Instead, it provides an excellent example of Reynolds’s unstudied yet closely observed early manner, when he was most under the influence of his similarly Devon-born master Thomas Hudson (c.1701-1779), to whom he was apprenticed for a planned four years from 1740, although Reynolds in fact only stayed for three.

Reynolds’s father, Samuel (1681–1745), had himself been a fellow of an Oxford college – Balliol – for a time, but in 1711 he gave it up in order to marry Theophilia Potter (1688-1756), the daughter of a Devonian rector, with whom he had eleven children (of which the artist Joshua was the seventh). Having moved to Torrington, Devon, in 1715, he was appointed the master of the free grammar school, Plympton. This is where Reynolds himself was educated when he had reached the right age. The education he received under the direction of his father was to have a profound impact on the way in which he perceived his art. It introduced him to the works of the great authors of antiquity, as well as to the English greats. Lessons were not limited to the schoolroom, however, with students encouraged to read widely and voraciously in their spare time. Reynolds was also introduced to the intellectual circles in which his father kept his company, among them the Revd. Zachariah Mudge (1694-1769), a figure who was held in high regard by Edmund Burke (1729/30-1797).[1]

Reynolds’s artistic formation came in the home. He would copy out the plates of books, and his elder sister later recalled how Reynolds and his siblings had been allowed to draw on the whitewashed walls of a long passage in the family house with burnt sticks. His first recorded portraits were of figures close to him and to his family, and here is no exception. Elizabeth Field was the sister of Mary, the wife of Reynolds’s uncle, the Revd. Joshua Reynolds, a fellow and bursar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. It is likely that Reynolds took his first name after this uncle. Although Elizabeth Field never married, she was referred to as Mrs Field, a convention of the time. She was evidently close to her brother-in-law who, when he died, left all his property to her (his wife having predeceased him).[2]

The portrait has long been esteemed in the literature as a very fine example of Reynolds’s early style, before he turned to portraiture in the ‘grand manner’. Writing in 1856, William Cotton praised the ‘very beautiful portrait’, which he particularly esteemed for the carnations (flesh tones) ‘of great delicacy and clearness’.[3] Along with the sitter’s physiognomy, Reynolds here carefully notes the sitter’s costume, which he paints in a colour that Waterhouse described as ‘honey grey’.[4] The portrait is particularly unusual in Reynolds’s oeuvre for the inclusion of the stone-coloured scrolled border, a device that seems to hark back to the portraiture of the time of Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) and Mary Beale (c.1633-1699).

David Mannings, author of the catalogue raisonné of Reynolds’s works, sides with 1744 as the most likely date at which this was painted – the year following the abrupt termination of Reynolds’s apprenticeship under Thomas Hudson (although any ill will between the two was quickly dispelled) – as was first proposed by Ellis Waterhouse.[5] Following the halt of his training under Hudson, Reynolds returned from London to Devon and spent the following year working in Plymouth until his return to London at the end of 1744. During this period, Reynolds charged three and a half guineas per portrait, a fee it seems reasonable to assume that he might have dropped when painting a family member as here.

[1] M. Postle, ‘Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723–1792)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edn., Oxford, 2004) [accessed 12th March 2020].

[2] A. Graves and W. V. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (4 vols., London, 1899-1901), i, pp. 301-02.

[3] W. Cotton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and his Works; Gleanings from his Diary, Unpublished Manuscripts, and from other Sources (Plymouth, 1856), p. 60.

[4] Quoted in Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, i, p. 187.

[5] See Ibid.

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500 Years of British Art