Sir Joshua Reynolds
Caricature of Lord Bruce, Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, later, 1st Earl of Ailesbury; the Hon. John Ward; Joseph Leeson, Jnr, later 2nd Earl of Milltown, and Joseph Henry of Straffan
(Presumably) commissioned by Joseph Leeson, Jnr, later 2nd Earl of Milltown (1730 – 1801) from the Artist in Rome; thence (Presumably) by bequest to his goddaughter
Caroline Clements (c. 1781 – 1805), Killadoon House, County Kildare, Ireland; thence by descent until
Their sale; Sotheby’s, London, 21 Jan. 2020, lot 57.
Private Collection, UK, acquired at the above sale.
D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Complete Catalogue of his Oil Paintings, New Haven and London, 2000, vol. I, pp. 492-93 (as ‘COPY private collection’).
We are grateful to Martin Postle for confirming the attribution to Reynolds on the basis of first-hand inspection (22 July 2020). For full history please see the below catalogue entry by William Laffan.
At once erudite and playful, Joshua Reynolds’s series of caricatures, executed at a crucial moment in his career shortly after he had reached Rome, are defining images of the Grand Tour. Witty, knowing and technically proficient, the caricatures are unlike anything else Reynolds would paint in the long years ahead. The correct identification of a further work from the series makes for an important and dramatic addition to his oeuvre.
The rather fortuitous circumstances in which the young Reynolds found himself in Rome have been frequently rehearsed. Captain Augustus Keppel (1725-86) was forced to dock at Plymouth to repair his vessel bound for the Mediterranean and, through the good offices of Lord Edgcumbe (1720-95), a free passage was granted to the young artist. After a sojourn on Minorca, Reynolds reached the Eternal City in April 1750 remaining there for two years.
Reynolds’s ability to charm aristocratic sitters was the foundation of his phenomenally successful career – and indeed it was what had got him to Rome in the first place – so it does not surprise that he was soon on terms with the resident and visiting milordi and the year after his arrival he dated his well-known Parody of the School of Athens in which various English and Irish visitors (identified by name in one of Reynolds’s Roman notebooks) act out a deliberately grotesque lampoon of Raphael’s famous work in a gothic rather than classical architectural setting, playfully suggestive of the, supposed, northern barbarism of its British sitters.
Five other closely related caricatures by Reynolds are known. Two of which survive in two autograph versions including the present works, making seven in total. Three of these, plus the Parody, are in the National Gallery of Ireland. Two versions of Mr Turner, Sir William Lowther, Joseph Leeson and M. Huet exist at Hoker Hall and Bowood while a caricature showing John Woodyeare, Dr William Drake, Mr Cooke and Sir Charles Turner is in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design, having descended in the family of one of the sitters John Woodyeare. A distinct, but related, work Ralph Howard’s Escapade, showing Grand Tour high jinks, is in a private collection.
Standing in pride of place at the centre of the Parody of the School of Athens (and with heavy irony taking the role of Plato in Raphael’s original) is the bulky figure of Joseph Leeson who was the driving force behind the commissioning of the caricatures; the Parody itself was commissioned by his young nephew Joseph Henry. Leeson, an enormously wealthy brewer (and soon to be 1st Earl of Milltown), was unusual for the relatively advanced age at which he made the Grand Tour and for the fact that this was the second of his two tours; he had previously visited in 1744-45.
On his visits Leeson patronised Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89) and acquired a typically Grand Tour collection of antique and more modern sculpture, pietra dura tables, seventeenth-century bronzes and scores of paintings with a notable emphasis on slightly salacious works from the Florentine seicento, as well as pastels by Rosalba Carriera and views of Roman antiquities by Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1691-1765). These were to fill Russborough, County Wicklow, the great house that was under construction to designs by Richard Castle (1690-1751) as he and his son sojourned in Italy. On his previous Grand Tour Leeson had been painted in a forceful portrait by Pompeo Batoni (1708-87), and on this visit his son and nephew would also sit for their portraits, while Leeson, very likely introduced the Lucchese artist to other Irish visitors such as Thomas Dawson, Lord Charlemont and Robert Clements.
Leeson’s circle in Rome also commissioned drawn caricatures of themselves from the elderly Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674-1755), utterly different from the elegant idealisation of Batoni’s portraiture. One of these, in the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, in Rome, is dated 1750 and the last months of that year has been suggested as the likely date of their execution. One of the most elaborate of these caricatures by Ghezzi includes two of the sitters of the present work, Joseph Henry and Joseph Leeson Junior Philadelphia Museum of Art) another includes Joseph Leeson and Lord Charlemont (also in Philadelphia). These works by Ghezzi completed just a few months earlier were, no doubt, the immediate source of inspiration which led Leeson and his circle to ask the young Reynolds to try something similar but in oil. A tempting, if ultimately unproveable, hypothesis is that the copy after one of Ghezzi’s caricatures of the group which shared the same Killadoon provenance as the present work may also be by Reynolds.
The close relationship between the Parody of the School of Athens and some of the other caricatures can be seen by a comparison beteen the central figures in the Parody and a two-figure caricature again showing Leeson in reverse but in the same attitude and shown this time with a different companion, Sir Wiliam Lowther, (National Gallery of Ireland). Similarly two of the figures in the present work, of which there is another version in the National Gallery of Ireland, are repeated almost exactly in the Parody, the first and third from the left.
The first of these depicts the ‘elegant beanpole’ Lord Bruce (Thomas Bruce-Brundell 1729-1814) who had arrived in Rome by Easter 1751. He quickly became part of Charlemont’s circle and subscribed to his plans for an Academy for British artists in Rome. In addition to an extensive tour of Italy, Bruce visited Holland, Germany, Scandanavia and Russia. He was painted again – rather more conventionally – by Reynolds in 1765, served as tutor to George III’s children and was created Earl of Ailesbury in 1776.
Standing next to Bruce is another member of Charlemont’s circle, and another supporter of his Academy, the Hon. John Ward of Hemley, Staffordshire, who like Burce had appeared in a caricature by Ghezzi and features in another one of Reynolds’s caricatures (with Charlemont, Sir Thomas Kennedy and Richard Phelps) but is the only one of the four men shown here who does not reapper in the Parody.
Next to him we see Joseph Leeson Junior, later 2nd Earl of Milltown. The younger Leeson would be unkindly mocked as an ‘incorrigible simpleton’, and even Batoni, that most flattering of artist, fails to make him appear in any way sympathetic. Young Leeson certainly did not display the urbanity or possess the erudition of his cousin Joseph Henry who is shown to his right, and, in so far as we can derive valid character assessments from Reynolds’s caricatures, he presents a singularly unfortunate appearance. Leeson’s effete and mischievous personality was greatly enjoyed by female company, though he was, by his own admission, committed to bachelorhood. The fact that in 1766 his brother Brice’s son was baptised Joseph – the traditional forename given to the heir– must have signalled that by this date it was clear the Joseph Junior was never going to marry and that the title would go sideways to Brice and his progeny.
In 1780 Leeson was acquitted by a Dublin court of ‘pressing solicitations to perform an Italian experiment upon a printseller’s boy’, and he seems to have been back in Italy at the time of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, a most unusual journey for a sixty-eight-year old man to have made – unless, of course, Italy offered pleasures less easily enjoyed at home.
Finally, on the right of the composition is shown Joseph Henry, the son of Leeson senior’s sister Anne – and so the cousin of Leeson Junior. Henry appears in two of Ghezzi’s caricatures and also in the Parody of the School of Athens. However, while the figures of Leeson Junior and Lord Bruce are repeated in the Parody almost exactly as they appear in the present work, Henry, who commissioned the picture, is given additional prominence, taking the position of Diogenes in Raphael’s original he sprawls on the steps to the right of centre. Henry has been described as ‘the most erudite in classics of the entire Irish and British contingent at that time in Rome’.
He commissioned work from Richard Wilson (1714-82), sat to Batoni and like his uncle ordered four works from Vernet. Robert Adam (1728-92) described him as a ‘clever, sensible fellow’ adding ‘he has seen much of the world to purpose’. Henry later published an essay on Raphael’s Madonna del Pesce, and in a further caricature by Ghezzi he is shown sedulously consulting a volume on Roman antiquities. Here by contrast he is seated on the right studying ‘with a witless expression’ a large volume inscribed ‘Cloaca Massima’ referring to the great sewer of ancient Rome, and showing an image of its outfall into the Tiber. On the Grand Tour lavatorial humour could co-exist very comfortably with displays of erudition.
Benedetti argues for the primacy of Leeson’s commission of the three caricatures featuring himself and his son, now in the National Gallery of Ireland. These, he suggests, are ‘contemporary or just a fraction earlier’ than the works from Holker Hall and Rhode Island. In Benedetti’s chronology the Parody of the School of Athens comes next. In it, several figures from the Leeson commission are reused but Benedetti notes that in reversing the bulky figure of Joseph Leeson from the caricature showing him with Sir William Lowther he forgets that Leeson now appears ‘holding his quizzing glass with his left hand’. Benedetti advances stylistic and compositional reasons, too, for the primacy of the caricatures, and particularly of the Milltown group, with which the present work must now be directly associated:
the small caricatures are painted in a more refined manner, and although executed with a fast brushwork they show a better impasto which cannot be explained just by their evident better condition. Several pentimenti are visible in the Parody and they are the result of subsequent additions to the composition, of figures or objects. In the other pictures, instead, where the changes appear, they comprise real differences of gestures or actions.
Of the works under consideration, only the Parody is dated (to 1751) and accepting Benedetti’s sequencing, a date of sometime earlier in the same year is likely for the present work, and those in Dublin, Rhode Island, at Bowood and Hoker Hall.
Back at Russborough, Leeson seems to have included his three Roman caricatures among the few paintings he allowed into his panelled Study, a private male sphere just off the Drawing Room (paradoxically, it later became Lady Beit’s Boudoir).
Joseph Leeson Junior, later 2nd Earl of Milltown, who is shown so prominently in the present work was the godfather to Caroline Clements (c. 1781-1805), daughter of Robert Clements, later 1st Earl of Leitrim (1732-1804). Clements was in Italy in 1753, just after the Leesons, where he was painted by Batoni in one of his most sympathetic Grand Tour portraits (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth). On his return, Clements built the family home of Killadoon, county Kildare. It is a reasonable assumption that the Reynolds caricature was a gift from Leeson to his goddaughter’s family. Another portrait of Leeson in Van Dyck fancy dress by Robert Hunter shares the same provenance. The Reynolds is recorded in an inventory of Killadoon of 27 June 1836 when it was hanging in the Dining Room and described as ‘Reynolds of Lords Milltown, Aylesbury and Dudley and Mr Henry of Straffan’. The picture descended in the Clements family at Killadoon, still hanging in the Dining Room, until sold at Sotheby’s on 21 January 2020, as lot 57.
The other version meanwhile descended in the Milltown family at Russborough through the nineteenth century. The last three earls, who were brothers, failed to produce an heir between them and in March 1906 the entire collection at Russborough, including the three caricatures, was given to the National Gallery of Ireland on the death of the last countess, Lady Barbara (a daughter of the Earl of Harrington). Also included in the Milltown Gift to the National Gallery was Reynolds’s Parody of the School of Athens, though it will be remembered that this had not been commissioned by the Leesons but by Joseph Henry, shown in the present work. However, it was sold from his family at Christie’s in March 1868 and was subsequently acquired by Lady Barbara and so rejoined the other caricatures.
It has long been known that some of the caricatures existed in more than one version. David Mannings is somewhat inconsistent in the attributional status he ascribes to these. He categories the present work as ‘COPY private collection’, while stating that the Sir Charles Turner, Sir William Lowther, Joseph Leeson and Monsieur Huet ‘exists in two versions’ one at Holker Hall and one at Bowood. Expanding on this, he writes of the latter ‘Waterhouse thought this might be a contemporary copy of the picture at Holker Hall. The compiler considers it an authentic second version, probably by Reynolds himself ’.
The fact that both ‘second’ versions have a strong provenance to one of the sitters in each respective work – the picture now at Bowood was in the possession of Sir Charles Turner’s widowed daughter-in-law – would rather suggest that they were commissioned directly by one of the sitters. Reynolds in Rome was a young jobbing artist a long way removed from the painting room in Leicester Fields, with Giuseppe Marchi and other assistants producing versions – and indeed painting large parts of the ‘prime’ portraits themselves. If replicas of these small pictures were needed he would be the obvious person to whom to entrust the commission. Indeed, the suggestion that an Italian artist was asked to copy these small – and idiosyncratic – pictures in Rome, when the young Reynolds was on hand seems decidedly perverse. Even less likely is the possibility that the Killadoon picture was copied by an artist back home in Ireland. Indeed, Mannings by arguing for the autograph status of the Bowood picture acknowledges that Reynolds produced replicas of the caricatures. It seems the most unlikely of all possible scenarios that he should produce a replica of one of the caricatures while another artist was asked to paint a replica of another.
This evidence is strong but circumstantial, however, it is corroborated by the multiple pentimenti that a recent cleaning has revealed. At the same time, Reynolds’s assured handling and control of palette is absolutely consistent with the works in the National Gallery of Ireland.
As with the two version of the caricature at Holker Hall and Bowood the two versions of the Lord Bruce, John Ward, Joseph Leeson Jnr and Joseph Henry are of slightly different sizes, and while generally very close, they are not identical in detail. The main difference is that the rather fussy detail of Joseph Leeson’s upraised hands is omitted in the ex-Killadoon picture while Reynolds has given Bruce an even more impressively aquiline nose.
Mannings based his judgment of the status of the Killadoon picture as a ‘copy’ on the strength of a photograph alone. Nicholas Penny judged it differently, writing in the catalogue of the 1986 Royal Academy exhibition: ‘There is another version of the painting in a private collection in Ireland which may well be autograph’. The recent cleaning has proved Penny’s intuition correct.
According to his pupil and biographer James Northcote Reynolds later regretted his early foray into caricature:
I have heard Sir Joshua himself declare, that, although it was universally allowed he executed subjects of this kind with much humour and spirit, he held it absolutely necessary to abandon the practice since it must corrupt his taste as a portrait painter, whose duty it becomes to aim at discovering the perfections and not the imperfections of those he is to represent.
Clearly these delightful forays into caricature did not corrupt Reynolds’s taste. Instead they remain as among the most appealing of his early works, and the only portraits that he painted in Rome. The rediscovery of an additional work in the series with a provenance back to one of the sitters, via his god-daughter, makes for one of the most exciting additions to Reynolds’s early oeuvre in recent years.