Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Mayne (d.1780) 1774 - 76

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Mayne (d.1780), Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
56 3/4 x 45 1/2 inches 144.1 x 115.6 cm
The artist''s sale, Greenwood''s, 16 April 1796, Lot.28. Acquired by the sitter''s eldest son Colonel William Mayne and sold by his widow to Henry Blair Mayne. Henry Blair Mayne sale, Christie''s, 14 May 1881, Lot.264. Collection of Henry Bingham Mildmay Esq. and then by family descent until sold in 1997.
A.Graves & W.V.Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A., London, vol.II, p.636. Ellis K.Waterhouse, Reynolds, 1941, p.94 Engraved: G.H.Every, 1866 R.B.Parkes, 1876
London, Royal Academy, 1877, no.11. Plymouth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1951, no.44. Plymouth City Art Gallery, Art Treasures from West Country Collections, 1970, no.41.
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This magnificent portrait of Mrs Robert Mayne, datable to the period 1774-76, (1) has recently emerged as a startling testament to Reynolds''s painterly brilliance. Although possessing the artist''s characteristic traits of contrived classicism and nobility in both pose and composition, the fact that this painting barely proceeded further than a vibrant study sketch (for historical reasons later discussed) has left for posterity a revealing example of Reynolds''s virtuoso painting - a portrait as much in tune with the lyrical style of romanticism exemplified by his rival Thomas Gainsborough, as it is with the painter''s more familiar approach based on association with the antique. Its dramatic return to Reynolds'' oeuvre of the 1770''s is heightened by the fact that, until recently, it lay hidden from view beneath cosmetic layers of Victorian overpaint.

Although left unfinished at the artist''s death and included in his studio sale with other Fancy Subjects, Studies and Sketches, for reasons that can only be guessed at, the portrait of Mrs Robert Mayne was substantially overpainted and completed at some point in the first half of the nineteenth century. Two mezzotint engravings executed after the picture in 1866 and 1876 show clearly the extent of the repainting, particularly in the landscape background, the column and the curtain. (2) During recent conservation these large areas of over-paint, accounting for approximately 2/3 of the picture surface, including the head and face, were then removed to reveal the pristinely preserved study sketch that is now visible.

When Thomas Gainsborough, Reynolds''s greatest artistic rival, moved to London in 1774 Waterhouse considers that Reynolds was roused from a mild lethargy to a new effort in the ensuing years... never before [had he] been so varied or so original. (3) His Royal Academy exhibits of that year included portraits of Dr Beattie in The Triumph of Truth and the Montgomery sisters in Three ladies adorning a Term of Hymen. By using classical sources Reynolds sought to emphasize the key difference between his academic approach to art and that of the less intellectual Gainsborough. At the same time, however, in the freely-painted passages of this portrait of Mrs Robert Mayne, Reynolds appears to be emulating the bravura handling characteristic of Gainsborough''s full-length portraits. The landscape, column and curtain have been energetically sketched-in with a thrilling virtuosity of brushwork reminiscent of Gainsborough''s odd scratches and marks [that] at distance assumes form which so astonished Reynolds. (4) This looseness and freedom, in conjunction with the serenity of the pose, and the freshness of the facial characterisation, conspire to make this one of the most spontaneous and successful of Reynolds''s portrayals of society glamour.

At around the time of their marriage in 1775 both Robert Mayne, a Jermyn Street banker and his wife, Sarah, sat to Reynolds. The artist''s pocketbooks for 1774-6 are missing so there is no record of the precise sittings. Neither portrait was delivered however, and later both were sold on the third day of the artist''s studio sale at Greenwood''s in April 1796, the portrait of Mrs Mayne being described as a sketch and bought for 31 10s. (5) By the late 1770s Mayne was almost certainly experiencing financial difficulties and this probably accounts for the unfulfilled commission. Shortly after the studio sale both portraits were acquired by Colonel William Mayne, the eldest son of Robert Mayne, until they were sold by his widow to Henry Blair Mayne. Both were then sold at Christie''s in 1881 and Mrs Robert Mayne was acquired by Henry Bingham Mildmay in whose family the picture remained until 1997.

During his study trip to Italy Reynolds developed a technique or method of portrait painting based on his observations that he maintained throughout his career. This involved laying-in the picture with a cool monochrome underpainting which was then finished off by glazing and scumbling - sometimes with a further layer or layers of tinted varnish.(6) During the first sitting the heads were often completely finished. Dr Beattie recorded in his diary that the first sitting for his portrait lasted five hours, in which time he finished my head and sketched out the rest of the figure. (7) In this way Reynolds would finish off the head before moving onto the drapery and background, to which would then be added a large degree of studio participation.

Farington commented that Reynolds''s studio resembled a manufactory, in which young men who were sent to him for tuition were chiefly occupied in copying portraits or assisting in draperies, and preparing backgrounds. (8) Unfinished portraits by Reynolds normally consist of finished heads and indicated backgrounds as can be seen in Mrs John Spencer and her Daughter and A Young Black. (9) What is so exceptional about the painting of Mrs Robert Mayne is that although the work ceased before studio participation, with the posssible exception of the dress, it achieves the critical appearance of a happily resolved picture - a monumental society portrait which still preserves the freedom and elan of a vigorously executed study.

The sitter, Sarah, was the third daughter and co-heiress of Francis Otway of Riverhill and Ashgrove, near Sevenoaks, Kent. She married on 15 June 1775 Robert Mayne M.P., of Gatton Park, Surrey. He was the son of William Mayne of Powis Lodge, Clackmannan, by his second wife, Helen, daughter of William Galbraith of Balgair, Stirling. Robert Mayne was primarily a banker offering financial brokering services with offices in Jermyn Street. His firm first appearing in trade directories in 1770 as Mayne and Needham but by 1774 he was established as Robert Mayne & Co. He was also an important government contractor who obtained contracts to victual British troops in America and the West Indies in the 1770s and 1780s. He was Member of Parliament for Gatton between 1774 and August 1782. In 1782 his firm went bankrupt which led to his suicide the same year.

(1) A Graves and W V Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA, 1899, Vol II, p.636.

(2) Mezzotint by G H Every, published by Henry Graves and Co. See: Freeman O''Donoghue, Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits in the British Museum,1912, Vol III, p.216.

(3) Eliis K Waterhouse, Reynolds, 1941, p.18.

(4) Robert R Wark, ed., Sir Joshua Reynolds - Discources on Art, 1975 pp. 257-8.

(5) The artist''s sale, Greenwood''s, 16 April 1796, Lot 1, Mr Mayne, bt. Peckwell, 11, 11s and Lot 28, Mrs Mayne, bt.s Sanby, 31,10s.

(6) M Kirby Talley, Jr, All Good Pictures Crack - Sir Joshua Reynolds''s practice and studio in Nicholas Penny, ed, Reynolds, exh.cat.1986, pp.66-7.

(7) Quoted in Penny, ed., Reynolds, 1986, p.67.

(8) J Pye, The Patronage of British Art, 1845, p.153.

(9) Nicholas Penny, ed., Reynolds, 1986, p.59, cat.nos 32 &77.
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