Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of W. Penney Esq., 1760s 

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Portrait of W. Penney Esq., 1760s, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches, 76.2 x 63.5cm
With Messrs Ellis and Smith of Grafton Street, London, by whom sold; Christies, London 25th May 1934, lot 167, as; “Sir J Reynolds PRA/Portrait of W Penney Esq.”; Bought Shanley for 100 guineas; Private Collection UK.
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Joshua Reynolds’s career was not only celebrated in his day, but left a lasting influence on British Art. He was the first President of the Royal Academy, and in his ‘Discourses’ he set a pattern for portraiture that was faithfully followed for over a hundred years. As with all great figures who dominate that which succeeds them, it is hard now to comprehend just how revolutionary Reynolds’ art was. His work, however, should not be compared to Lawrence and Gainsborough, or Watts and Sargent, but to his predecessors; Lely, Kneller, Jervas, and even Hogarth.
For portraiture in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was too often stuck in a post-Van Dyckian rut. Its purpose was depiction, and its practitioners confined by technical inhibition. It was, to Reynolds, a blank canvas, and on it he painted in the ‘Grand Manner’ of Italian old masters. Henceforth, sitters were no longer bound by the rigid structures and decorum of ‘Society’ – which in portraiture translates into repetition – for Reynolds’ technical mastery allowed him to place subjects in whatever pose, setting, or characterization he desired. The result was the complete reinvention of British portraiture.
This portrait, deftly lit and simply composed, shows Reynolds’ talent at capturing character as well as likeness. We know from contemporary sources that Reynolds – particularly at the time this portrait was taken – could take up to a dozen hours worth of sittings, often just to complete the head alone. So it should come as no surprise that his sitters are so well observed compared with the ‘face-mask’ portraits of earlier artists. Here, the sitter peers at us with a studied, military imperiousness, his right eye dramatically catching the light on the dark side of his face.

This work, which dates from the early 1760s, has been traditionally identified as ‘W Penney’, and was sold as such at Christies in 1934. It has not been possible to identify a Mr Penney in Reynolds’ surviving sitter books (the book for 1763 is missing) but the sitter could instead be the ‘Mr Pennyman’ listed in 1762, and for which no other picture is currently known. Wharton Pennyman, of Ormesby Hall, Yorkshire, is a possible candidate for the sitter, later the 5th Baronet. If the sitter is a William Penney, he may be the William Penney of Ulverston, who, by 1760 was a Deputy Lieutenant in Lancashire.
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