Reynolds self-portrait reveals a hidden secret


X-ray from Sir Joshua Reynolds self portrait

X-ray from Sir Joshua Reynolds self portrait

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery’s early self-portrait by famous 18th century portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds has revealed a hidden secret during conservation treatment.

The painting, which dates from about 1746, was acquired last year along with a sketchbook filled with drawings that Reynolds made while visiting Italy in the early 1750s.

It underwent important conservation work during the summer and autumn and while this was taking place x-rays revealed a hidden image of an unknown male in the bottom left hand corner of the canvas.

“It was not uncommon for artists in the 18th century to re-use their materials – although we definitely weren’t expecting to find this when we started work,” said conservator Seonaid Wood.

“We don’t unfortunately know who the original portrait is of. All we can assume is that Reynolds was unhappy with it so turned the canvas round and painted his self-portrait over the top.”

The painting is now on display as one of the highlights in the City Museum and Art Gallery’s In The Frame: Plymouth’s Portraits Revealed exhibition.

Self portrait c1746 by Sir Joshua Reynolds © Plymouth City Council

Self portrait c1746 by Sir Joshua Reynolds © Plymouth City Council

The painting and sketchbook are two of the most significant acquisitions ever made by the Museum and Art Gallery and move it one step closer towards its aim of becoming a centre of excellence for the study of Reynolds’ early career.

The acquisitions were made possible thanks to grant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Purchase Grant Fund.

Another vital element of the acquisition was a £10,000 contribution from the Friends of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. They ran a series of events and fundraising activities throughout 2013 and early 2014, from securing donations and giving talks to holding coffee mornings and organising art auctions.

Councillor Peter Smith, Deputy Leader of Plymouth City Council said: “We’re extremely grateful to the Friends for their continued support and their contribution towards the purchase of this fascinating painting and sketchbook, which have added significantly to Plymouth’s collection of Reynolds materials.”

Michael Moore, Chairman of the Friends said: “We consider the purchase of these items as perfect additions to the Museum and Art Gallery’s collections and hope this will continue to build as time goes on. Along with other works of art housed around the city and further afield, acquisitions like this can only increase Plymouth’s reputation as a centrepoint for Reynolds enthusiasts both at home and abroad. We were thrilled to have been able to help make this happen.”

In The Frame: Plymouth’s Portraits Revealed will be on display throughout 2015.

For more information about Reynolds, his life and career see our Sir Joshua Reynolds web pages.