Joshua Reynolds

An Angel Contemplating the Cross, Joshua Reynolds © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792) was a leading portrait painter and the first President of the Royal Academy.

He was inspired by artists such as the old masters, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck. Reynolds’ paintings are rich in symbolism, with considered use of costume and pose.

Reynolds in the Portland Collection

Many of these characteristics are evident in his portrait of William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott as a boy, later the 4th Duke of Portland (1768-1754), painted around 1776. Here, William is around nine years old and is dressed in 17th-century costume, reminiscent of the portraits of his ancestors by Van Dyck.

Reynolds’ portrait of the 3rd Duke of Portland from 1785 depicts the Duke deep in contemplation at his desk. The 3rd Duke of Portland was Prime Minister twice, with an extraordinary 24 years between his terms in office. Reynolds made the painting during this period between his premierships, while he was the leader of the Whigs.

While both of these portraits are arguably typical examples of Reynold’s work, his painting of John Cleaver is more unusual. This portrait was commissioned by the 3rd Duke of Portland and depicts his land agent, who worked for the Duke for six years.

An Angel Contemplating the Cross

The most surprising work by Reynolds in the Portland Collection is the painting An Angel Contemplating the Cross which hangs in the Chapel at Welbeck Abbey. This work can be seen on the Welbeck Abbey State Room Tours. The painting is part of a design for the chapel window at New College, Oxford.

Historian Michael Hall tells us: “Reynolds bequeathed the painting to the 3rd Duke of Portland, who was pallbearer at his funeral in 1792. It now forms the altarpiece in the chapel at Welbeck, an unexpected component of an Arts and Crafts ensemble that includes an altar cross designed by Henry Wilson.”


Rebecca Hardy

Rebecca Hardy

Rebecca Hardy trained as a fine artist and has been working in the culture sector for over a decade. She writes for a number of publications, on topics such as art history, contemporary exhibitions, and museum marketing.

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See Reynold’s Angel Contemplating the Cross on the Welbeck Abbey State Room Tours