Samuel Johnson Colloquium

Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1756 (NPG 1597)

The National Portrait Gallery's portrait of Samuel Johnson (NPG 1597) by Sir Joshua Reynolds has recently undergone conservation work following damage to the painting by a member of the public. In order to help the Gallery make decisions about the conservation of this painting, the Gallery invited a number of specialists to participate in a colloquium, which took place on 5 June 2008. This presented a stimulating forum in which the colleagues listed below were able to develop their understanding and discuss the history and future of this complex and intriguing portrait.

This document provides a record of that colloquium. Samuel Johnson Colloquium

National Portrait Gallery, 5 June, Boardroom 2-5pm

Chair: Brian Allen (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art)

In attendance: Michael Bundock, Helen Brett, Robert Folkenflik, Jenny Graham, Pat Hardy, Penny Hughes, John Ingamells, Freya Johnston, Rica Jones, Sandy Nairne, David Nokes, Shelia O'Connell, Lucy Peltz, Stephanie Pickford, Martin Postle, Rachel Scott, Jacob Simon, David Solkin, Cath Stanton, Helen White, Kai Kin Yung

Programme: 1.30 - 2.00: participants invited to see the painting in conservation

2.00-4.00: Session 1: The History and Reception of the Painting Lucy Peltz (National Portrait Gallery): 'Introductory remarks on the production, reception & conservation of Reynolds' Johnson (NPG 1597)'

In the late summer of 2007, the National Portrait Gallery's portrait of Samuel Johnson (NPG 1597), by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was damaged by a member of the public while on display in the Gallery. This colloquium of scholars interested in different aspects and themes relevant to this portrait has been organised in order to help inform the Gallery in developing a programme to conserve a painting which has a rather complicated history. This paper introduced the questions and issues surrounding the painting, by sketching out the little that is known about its history, contemporary reception and several earlier phases of conservation in which, in the 1970s, the painting's original composition -- as Reynolds is believed to have executed it in 1756-7 -- was revealed.

Martin Postle (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art): 'Reynolds in the 1750s: technical matters'

On his return from Italy in 1752, Joshua Reynolds began to experiment intensively with his painting materials and technique in an effort to emulate the brilliant colour and richly impasted work of the old masters. In a series of portraits, beginning with a character study of his Italian pupil, Giuseppe Marchi, Reynolds consciously promoted a style of painting that emphasised the bravura handling of paint. During the next few years he began to take deliberate risks, combining volatile pigments, waxes and resins, which, although they produced brilliant effects also affected the stability of his compositions. In addition to commissioned society portraits, Reynolds experimented particularly in a series of works featuring friends and colleagues, where he felt at liberty to follow his instincts in terms of technique and characterisation. They included portraits of the engraver James McArdell, William Chambers, and Samuel Johnson. In such intimate, idiosyncratic portraits, Reynolds celebrated friendship, and the visual representation of 'genius', as well as his own innovative painting technique.

Robert Folkenflik (University of California): 'Johnson's Body and Reynolds's Portraits'

Sir Joshua Reynolds claimed in a biographical account of Samuel Johnson, 'It is always to be remembered that I am giving a portrait, not a panegyric, of Dr. Johnson'. And so it is with Reynolds' remarkable visual portraits of Johnson. They register his defects and 'peculiarities', including what Reynolds called his 'strange antic gesticulations'. Typically, however, Reynolds embodies Johnson in ways that owe a great deal to pictorial convention and his own witty allusiveness. Starting with the head tilt of NPG 1597, which is at once characteristic of Johnson and traditional in representations of genius and writerly inspiration, this paper considers a range of features in Reynolds' portraits which turn idiosyncrasies and symptoms into distinctive representations of the best known figure in eighteenth-century literature.

Stephanie Pickford (Dr Johnson's House): 'Master of the subject - Boswell, Reynolds and the 'after-life''

James Boswell referred to Sir Joshua Reynolds as 'Master of the Subject' in his dedication to him in his biography of Samuel Johnson. Johnson, of course, was that subject and to many contemporaries Reynolds was seen as the authority on all things Johnsonian. Printed just a few pages before this dedication, James Heath's frontispiece engraving after Reynolds' portrait of Johnson is inscribed as being in the possession of 'James Boswell Esq' thereby linking painter and biographer. The friendship between Boswell and Reynolds flourished following Johnson's death and the influence of the elderly painter on the biographer, as Boswell sought to master his chosen subject, is not to be underestimated. Reynolds even provided Boswell with a 'word portrait' of Johnson to aid him in the construction of his biography. Both Reynolds and Boswell were fundamental in propelling an image of Johnson to their contemporaries and following generations; and there is a strong case to suggest their collaborations resulted in the visual image of Johnson we see today in the frontispiece.

3.00-4.00: General Discussion

4.00-4.30: tea and opportunity to view painting in conservation

4.30-5.45: Session 2: Conserving Reynolds's Samuel Johnson (NPG 1597)

Rica Jones (Tate): 'Paintings by Reynolds cleaned at the Tate since 1960'

Rica Jones summarised the technical and analytical work on Reynolds done at the Tate Gallery since 1960. This work has established that Reynolds's paintings contain a wide variety of binding materials; no two paintings are completely alike technically and only one painting had the same binder throughout the composition. Some paintings contain beeswax in addition to oils, varnishes and sometimes egg used as binding media in variously sequential layers. Microscopic examination revealed that Reynolds's paintings evolved on the canvas, with cross-sectional samples showing a build-up of many differently coloured layers of paint that do not necessarily or obviously relate to the final image. These superimposed layers of potentially incompatible paints are often the cause of the drying crackle so noticeable in Reynolds's work, in addition to his use of bitumen, traditionally regarded as the sole root of the problem.'

Helen White (National Portrait Gallery): 'Restoration, Past and Present, of NPG 1597 Samuel Johnson'

The conservation history of the portrait was outlined, concentrating on the 1976 cleaning and restoration. Referencing original reports, diagrams and photographs held in the NPG archives and Winterthur Library the ideas behind the treatment and the methods and materials used were described in order to explain the dramatic change in appearance of the painting. The current restoration treatment brought about by the recent damage was described and the possibility of reversing some of the 1976 changes was proposed.

5.00-5.45: final discussion and wrap up