Room 12: The Arts in the later Eighteenth Century

See the portraits currently on display in Room 12 here

Room 12

© The National Portrait Gallery, London

Reynolds was a man with many friends and contacts in the literary world. He painted Laurence Sterne in 1760 at the moment of his greatest success, and in 1764 he founded the Literary Club to give Dr Johnson 'unlimited opportunities for talking'. Among other members of Johnson's circle were James Boswell, later his biographer, Oliver Goldsmith the writer, Edmund Burke the statesman and Charles Burney the musicologist.

In 1768 the Royal Academy of Arts was established with Sir Joshua Reynolds as its first President. He appears with the architect Sir William Chambers and the sculptor Joseph Wilton in J.F. Rigaud's portrait of leading Academicians. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the domination of painting by foreign artists was a thing of the past and British artists such as Allan Ramsay, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney and George Stubbs were in the ascendancy.

Another friend of Johnson, David Garrick, dominated the London stage. In music there was no obvious successor to Handel. His influence coloured musical life: the Sharp Family played his works on their Thames barge, as depicted by Zoffany in 1779, while the great Handel Commemoration of 1784, with performances in Westminster Abbey, established a fashion for such festivals.

Outside London the dominant social centre was Bath. Gainsborough practised there in the 1760s and the historian Catherine Macaulay, so disliked by Johnson, lived in the city in the 1770s. In Edinburgh the Scottish Enlightenment held sway under the leadership of the philosopher David Hume and the political economist Adam Smith. Elsewhere, perhaps the most substantial figure was the peripatetic Joseph Wright of Derby whose night-lit and industrial scenes struck a new note in painting. Across the country professional men such as the fashionable architect, Robert Adam, and the landscape gardener, 'Capability' Brown, met the demand for remodelled houses and estates in an increasingly prosperous society.