THIS BEAUTIFULLY PRESERVED AND ARRESTING CHARACTER STUDY of a young boy is a very fine example of Reynolds’s ‘fancy pictures’ of the 1770s, a genre he became increasingly pre-occupied with towards the end of his career.
The term ‘fancy picture’ was coined in 1737 by the art critic and historian George Vertue in connection with the work of the French Huguenot painter, Philip Mercier and, by the 1770s, had become a genre in its own right. The phrase was used to describe charmingly contrived scenes of sentimental realism, incorporating the artist’s own imagination, or vignettes from contemporary literature, with figures shown in various roles and guises. The ‘fancy picture’ originated in seventeenth century Holland and was taken up at the beginning of the following century in France, firstly by Watteau and Chardin, and later by Greuze.
Francis Osborne, 5th Duke of Leeds, a patron and friend of Reynolds (see note to following lot), was a great admirer of the artist’s work in this genre; the present example is one of three that the 5th Duke purchased at Reynolds’s posthumous studio sale in 1796 for Hornby Castle, Yorkshire, the seat of the Dukes of Leeds (fig. 1). It was listed in the 1898 inventory of pictures (op. cit.), as hanging in the ‘First Drawing Room’ along with a picture entitled Child and Angels (see lot 181, Old Master & British Paintings Day Sale, Christie’s London, 4 December 2013), An old man’s head (untraced), and the Infant Moses (U.S.A., private collection).
In the 1796 sale the picture was identified as Edwin, the hero from The Minstrel, a poem published in 1771 by Reynolds’s friend, James Beattie. The 1902 Leeds inventory (op. cit.) carried the following lines from Beattie’s poem under the entry for the present picture: ‘A soul that knew no art,/ And from whose eye serenely mild/ Shone forth the feeling heart’. However, more recently, Dr. Martin Postle has questioned whether Reynolds had the poem in mind when executing this work and notes that the protagonist is shown without his ‘short pipe’ (see Mannings, op. cit.). Dr. Postle dates the work to the early-to-mid 1770s and compares it stylistically with Ugolino and his children in the dungeon (National Trust, Knole).