By Helen Tope
In the Frame is a new exhibition at Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery, featuring portraits from the museum’s permanent collection.
In The Frame includes work by local artists such as John Opie and James Northcote, as well as a newly-acquired self-portrait by Joshua Reynolds which is being displayed for the first time. I was asked by Plymouth Culture to review the exhibition. Here are a few of my highlights.
Henry Collinsplatt (George Spencer Watson, c.1903)
This is a beautifully rendered Edwardian portrait of a little boy, posing with all the bravura and steady confidence of a grown man.
The enthusiasm for celebrating children as individuals is a relatively modern concept: 17th century portraits showed the child as an heir, continuing the family lineage. But as artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough began to paint informal family portraits, the popularity of children’s pictures soared.
‘Henry Collinsplatt’ is interesting, not least because of how Watson treats his subject. The young boy, who cannot be more than 4 or 5, is seated with such dignity; this is no formalised portrait – Henry’s personality and charm fill the frame. His innocence and vulnerability are what make this such an endearing picture. I predict ‘Henry’ will become a firm favourite.
Self-Portrait (Joshua Reynolds, c.1746)
The star of the exhibition, of course, is the newly-acquired ‘Self-Portrait’ by Joshua Reynolds. The portrait shows the artist aged 23, at the very start of his professional career. Reynolds would become President of the Royal Academy in 1768, painting over 2,000 portraits during his lifetime. This painting was displayed in the window of Reynolds’ Devonport studio with the hope of enticing wealthy patrons through the doors.
Reynolds paints himself as a fresh-faced newcomer, but his ambition comes shining through. The portrait is a virtuoso performance: “here I am, it says”. “Here’s what I can do.”
As with all self-portraits, it reveals more with a second glance. Reynolds knows the value of his own talent but at this point the Royal Academy, acceptance and triumph are 20 years away. There is a question mark poised above this portrait and it is this element of self-doubt that makes this painting so richly layered. Designed to advertise Reynolds’ skill, this uniquely revealing portrait communicates so much more.
Captain Edward Hawkins (James Northcote, c.1814)
Painted by Plymouth-born artist James Northcote, ‘Captain Edward Hawkins’ is a great example of Northcote’s strengths as a painter. Unfavourably compared to his starry contemporaries, Northcote built a career on creating portraits that showed off his eye for composition.
Northcote presented his subjects simply, intimately; proving that maritime painting doesn’t have to be epic to make an impact. ‘Captain Edward Hawkins’ is not just showing us a man at the peak of his career. Look a while longer, and you see a man who, according to contemporary accounts, was a “considerate and benevolent officer.” (Hawkins was the Superintendent of the Hamoaze prison ships in the early years of the 19th century). It would be easy to paint a blustering, boastful portrait of a successful man, but Northcote digs deeper, and finds the individual.
I think that is what I loved most about the exhibition – whether it’s a quietly observed Gainsborough gem, or a Holbein-inspired exercise in dramatic tension, the best paintings of this collection reach out in a way that’s intensely personal. You will come away, having chosen your favourite.
In the Frame puts Plymouth into focus, with a bold, wide-ranging collection not only showcasing our local history, but a rich vein of creativity that continues to thrive today. Creating a collection that rests on former glories would have been very simple. But what we have instead is an exhibition that invites you to take a fresh look at the portrait. By turns dazzling, moving and compelling, this collection wants to tell you a story of a city whose past is as vividly drawn as its future.