Experiments in paint: Reynolds, chemistry and the Royal Society

Public history of science lecture by Dr Matthew Hunter

Studio experiments in colour and media 'Studio experiments in colour and media' by Sir Joshua Reynolds (detail). © Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Event details

Matthew Hunter is Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University, Montréal, and author of Wicked intelligence: visual art and the science of experiment in Restoration London (2013).

Beeswax, spermaceti extract, linseed oil, egg, resin and bitumen: just a sample of the materials discovered by modern conservators in the paint-film of pictures painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), first President of the Royal Academy of Arts and Enlightenment Britain’s leading artist. Reynolds’s fascination with “nostrums” has long bedevilled interpreters. Trained in a tradition of sound pictorial craftsmanship and promoting timeless classicism in his famous Discourses of Art, why would Reynolds have routinely created unstable paint preparations that he knew would crack, discolour or otherwise decay?

Contemporaries like Joseph Farington claimed that the President's drive for knowledge of his art “caused him to make experiments in using his colours, although he had not acquired … sufficient chemical knowledge to enable him to judge of the result.” Looking ahead to the Wallace Collection’s 2015 exhibition Reynolds: Experiments in Paint, this lecture proposes that we should think again about Reynolds’s experiments, his relations to the Royal Society and what he called the “nice chymistry” at the heart of his artistic project.

Attending this event

This event is free to attend and open to all. No tickets are required. Doors open at 12.30pm and seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

We have a limited number of spaces for wheelchair users and ten bookable seats for people with impaired mobility who are unable to queue. To book in advance, please contact the events team. Further information about accessibility is available.

Recorded audio will be available on this page a few days after the event.

Enquiries: Contact the events team

Experiments in paint: Reynolds, chemistry and the Royal Society 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK

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