This newly discovered painting is an important addition to the oeuvre of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Based on a photograph it had been adjudged by David Mannings a copy of a famous version of the same subject in the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI.736; fig. 1). Following cleaning and firsthand examination it is now recognized by Martin Postle, Nicholas Penny and Aoife Brady as a fully autograph work.
Pier Leone Ghezzi popularized the genre of the caricature in 18th-century Rome with his witty pen-and-ink portraits of residents of the Eternal City. Ghezzi was active from the 1720s until his death in 1755 and his career overlapped with the early heyday of the British and Irish Grand Tour to Italy that had gathered momentum by the 1740s. Perhaps something about caricature appealed to the British sense of humor as a number of British artists, notably Hogarth, Reynolds and Thomas Patch embraced it enthusiastically.
The young Joshua Reynolds traveled to Rome thanks to a serendipitous free passage to Italy in 1750 with his patron, Captain Augustus Keppel. The artist’s ability to charm aristocratic sitters was the foundation of a phenomenally successful career and he evidently wasted little time in befriending the visiting milordi in Rome, soon securing the patronage of a circle of wealthy Irish and English visitors. Many were friends of the erudite Irish aristocrat Joseph Henry and his uncle the wealthy brewer, Joseph Leeson. In 1751, Reynolds painted for this group a total of seven caricatures: six small groups of which the present work is one and a larger Parody of the School of Athens commissioned by Joseph Henry (National Gallery of Ireland, NGI.734; fig. 2). The latter was a spoof of the famous fresco by Raphael, with the ancient philosophers replaced in a satirical reversal with caricatures of recognizable visitors (identified by name in Reynolds’ Roman notebooks) among them Lord Bruce, the younger Joseph Leeson and, seated on a step in the role of Diogenes, Joseph Henry.
In 1751, Reynolds was at the beginning of his career and therefore prepared to undertake light-hearted commissions which he probably would not have painted later on. In fact, he painted two autograph versions of two of these compositions. This is the second version of one such composition (the first version stayed with the Leeson family whose last descendant donated it to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and it was probably intended as a gift to Joseph Leeson’s close family friend, Robert Clements, the 1st Earl of Leitrim (painted by Pompeo Batoni in 1753; Hood Museum of Art, P.2002.6; fig. 3). Joseph Leeson was the godfather of Caroline, Clements’ daughter. It hung in the dining room of Killadoon House, Co. Kildare as part of the Leitrim collection until 2020. Many of the protagonists in all these caricatures had Irish connections and three of the paintings are now in the National Gallery of Ireland, donated by the last Countess of Milltown in 1906.
The sitters in this painting include ‘the elegant beanpole’, Lord Bruce who had arrived in Rome by Easter in 1751. He became friendly with the Irish peer Lord Charlemont and subscribed to his plan to found an academy for British artists in Rome. He went on to be tutor to King George III’s children. His portrait is repeated, verbatim, in the Parody. Next to him is another member of Charlemont’s circle, the stout Hon. John Ward of Helmely, Staffordshire who, like Bruce, had appeared in a caricature by Ghezzi as well as in another of Reynolds’ caricatures, alongside Lord Charlemont, now in Dublin. Next to Ward stands the son of Joseph Leeson, also called Joseph, who was to become the 2nd Earl of Milltown. His father had visited Italy already in 1744 and was in Rome again with his son in 1750. The father built one of the greatest of all Irish Georgian houses, Russborough in Co. Wicklow, which he filled with works by Claude-Joseph Vernet, paintings by Panini and scores of modern and antique sculptures all bought in Rome. On the far right sits Joseph Henry who has been described as ‘the most erudite in Classics of the entire Irish and British contingent at that time in Rome’. While Ghezzi drew him consulting a volume on Roman antiquities, Reynolds portrays him poring over a large volume inscribed ‘Cloaca Massima’, the main sewer of the ancient city.
Anthony Clark owned two drawings by Ghezzi of several members of this group including Joseph Leeson Snr, Joseph Leeson Jnr., and Joseph Henry (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1978-70-289 and 1978-70-290; figs. 4-5). It is possible that these drawings inspired Leeson and Henry to commission the painted caricatures from Reynolds as humorous souvenirs of the time their group had spent together in Italy. Clark would also have been familiar with a comparable caricature by Reynolds, depicting Sir Charles Turner and three other Grand Tourists acquired by the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in 1953 (53.349; fig. 6). Turner was the first owner of Saint Louis Gonzaga by Pompeo Batoni.❖