by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

Art means different things to different people, but everyone remembers a great artist. They may be a name whose work you’ve never seen but who have a reputation for brilliance. They may be the creator of something that captures your imagination while you’re walking through a gallery or public space. Regardless of the situation, once seen or heard it’s unlikely you‘ll forget them.

Everyone remembers a great teacher too. My best two were my history teachers at secondary school and college: Mrs Archer and Mrs Patel. All these years later, the memory of how much I enjoyed their lessons and the love of history they encouraged stay with me.

Painting of a young manSir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) had the distinction of being a great artist and a great teacher – as well as someone who helped transform peoples’ perception of what being an artist was.

Born in Plympton and apprenticed in London, he ran a studio in Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) in the mid-1740s before spending two years in Italy studying the work of other great artists.

By 1753 he was back in London with an in-depth knowledge of art history and an interesting theory: you didn’t have to be born a genius, you could practice until you became one.

By incorporating the grand styles of Italian art into his work with elements such as gesture, expression, arrangement, light and shade, Reynolds made the imperfect look perfect. In doing so he created an artistic tradition all of Britain’s own.

When he died in 1792 he was England’s foremost portrait artist. According to estimates he painted more than 2,000 portraits.

During his life he mixed with some of the 18th century’s elite, enjoyed the patronage of some of the South West’s wealthy landowning families and became the founding President of the Royal Academy. The ‘Great Artists | Great Teachers’ exhibition on display at The Arts Institute this autumn marks the 250th anniversary of this famous London-based organisation.

The Academy’s aim was (and still is) ‘to promote the arts of design’. It was an art school, an exhibition venue and a lobbying body for British artists.

Reynolds was dedicated to the cause and combined his painting with running the Academy for some 20 years, helping to develop its theories and becoming its chief spokesperson. The annual discourses he gave to students were eventually published and remain with us today as some of the earliest formal art lessons in England.

Alongside his body of work this is his greatest legacy. He worked tirelessly to raise the standing of the fine arts in England. His efforts ensured that artists were (and still are) accepted just like the leading writers of the day; people with a true profession rather than just a hobby.

Ultimately, Reynolds believed that study and hard work were the keys to greatness – a lesson which is just as relevant today as it was in the 1700s.

There’s lots more to come about the Royal Academy, RA250 and Reynolds from our curators throughout the autumn, so keep your eyes peeled. 

In the meantime, take a look at the fantastic events programme that will also be taking place over the next few months and which includes a talk by the current President of the Royal Academy, Christopher Le Brun.