Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A.

The Rob Dixon Reynolds Collection

A unique collection of fine prints and other objects after Sir Joshua Reynolds

Fine prints engraved in the 18th century after the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds were widely sought after from the time that they were first published. With increasing demand outstripping limited supply, prices rose continually for about 150 years until a single proof impression of Valentine Green's mezzotint of “The Ladies Waldegrave” after Sir Joshua Reynolds, from the Fritz Reiss collection, sold at auction in 1923 for 2,900 guineas (£3,045), the equivalent of perhaps £150,000 today. That was a world record price for any print at that time, even higher than those achieved for any Rembrandt etchings up to then. That impression is now in my collection.

Fine English mezzotints are amongst the most exceptional prints engraved in any medium at any time in any place. Proof mezzotints, particularly those engraved after Reynolds's originals, were collected by Royalty, the aristocracy and the very wealthy, who competed to assemble the best collections that money could buy, to demonstrate their good taste and perhaps their wealth, in the same way that the super rich today collect Ferraris and other supercars.

My research suggests that only 50 proof impressions of “The Ladies Waldegrave” and many of the other best known mezzotint plates were printed. Many of these are in museum collections around the world, others have been destroyed and some are not known. Because so few fine prints after Reynolds come onto the marketplace these days, it seems most unlikely that it will ever be possible in the future to assemble another fine collection of such prints.

“The Ladies Waldegrave” was part of The Beauties of the Present Age, the most important and historically most sought after set of mezzotints, engraved and published by Valentine Green from 1779 to 1782 after Sir Joshua Reynolds. My collection has the only known complete set of the eleven Beauties in first proof state and, despite its rarity, also has a second superb proof impression of “The Ladies Waldegrave” from the Martin Erdmann Collection.

With the Depression, mezzotint prices collapsed, so that, when I became interested in the 1970s, they were very affordable, and, over a 40 year period, I was able to accumulate an outstanding collection. Many of my impressions have come from the finest collections of the past, such as those of Sir Thomas Lawrence P.R.A, Queen Victoria, the Duke of Buccleuch, Fritz Reiss, Martin Erdmann, John Charrington, Sir Edward Hulton, Bt and others. As a result, my collection is at least as fine as any assembled at any time in the past, even though fine impressions are even harder to find today. Despite their wealth, these collectors often had to make do with non-proof impressions for some of the plates because there were no proofs available at any price. I have managed to acquire fine proof copies of all the most important mezzotint plates.

My collection includes 700 prints after Reynolds, with a large number of really fine early proof impressions, quite a few unfinished impressions, with several touched unfinished working proofs, including one touched by Reynolds himself and others by the engravers; also contemporary copper plates, mezzotint transfer engravings on glass of two plates from The Beauties of the Present Age, possibly created in Valentine Green's studio, and impressions of unrecorded plates. Impressions of previously unrecorded states in the collection show that there was rather more reworking of plates than had been known. This satisfied a demand that was much higher than had previously been thought. A large number of the prints are in matching fine frames, made about 1880-1920. There are also mezzotint engraver's tools.

The breadth and depth of my collection allowed me to undertake in-depth research into print making after Reynolds and this has provided considerable evidence of Reynolds's direct involvement in the print trade. He instigated the engraving of many of the prints and often selected the engraver. A significant number of mezzotint plates were engraved in his studio by his studio assistants, under his supervision. I have not found any record of these engravers being apprenticed to other mezzotinters, and it even seems possible that they learnt the process of mezzotint engraving from Reynolds, although he did not do any engraving himself. When apprenticed to Thomas Hudson, Reynolds no doubt acted as a runner, taking Hudson's paintings to leading mezzotinters such as James McArdell, where he would surely have watched and learnt the theory of mezzotint engraving. Reynolds was very aware of the importance of prints as a means of enhancing a painter's reputation and believed that mezzotint was the most appropriate method for translating his high chiaroscuro paintings into another medium. There was a large export trade in English prints and many of these were copied in the continent of Europe, sometimes rather badly.

I have written a scholarly catalogue of my collection with several essays and detailed entries for 600 of my prints. This contains over 110,00 words.