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Thoughts on the painting, Sarah Campbell by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

I often spend research trips buried deep in archives reading documents caked in dust. Every now and then I emerge into the light of an art gallery to learn about people and places from paintings. One of my favourite artists is Sir Joshua Reynolds.

On a trip to Yale University, I had been at work in the Boswell office, studying the eighteenth-century writer, laird and lawyer James Boswell. On a glorious Saturday morning, I hit the Yale Center for British Art. It was family day. The gallery was buzzing with children sketching famous paintings, creating models and roaming the art works on a treasure hunt. The children, British artists and scenes of the British countryside instantly transported me home.

On the first floor, one painting drew me in; that of Sarah Campbell.

Portrait of Sarah Campbell by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Blue sky background, Sarah is looking off to the left into the distance with her hair up in a beehive, she wears a white and gold extravagant dress.
The Painting: Sarah Campbell by Sir Joshua Reynolds

I loved the light, her beauty and calm, but blushing, serenity.  I wanted to run my fingers over the folds in her silk dress and trace its gold embroidery and braiding. As I gazed at her, my thoughts turned to the artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and thanked him for leaving such a beautiful visual representation of a woman in one moment of her life in the eighteenth century. Reynolds is, of course, one of the foremost portrait painters of the eighteenth century. He worked at a ferocious rate, often painting five or six sitters a day. One of those sitters was his friend James Boswell.

The Club and Samuel Johnson

James Boswell and Joshua Reynolds met through the writer and moralist, Samuel Johnson. Reynolds and Johnson were friends. When, in 1764, Reynolds proposed they invite a few friends to dine in the Turks Head tavern off the Strand in London, the most exclusive of weekly dining clubs was born. It became known simply as the Club. To be a member you had to be the most eminent exponent of your field. But, that in itself was not sufficient for membership. You also had to be convivial and a great conversationalist. Its members, which included Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Adam Smith and David Garrick, stayed up to the early hours of the morning, eating pub food, imbibing ale and wine, gossiping and discussing the great intellectual issues of the days. Thanks to Boswell’s journals and his biography, Life of Johnson, many of those conversations have been recorded for posterity.

James Boswell had been desperate to become a member, but with only his book An Account of Corsica behind him, some members thought Boswell may be a bit lightweight. Johnson however saw the potential in the young man, and in 1773, Johnson secured Boswell’s membership. Election to the Club was unanimous, and other members knew that if they did not support Johnson’s recommendation of Boswell. Johnson would blackball the people they recommended for membership.

Portrait of James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Portrait of James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds by William Grimaldi
Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds by William Grimaldi
A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.
A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.

Friendship between Sir Joshua Reynolds and James Boswell

Boswell would often dine at Sir Joshua Reynold’s home in Leicester Square, or Leicester Fields as it then was. Ermine, serge and silk brushed Reynolds’ steps as lords, military men and ladies made their way to his studio for a portrait sitting or his salon for tea or dinner. Boswell often socialised at Leicester Fields, and indeed the last evening he spent with Johnson, was spent at Reynolds’ home.

Reynolds was sociable and bought people together, not just at his home, but also in societies. He was an early member of the Royal Society of Arts, and in 1768 became the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts. He would hold this position for life. Even when he resigned for ill-health he was re-elected. Reynolds, who prized Boswell’s company, had Boswell elected to the Honorary position of Secretary for Foreign Correspondence of the Royal Academy.

Boswell held Reynolds in great esteem, and dedicated the first edition of Life of Johnson to Sir Joshua reynolds.

When Reynolds died on 23 February 1792, he was given a state funeral to rival the grandest of any King or Queen. After laying in state in the Life Room at Somerset House, the home of the Royal Academy, his body was taken to St. Paul’s Cathedral. 91 carriages followed his coffin, and the full procession was recorded in the newspapers. Boswell walked with the Academy members.

Sarah Campbell

Reynolds had an illustrious life, mixing with the great and good. I knew so much about him, but nothing at all about the subject of the painting. The caption read Miss Sarah Campbell, later Mrs. Woodhouse. It seemed all she was famous for was her marriage.

Wanting to find out more, I hit findmypast. I use the site for family history research, but findmypast has also helped with my research for my book on Mary Bryant. Sarah was baptised at St George’s church, in Hanover Square, London on 8 May 1758. Her father Pyrse Campbell was a Scottish Member of Parliament and served as Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. She was named after her mother, Sarah, who was the daughter and heir of Sir Edmund Bacon. More searching revealed that Sarah married Thomas Wodehouse in 1782 in Norfolk. She went on to have three sons and died in 1802. I could find little more about her.

The Mona Lisa

It made me think about how little we know about the subjects of paintings. The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Millions have joined the lengthy queues at the Louvre in Paris to admire the enigmatic smile and soulful eyes painted by Leonardo Da Vinci. But for over 500 years, the identity of the woman was a mystery.

In 1550, a writer, Giorgio Vasari identified the mysterious woman, as Lisa Del Giocondo, but he was not a reliable source. History has to come from reliable sources, and he was known to fabricate and embellish.

In 2005, historian Dr Armin Schlechter was working at Heidelberg University and in the library came across a marginal note in a manuscript he was cataloguing. That note left no doubt that the sitter was indeed Lisa del Giocondo, nee Gherardini. Most commentators now accept this identification.

Like Sarah, little is known about Lisa’s life. She married a cloth and silk merchant when she was 15 years old. She had five children and died of the plague in 1538. Estimates of her age at death vary from 63 to 72.

Two famous artists, Leonardo Da Vinci and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and two women whose lives I would love to know more about, Sarah Campbell and Lisa Del Giocondo.

Further Reading

Places to Visit

The Louvre Paris, to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of Mona Lisa

The Yale Center of British Art, Connecticut, New Haven to see Sir Joshua’s Reynolds painting of Sarah Campbell


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