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A summer season of light and colour

As part of a season exploring the themes of light and colour, The Box will be marking the 300th anniversary of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ birth and collaborating with artist Rana Begum RA this summer.

The 300th anniversary of one of the UK’s most celebrated portrait artists is being marked in a major homecoming exhibition at The Box – Plymouth’s award-winning museum, art gallery and archive – from Saturday 24 June until Sunday 29 October. The show is the only dedicated commemorative exhibition to mark the anniversary in the UK that brings together loans from public and private collections.

Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration will explore the life and legacy of the famous 18th century portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds who was born in Plympton St Maurice, just outside Plymouth, on 16 July 1723. He went on to become one of the founding members and the first president of the Royal Academy. The exhibition will examine his career against the backdrop of the many societal changes that were taking place at the time, and highlight themes such as image, identity, Reynolds’ studio practice, his West Country roots and the experiments with colour that were so fundamental to his work.

The exhibition will feature over 30 spectacular paintings from The Box’s permanent collection, significant national lenders and private collections, including Tate, The Woburn Abbey Collection, the National Trust, National Maritime Museum and The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The loans are supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund. Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Programme is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to enable smaller and local authority museums to borrow works of art and artefacts from national collections.

Sophia Weston, Deputy Chair of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said:

The Weston Loan Programme empowers regional organisations to bring outstanding art to local audiences. We are delighted to support this landmark display of Reynolds’ work in Plymouth – so close to the artist’s birthplace and where his celebrated career began.

Reynolds was one of the biggest names in 18th century British art and renowned as a portrait painter of Georgian society. He made his name by painting the most famous and wealthy people of his age, from naval captains and the landed gentry, as well as family members and self-portraits.

He ran his first studio in Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) in the 1740s, and set up a studio in London once he returned from his studies in Italy in the 1750s, and the exhibition will include studio materials such as his paint palette, mahl stick and brushes. He also kept meticulous appointment books about his clients’ visits, 28 of which survive today. 27 of them are in the Royal Academy’s collection. The earliest book, dating from 1755, belongs to The Box and will be on display.

Reynolds came to prominence with his grand portrait of Admiral Augustus Keppel (1752), at the time, a rising star in the Royal Navy. The work will be on display in the exhibition on loan from the National Maritime Museum alongside other significant works such as Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Keppel as a Bridesmaid (1761) from The Woburn Abbey Collection, and Portrait of the Reverend William Beele, 1748 courtesy of The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Beele was appointed a naval chaplain in 1727 and was stationed at Devonport where the portrait was painted. Reynolds was also a clever self-promoter and made numerous self-portraits. The Box will showcase his first and last self-portraits as well as the important Self Portrait as a Deaf Man from Tate.

The Box is partnering with the National Trust at Saltram, former home of the Parker family who were Reynolds’ early patrons and friends, to exchange works from their collections to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth. The National Trust are lending the newly-conserved portrait of The Hon. Theresa Robinson, Mrs John Parker and a portrait of another friend the engraver Francesco Bartolozzi, to the Reframing Reynolds exhibition, while The Box is loaning a contemporary portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, To Tell Them Where It’s Got To (2013), which will hang as an intervention in the collection at Saltram House. Running at the same time as The Box’s exhibition, Reynolds 300: The Painter and the Painted highlights Saltram’s collection of thirteen portraits by the artist; prints of Reynolds’ works and related paintings, as part of a national NT programme.

Reframing Reynolds also looks at Reynolds’ enduring legacy and his relevance for artists today, through an exciting collaboration with artist Rana Begum RA who has produced new works that directly respond to three of Reynolds’ paintings – portraits of Lady Ann Bonfoy of Port Eliot, Cornwall and Mrs Elizabeth Fields (a relative of Reynolds), and an early self-portrait dating from 1746. Begum’s vibrant new artworks, which have seen her mix different colours and mediums together to create a range of tones and layers, will be shown next to their corresponding portraits.

Begum’s internationally touring Dappled Light exhibition, featuring paintings, sculptures, installations and a new video work that continue her exploration of light, colour and form, will also open at The Box on Saturday 24 June. The exhibition, which is curated by Sarah Shalgosky, toured by the Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, and generously supported by the Henry Moore Foundation, will be displayed in the beautiful St Luke’s church and additional spaces around The Box’s main building until Sunday 24 September.

Dappled Light sees Begum extend the geometric structures of her paintings into softer veils and layers of colour, and demonstrates her assurance with a variety of materials – including metal, canvas, stainless steel and jesmonite. From sculptures created from brightly-coloured reflector tiles, to works inspired by the time Begum spent at a residency in St Ives in Cornwall, to a beautiful large-scale ‘cloud burst’ installation; the works are designed to draw audiences in, inviting them to see detail and scale all at once, and make the connection between one of the very first Royal Academicians and one of its most recent.

Victoria Pomery, CEO at The Box said:

We’re delighted to have been able to develop such a large-scale exhibition that highlights the achievements of Plymouth’s most famous artist, whilst also reframing his work and legacy in new ways. Reynolds was painting at a time of considerable change, the British Empire was being built and people were asking questions about the impact of slavery – and we will use this exhibition to examine this in more detail. Reynolds was also an image-maker – for himself and his clients – which is hugely topical in our age of social media and celebrity culture.

It’s been brilliant to work with Rana Begum as part of our summer season too – not just to bring the Dappled Light exhibition to Plymouth, but to also collaborate with her on new work. It’s been really interesting to see an artist who doesn’t create traditional portraits respond to Reynolds’ work and we’re excited for our visitors to see her vibrant new pieces. They demonstrate how the historic can inform the contemporary, which is such an important part of our approach at The Box.

A packed event programme featuring talks, tours, special events and family activities inspired by the Reframing Reynolds: A Celebration and Dappled Light exhibitions will be on offer at The Box throughout the summer. The venue is also creating a joint resource area for the shows that will display examples of paint vials, specimens from its natural history collections, materials from Rana Begum’s studio and a film showing the process she’s been through to create her new works.

Rana Begum, RA said:

Discovering Reynolds’ passion for experimenting with colour was a revelation to me during my research for these new paintings. I have a similar obsession with colour and the way different tones react with one another and the effect light can have on them. It was really intriguing to discover this connection and have the opportunity to create three new works that respond to the mood of Reynold’s paintings and attempt to capture the drama they evoke. I also can’t wait to bring Dappled Light to the city, now in its fourth iteration after visiting Warwick, London and Dubai. The exhibition has evolved over time and responds to each location, and I’m excited to see how it interacts with the different spaces and architecture at The Box.

Image credits:
Header image: Rana Begum, No. 1228 Mesh, 2023 (detail). Mohamed Somji / Seeing Things. Photo courtesy of Alserkal Avenue
Reynolds portaits and sitter’s book image: © The Box, Plymouth
Rana Begum installation images: Rana Begum: Dappled Light, 2022. © Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre. Photographer: Angus Mill

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