Messages in a Portrait
'Portrait of Dr John Ash' by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1788).
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1727-1788) was one of the most renowned portraitists of the 18th century. He was a prolific painter who experimented in a variety of approaches and techniques.
Dr John Ash (the sitter) was a prominent Birmingham physician and famous for being the founder of the town’s first voluntary hospital, the General Hospital which opened in 1779. The painting was commissioned to be hung in the Boardroom of the Hospital.
Let's look at some of the hidden messages within the portrait.
The HospitalIn the background of the portrait is the Birmingham General Hospital, which was founded by Dr John Ash and a group of his friends.
In the background, just to the right of the hospital, you can also see St Philip's Church which was consecrated (made sacred) in 1715. It became Birmingham's Cathedral in 1905.
The ScrollThe scroll in his hand shows the plans for the Birmingham General Hospital which he helped to design.
During the middle of the eighteenth century, Birmingham was transformed from a market town into an important industrial and commercial centre. Dr John Ash identified the poor health of Birmingham's citizens with the growth in population and overcrowded conditions that this caused.
His Facial ExpressionReynolds has painted Dr John Ash with quite a serious expression on his face, to reflect the elevation and dignity of his profession. A physician at this time would have been an extremely strong-minded character as surgery techniques were quite a lot different from those of today.
Although medical research and training improved in the 18th century but there were still no cures for diseases like smallpox and wounds were cauterised with boiling oil or red-hot pokers to stop them bleeding.
Alcohol was the main anaesthetic used at the time when Dr John Ash would have been performing operations. Surgery was not only excruciatingly painful for the patient but also extremely physically and mentally demanding for the physician. Patients were often strapped to the operating table with a rag stuffed into their mouth to stop them from screaming.
His ClothesDr Ash is shown here wearing his academic gown. This tells the viewer that he was very intellectual. Using the luscious red fabric (a royal, dominant colour), he is presented in the same way as a lord, or some other worthy figure would be. In fact he was a doctor which was considered to be lower down in the social scale.
The full, layered fabrics help Dr Ash to appear much bigger than he actually is. Seating him on the red chair also increases his size. The colours of the gown and the chair merge together giving the appearance of much broader shoulders and a bigger figure. It is believed the Dr John Ash was actually quite a small man.
The StatueThe statue in the background of the painting is the figure of Benevolence, meaning kindness. A lady sheltering a small child under her dress represents this. Reynolds used this to symbolise the Doctor's character. It was believed that he was a very sincere and caring person.
Dr John Ash advertised and held public meetings in order to raise awareness of the need for the hospital. He asked for trustees to come forward to help raise funds for the project and he even donated twenty guineas himself.
Reynolds too showed an act of kindness during the commission of this painting. As the piece was for a charitable purpose (to hang in the Boardroom of the Hospital), Reynolds agreed to reduce his fee. It is believed he only charged 100 guineas.
The TableCovering the table is a richly decorated Turkish rug used to portray extravagance and grandeur. Similar rugs are often seen in paintings of much more wealthy and superior people such as lords and members of royalty.
On top of the table are numerous documents along with ink pots and a quill pen. This tells the viewer that Dr John Ash was literate and intelligent. Very few people could read and write at this time in history and so being literate was something to be very proud of.
Let's look at another portrait: