A rarely seen portrait by renowned artist Sir Joshua Reynolds is to be displayed at Rochester Cathedral to mark the Tricentenary of his birth. The portrait depicts former Bishop of Rochester, Dr John Thomas and was painted in 1781. It reunites the Bishop with his Cathedral for the first time since his death in 1793.
Sir Joshua Reynolds is regarded as the ‘Father of British portraiture’ and was one of the greatest European painters of the 18th century. He was the founding president of the Royal Academy of Arts and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. Paintings by Reynolds can be found in many of the world’s leading galleries including the Tate Britain and National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
16th July 2023 marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Events and exhibitions are also planned throughout the country including Plympton, where Reynolds was born and the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly.
In 1768 he became the Dean of Westminster Abbey and from 1774 to 1793 he also served as the Bishop of Rochester. Dr Thomas was Chaplain to both King George II and King George III and was a member of the prestigious Order of the Bath.
The portrait going on display at Rochester Cathedral depicts the Bishop of Rochester, Dr John Thomas. It shows Thomas with Westminster Abbey in the background wearing his Order of the Bath regalia. Remarkably, parts of the regalia featured in the portrait are still in the possession of Rochester Cathedral and will be displayed.
Thomas and Reynolds knew each other socially and appeared to have been friends. Reynold’s diary shows a number of appointments for dinner beyond the five or six sittings required for the painting. Sir Joshua Reynolds was friends with many of the leading figures in Georgian Britain and both men were part of the Georgian Royal Court with official appointments by King George III.
With the exception of a short one week viewing in London in 2016 this is the first time the portrait has been publicly displayed since 1896 in Paris.
The painting itself has had an exciting life since being painted 243 years ago. One notable owner, French politician Jacques Leon Stern, escaped from the Nazis at the outbreak of World War Two taking the painting and his art collection with him. The portrait is currently privately owned. The owner approached Rochester Cathedral earlier this year and offered to loan the painting. He was keen to reunite the Bishop with his Cathedral and to mark the anniversary of one of Britain’s greatest artists.
Dean of Rochester, The Very Rev'd Dr Philip Hesketh AKC DL says; “The story of how this painting came to be exhibited at the Cathedral is truly remarkable - definitely a case of divine providence. We are thrilled to have this stunning portrait on display and encourage everyone to come and see it while they can.“
The portrait will be on display at Rochester Cathedral from 16th July to January 2024. Admission to Rochester Cathedral is free. Visitors are encouraged to check the Cathedral website for opening times.