This picture, presented to the National Gallery in 1847, and subsequently transferred to Tate in 1951, has for many years been among Reynolds’s best known works. In the nineteenth century it was deeply admired and frequently copied, National Gallery records revealing that between its acquisition and the end of the century no fewer than 323 full-scale copies in oil were made.
The picture was not a commissioned portrait but a character study, or ‘fancy picture’, as the genre was known in the eighteenth century. The present title was not invented by Reynolds, but derives from an engraving of 1794, the second impression of which was inscribed ‘The Age of Innocence’. Traditionally, it is has been thought that the picture was painted in 1788. However, it is very probably identifiable with a work exhibited by Reynolds at the Royal Academy in 1785, and entitled simply ‘a little girl‘. On 8 April 1785 The Morning Herald, previewing Reynolds’s proposed exhibits for the forthcoming Royal Academy exhibition, noted: ‘An Infant Girl, disposed on a grass plat in an easy attitude. The companion to it is a girl fondling a bird. These subjects are fancy studies of Sir Joshua’s and do him honour’.
A recent examination of the Age of Innocence by the conservation department at Tate has revealed that it was painted over another celebrated fancy picture by Reynolds titled A Strawberry Girl, of which several versions are known, including one in London’s Wallace collection. X-radiographs of the present picture indicate that only the hands of the original Strawberry Girl remained unaltered by Reynolds. As Tate conservator Rica Jones has noted, it is possible that the Strawberry Girl was completed by Reynolds and then altered as a result of large paint losses, now made visible by x-ray (Rica Jones in Hackney et al. 1999, pp.60-5). This is not especially surprising since there are several contemporary accounts of pictures by Reynolds (including an unidentified study of a young girl) from which whole areas of paint became detached owing to the artist’s defective technique. The picture was relined (backed with a new canvas) sometime in the early nineteenth century and conservation records at Tate, dating back to 1859, indicate that the painting has continued to suffer from extensive cracking and flaking.
The identity of Reynolds’s model is uncertain. According to Sir Robert Edgcumbe, a Victorian descendant of Reynolds, she was the artist’s great-niece Theophila Gwatkin (1782-1844), who would have been three years old in 1785. Alternatively, it has been suggested that she was a Miss Anne Fletcher, although since she was married around 1791 this identification is clearly incorrect. Finally, it has been asserted that she was Lady Anne Spencer (1773-1865), who was the youngest daughter of the 4th Duke of Marlborough, and who had featured in Reynolds’s group portrait of The Marlborough Family (Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire). Interestingly, there is a facial similarity between the girl in the present picture and Lady Anne Spencer. However, if she was Reynolds’s model, the picture must have been painted in the later 1770s, rather than the mid-1780s as seems likely.
Rica Jones, ‘The Age of Innocence’, in S. Hackney, R. Jones, J. Townsend, Paint and Purpose: A Study of Technique in British Art, Tate, 1999, pp.60-5
David Mannings and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, New Haven and London 2000, vol.1, pp.507-8, no. 2008, vol.2, p.583, fig.1575 .