All images © British Library

(Double click image to enlarge)

Whilst the nation was going through a crisis of representation, the merging of the classes made it increasingly difficult for those deemed 'socially elite' to be recognised. Reynolds, as a portraitist, turned to the roles of men and women as one way to overcome this issue. Male portraiture often reflected either military prowess or contemplative scholarship – and focusing on these roles helped to define both personality and status.

In this print after Reynolds's 1756 portrait of Horace Walpole – a prominent eighteenth-century writer, politician and antiquarian – the artist places particular emphasisupon his sitter's intellectual authority. Walpole is pictured wearing a velvet coat, leaning against a table in his study, one hand in his pocket, the other touching his face. According to the philosopher Hume, as propounded in his essay, 'On the Delicacy of Taste and Passion', it was thought that by developing a cultivated taste, one's refinement and sensibilities would be improved, and hence an individual would ultimately be able to distinguish themselves from their 'vulgar peers'. Refinement encouraged appropriate friendships, and this portrait was commissioned partly as a gesture of friendship, with two further copies being produced,both of which were given to friends of the sitter.Walpole's direct engagement with the viewer reinforces this element of companionship. We, as viewers, are invited to take on the role of refined intellectual and friend. Although many contemporary portraits of intellectuals reflected upon the sitter's introspection, this portrait is distinctive. Walpole, although situated in his study, does not appear hermit-like –instead he is portrayed as composed, alert and prepared for conversation.

The dramatic use of chiaroscuroin this image highlights Walpole's implements of study, and the classical pilaster leads our eyes down to rest upon his desk, where his feathered quill and the semi-unfurled print of the antique marble eagle stand out starkly against the thick, dark fabric of the tablecloth.Their pale, spotlighted silhouettes and the angle of the quill draw our eyes upwards through the man's white lacy sleeve, up the fingers of his right hand, and onto his face, where they meet his own penetrative stare. His stance forms the recognisably symbolic pose of contemplation, and the gesture of the chin resting upon the hand denotes active study and intellect. This attitude, combined with the objects of study which surround him, emphasises his role as a man of letters.

By Sian Welch