The Face of Childhood: Age of Innocence by Sir Joshua Reynolds

It’s not the popular novel by Edith Wharton – in fact, the painting came first.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) painted many influential paintings in his time. His favoritism for the “Grand Style” of painting popularized a noble, metaphorical painting style that incorporated Renaissance and Baroque methods into portraiture. Reynolds trained under Thomas Hudson in London and, according to rumor, became the better artist, causing Hudson to become jealous and let him go from his study.

In this particular painting titled Age of Innocence, Reynolds used this Grand Style for character study of the little girl. He originally titled the painting a little girl, but an engraving of the same artwork in 1794 was named Age of Innocence. This was not Reynolds’ name – someone else chose the moniker, and it stuck. The public received the painting with high praise.

A reproduction of Age of Innocence, available for purchase here. You can see the difference in coloring in the hands and the face, perhaps as a nod to the Strawberry Girl painting underneath the original.

A reproduction of Age of Innocence by J. Barba, available for purchase here. You can see the difference in coloring in the hands and the face, perhaps as a nod to the Strawberry Girl painting underneath the original.

Many years later, experts discovered that the original painting had been painted over Reynolds’ earlier A Strawberry Girl; the hands in Innocence even keep the original hands, unpainted over. This may have been because of issues with paint loss in Strawberry Girl; thankfully there are other versions of the painting by Reynolds, so it has not been completely lost underneath.

The Strawberry Girl by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The Strawberry Girl by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

No one knows for sure who the model was for Innocence. A descendant of Reynolds named Sir Robert Edgcumbe declared her the great-niece of Reynolds named Theophila Gwatkin, who would have been three years old when the painting was finished. Others say that the model was Lady Anne Spencer, the daughter of the fourth Duke of Marlborough.

No one knows for sure who the model is, but what is certain is the popularity of the painting. One man claimed it “the commercial face of childhood”. The painting was reproduced in prints and other products, including many painted replicas by both students and professionals.

Many believe that Edith Wharton purposely named her popular 1920 book after the painting.

The original painting now hangs at the Tate in London.

You’ll Never Look at Books the Same Way Again

There’s an art to books that even most book-lovers don’t know about.

Do you know those gold gilded edges found on many old books? In some cases these exist to hide something remarkable: a painting on the edge of the book, only viewable when you fan out the pages.

No one really knows why these exist, which adds to the mystery. Few readers have seen them much less heard of them, despite them being beautiful works of art.

Trojans Arch, Ancona, Tasso in Prison and the Bridge of Sighs, painted on Jerusalem Delivered. (via Wikimedia user Dorieo, CC)

Trojans Arch, Ancona, Tasso in Prison and the Bridge of Sighs, painted on Jerusalem Delivered. (via Wikimedia user Dorieo, CC)

Fore-edge paintings began to appear in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy. But these were painted on the edges of the book, seen directly without fanning them out or hiding them behind a shiny gold paint. The hidden, fore-edge version formed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Tower of London, painted on an edition of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (via the Boston Public Library)

The Tower of London, painted on an edition of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (via the Boston Public Library)

As if the practice isn’t already impressive enough, there is such a thing as a double fore-edge. Outlines from the Figures and Compositions upon the Greek, Roman and Etruscan Vases of the Late Sir William Hamilton (a rambling title if I ever saw one) has two hidden fore-edge paintings, a difficult task to achieve. In either direction that you fan the pages, you will find a different image.

There’s even such a thing as a triple fore-edge. In this case, two of the paintings are hidden and one is painted directly on the edge for all to see.

Westminster Bridge and the Abbey, painted on an accounting book (via Boston Public Library)

Westminster Bridge and the Abbey, painted on an accounting book (via Boston Public Library)

How are these paintings created? It’s a process for a master watercolor artist with a very steady hand. The edges of the book must first be perfectly smooth. Then the book has to be fanned out and held in the correct position between boards while it’s painted. When it’s dry, the edge must be painted with a special mixture and applied with gold leaf.

Surprisingly, these paintings are still made today, primarily by an artist named Martin Frost. In 1980 Frost got a commission for a number of book paintings, and after that decided to do fore-edge paintings full-time. He has created over 3,000 fore-edge paintings since then, plus portrait miniatures.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to double-check any old books with gold on the edges from now on. Just to be sure.