From a book-loving family

When the subject of Reynolds and reading came up, we wondered what a present member of the family might have to say.We turned to Dr. John Edgcumbe, a collateral descendant of the artist, and he kindly sent these words from his home in Britain.

''When I'm painting I'm the happiest creature alive,'' wrote young Joshua Reynolds when an apprentice in London to his father. His enthusiasm, fired at the age of 12 by reading J. Richardson's ''Theory of Painting,'' lasted until, near the end of his life, he lost the sight of an eye, and feared for the loss of the other.

The Reynolds family were book-lovers. Uncle John Reynolds, schoolmaster at Exeter and later at Eton, left the college 14 books 1501, and hundreds of school textbooks, many rarer than the incunabula. Samuel Reynolds, also a schoolmaster, and Joshua's father, filled his house with books he could barely afford. Browsing among them formed his son's mind for life, though Samuel Johnson was later credited with ''brushing off from it a deal of rubbish.''

Richardson inspired Reynolds, and Hogarth, too, with a sense of the dignity of a painter, with the need to be a person with something to say, with a character that ennobled the subject, but his was only one of several books whose influence can be traced. Jacob Cats's book of emblems provided vigorous illustrations which not only could be copied at the time but whose memory lingered. Toward the end of Reynolds's career, Alderman Boydell pressed him for a picture for his Shakespeare gallery, sending him the largest canvas that had ever entered his studio. The witches, caldron, and familiars that astounded Macbeth and Banquo owed much to Cats.

Among four surviving early drawings, two are copied from Samuel Reynolds's books. One is of a library, modified and enlarged from an engraving the size of a 35-mm transparency in Parsons' ''Tent of Darius Displayed.'' The other is copied from the ''Jesuit's Perspective,'' a book that Joshua found on the parlor window seat and ''devoured with avidity.'' The title page promises the reader: ''Rules for the Proportions, Position, etc. of Figures ... and Practical Methods of Designing truly ... without understanding any Rules at all. A work highly necessary to Painters, etc.'' With or without the understanding, young Joshua drew his copy, appropriately, on the back of a Latin exercise: ''de labore.''

Across it his father has neatly written: ''Drawn by Joshua in school out of pure idleness,'' a phrase to kindle the imagination. For what is the correct response, if you set a class some prep, and one of them, and your own son, turns up an unusually intelligent drawing instead? Here, if anywhere, is the art of the good teacher tested, nowadays made more difficult than ever by the competer. Not only his son, but Samuel's daughters, too, caught the literary itch. The eldest, Elizabeth, who disapproved deeply of Joshua's painting on Sundays, wrote ''An Explication of the Vision of Ezekiel, with a Map of the spiritual divisions of time,'' and posted up from North Devon to Oxford to have it printed, 1781-85.

Mary, who also lived in North Devon, wrote one of the earliest essays in dialect, ''Devonshire Dialogues,'' perhaps with the stimulus of her brother when he stayed with her on his return from Italy in 1752. Though not published until the next century, it was reprinted several times in various editions, including at least one in paperback.

Frances, the youngest, Joshua's housekeeper for more than 20 years and Samuel Johnson's ''dearest dear,'' toured Devon with her brother and the doctor in 1762 , writing recollections of him that are still of interest and an anonymous ''Essay on Taste,'' identified in the 1950s by the late Prof. James L. Clifford of Columbia University. Surely it gave Joshua Reynolds great pleasure to paint ''Boy Reading.''

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