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A painters will to please: Reynolds use of yours affectionately/yours sincerely

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1. Introduction

While engaged in his painting-room, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) had the pleasure of seeing and conversing with all the famous people of his time; and when not employed in his art, his hours were generally passed in the most pleasing society London had to offer (Malone 1797:li). Although Reynolds lived in “the great age of the personal letter” (Anderson and Ehrenpreis 1966:269), he did not like writing letters at all. He once wrote to James Boswell: “if I felt the same reluctance in taking a Pencil in my hand as I do a pen I should be as bad a Painter as I am a correspondent” (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:112), and he sent a messy note to Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), explaining that he had “a sitter waiting so you must excuse the Blots” (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:ix) Even to his favourite niece Theophila Palmer (later Gwatkin) (1757-1848) Reynolds wrote:

I intended writing to you from London when I had the pleasure of receiving your last Letter and have still a Frank for that purpose but you know what a bad correspondent I

This is one of the 37 letters in Ingamells and Edgcumbe’s edition (ed. 2000) of Reynolds’ letters, in which the painter, despite his dislike of the converse of the pen, tried to express feelings of affection and friendship, also known as “positive politeness” (Holmes 1995:5), to his addressees by using the closing formulas Yours (most) sincerely and Yours (most) affectionately. In this article I will discuss Reynolds’ use of these two closing formulas, paying special attention to the questions when he started to use them in his letters, who were his addressees, and where he may have picked up these particular formulas. The formula yours sincerely is not listed by the OED  before 1818 (online ed., s.v. sincerely 2b), while yours affectionately is not listed at all (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1999:107; Bijkerk forthc.).

Reynolds’ use of Yours (most) sincerely and Yours most affectionately was not an innovation because we find both closing formulas in John Gay’s (1685–1732) letters (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1999:107) and Yours affectionately in the letters of John Wesley (1703–1791) (Baker 1980:60). While writing social letters,1 Reynolds, Wesley and Gay did not follow the prescriptions of the letter-writing manuals of the time. The prescriptions in these manuals were not only meant to reflect “negative politeness” (Holmes 1995:5), as their correct use avoided causing offence (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1999:110), but they also carried little meaning because they had “become integral pragmatic elements in the exchange of letters” (Raumolin-Brunberg 1996:167). This was the reason why the three men - and presumably others as well - started to search for new closing formulas which could express their feelings of friendship and affection better than the old ones. Yours sincerely and Yours affectionately appear to have been the result of their search.


2. Reynolds’ use of Yours (most) affectionately

Reynolds used a variety of concluding formulas, but his use of Yours (most) affectionately appears in four forms, as Yours affectionately (1), I am Dear Sir Yours most affectionately (1), I remain Yours most affectionately (1), and as Yours most affectionately (4). He used Yours most affectionately for the first time in 1777, in a letter to Samuel Johnson, dated 17 December 1777. Reynolds greatly admired Johnson. He is believed to have founded The Club in 1764 as a vehicle for Johnson’s talk, and said of him: “he formed my mind, and brushed off from it a deal of rubbish” (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:274). Reynolds also received help from Johnson in his writings, as Johnson helped him edit his Fourth Discourse (1771). This could be the explanation of the fact that the fourth edition of Johnson’s Dictionary in 1773 included several examples from Reynolds’ Fourth Discourse (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:274), for Johnson rarely included quotations from living authors (Keast 1957). Yours most affectionately and I am Dear Sir Yours most affectionately also occur in Reynolds’ letters to Edmund Burke (10 August 1781) and James Boswell (1 October 1782), who both belonged to The Club as well. The statesman, essayist and orator Edmund Burke (1729–1797) was, moreover, “Reynolds’s closest friend” (Wendorf 1996:8). When Reynolds travelled to Holland with Philip Metcalfe (24 July–14 September 1781), Burke was the only one who received a letter from him. Reynolds’ favourite niece Theophila Palmer had to wait much longer for a reply; her uncle did not write her a letter until he had returned from his trip (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:103). Johnson's biographer James Boswell (1740–1795) was another close friend of Reynolds’. Reynolds enjoyed Boswell’s lively company (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:268) and did much to encourage Boswell to finish his Life of Johnson. It was to Reynolds that Boswell dedicated this work and the fact that he at one time intended to write a life of Reynolds further suggests the respect and affection in which Boswell held him (Fifer 1976:lxxxviii). On a letter he had received from Reynolds, Boswell wrote: “Received 17 Octr. 1782. Sir Joshua Reynolds An agreable letter of freindship [sic]” (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:114).

On 29 September 1781, when Reynolds had returned from Holland to London, he used Yours most affectionately for the first time in a letter to a family member, his niece Theophila. He also used the formula in another letter to her, dated 15 April 1790. Theophila was said to have been an accomplished painter, who copied several of Reynolds’ paintings (Wendorf 1996:66). When writing to Theophila, Reynolds adopted the following salutations: My Dear Niece (1), My Dear Offee/Offy (3), and Dear Offy (1). According to Wendorf (1996:66), Reynolds deeply cared for Theophila. Not only did he paint her several times, Theophila is also the only correspondent who Reynolds gave a nickname. In his letters to Theophila, Reynolds does refer to her sister Mary Palmer (1750–1820) as Polly, but there are no letters addressed to her. Because Reynolds was not married, he first lived with his sisters and then invited his nieces, the daughters of his sister Mary (1716–1794), to live with him in London. Theophila remained in his household until she married Robert Gwatkin (1757–1843) in 1781. Mary remained with her uncle until he died, inheriting most of his property and income (Wendorf 1996:66). Reynolds had ended his earlier letters to Theophila with Your affectionate Uncle (1) and Your most affectionate Uncle (1). We also see such a change of formula in Reynolds’ letters to his nephew William Johnson (1756–1799). In January 1781 Reynolds ended his letter with I am your most affectionate Uncle, two years later, on 19 January 1783 he adopted the closing formula I remain Yours most affectionately. On 7 December 1787 Joseph Palmer (1749–1829), one of Reynolds’ nephews, received a letter from his uncle which ended with Yours affectionately as well.

Although Reynolds used Yours most affectionately in his letters to Johnson and Boswell, neither of these men used the formula in their letters to Reynolds. Their concluding formulas are a variant of the usual type Your most humble Servant. However, this does not mean that they did not use Yours (most) affectionately at all. Johnson used most affectionately yours for the first time in a letter to Thomas Warton (1728–1790), dated 21 December 1754 (ed. Redford 1992:90). In another letter dated 19 February 1763 (ed. Redford 1992:218) there is a reversal of pronoun and adverb, resulting in Johnson's first use of yours affectionately. Like Reynolds, Johnson used the formula in letters to close friends and family: John Taylor (1711–1788), a close friend from grammar school, James Boswell, and Lucy Porter (1715–1784), daughter of Samuel Johnson’s wife. He also used the formula in a letter to Reynolds’ sister Frances (1729–1807) (ed. Redford 1994:231). Frequently, however, he would use the formula in its inverted form, a formula, we do not find in Reynolds’ letters but which is present in the letters of James Boswell. On 20 October 1784, when Johnson used the formula for the last time, he still signed with I am, Dear Sir, affectionately yours (ed. Redford 1994:426).

Boswell met Johnson in 1763 (gen. ed. Abrams 1993:2416). According to Tieken-Boon van Ostade (1994:332), Boswell “was not one of those over whom Johnson exercised his linguistic influence”, but it was in the year of their first meeting that Boswell used the formula for the first time in a letter to John Johnston of Grange, his intimate friend during his student-days (Walker 1966:xvii), dated 23 September 1763: “I ever am My Dear Johnston affectionately yours (Walker 1966:115). This means that in the case of closing formulas Johnson might have influenced Boswell after all. Just like Johnson, Boswell varied between yours affectionately and affectionately yours. Reynolds met Johnson in 1756 (Fifer 1976:lxxxvii) but it is not until 1777 that he started to use this formula. However, the fact that he used the formula for the first time in a letter to Johnson could suggest that Reynolds was aware of Johnson’s life-long fondness of the formula, even though he never received a letter from Johnson signed in this way. As noted above, yours (most) affectionately is not discussed in the OED, and although Johnson liked to use the formula in his social letters, he did not mention the formula in his Dictionary either.  



3. Reynolds’ use of Yours (most) sincerely

Reynolds’ use of Yours (most) sincerely appears in eight forms, as Yours sincerely (23), I am Dear Sir Yours sincerely (1), I am dear Sir Yours sincerely (1), I am Dear Sir Yours most sincerely (1), I am with the greatest respect Yours sincerely (1), I am, with the greatest respect, your sincerely (1), I am &c Yours sincerely (1), and as Yours most sincerely (1). It was in a letter to Thomas Percy (1729–1811), dated 3 March 1771, that Reynolds first started to use Yours sincerely. Percy was not the only fellow member of The Club who received a letter signed in this way. In his letters to Boswell, Burke, Edmund Malone (1741–1812), Sir Robert Chambers (1737–1803), Sir William Scott (1745–1836) and Bennet Langton (1737–1801), Reynolds used the formula as well. What we have to keep in mind here, however, is the fact that in Reynolds’ time yours sincerely was not used in the same way as it is today. Instead having today's formal connotations, it was used to signal informality (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1999:107; Bijkerk forthc.). To Reynolds, yours sincerely must have carried more or less the same meaning as yours affectionately, because otherwise he would not have used it when he was writing to his three closest correspondents: Theophila, Boswell, and Burke. We also find the formula in his letters to Robert Gwatkin, Theophila’s husband, and Joseph Bonomi (1739–1808), an Italian architect. When Reynolds’ colleagues refused to promote Bonomi to full status as a member of the Royal Academy, he resigned from the chair he was occupying and from the Royal Academy itself (Wendorf 1996:177); this indicatess how much Bonomi must have meant to him. Furthermore, Reynolds used the formula in letters which he wrote to those who shared his profession: the painters Richard Cosway (1742–1821), Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), James Northcote (1746–1831), who was a pupil of Reynolds, and William Cribb, his frame-maker. Apart from Theophila, the actress Mrs Abington (c.1737–1815) is the only female correspondent who received a letter from Reynolds which was addressed My Dearest Lady and signed Yours most sincerely. According to Wendorf, Reynolds “nurtured a life-long passion for the theater” (1996:129). This could be the reason why Reynolds greatly admired Mrs Abington and why he “took forty places in the front boxes for her benefit performance on 27 March 1775” (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:231).

For all this, we also find yours sincerely in the more formal, businesslike letters Reynolds wrote to Charles Townley (1737–1805) and Caleb Whitefoord (1734–1810), who were both art collectors, to John Nichols (1745–1826), a printer, and Thomas Cadell (1742–1802), a London bookseller and publisher, who succeeded to the business of Andrew Millar and published an edition of Reynolds’ first seven Discourses. Whether Reynolds was the first to use Yours sincerely in letters of this kind needs to be further investigated.

Furthermore, Reynolds’ use of Yours sincerely introduces us to correspondents who are not, or are hardly mentioned in Wendorf’s biography of him. The fact that Reynolds signed his letters to George Crabbe (1754–1832), James Beattie (1735–1803) and Dr Samuel Parr (1747–1825) with Yours sincerely could suggest a special intimacy between him and these three men. In his letter to the poet George Crabbe, Reynolds tells him how much he and Johnson liked Crabbe’s poem The Village. James Beattie received a letter from Reynolds in which the painter invited him and his son for dinner, while in his letter to Parr, who just like Reynolds was a great admirer of Johnson, he wrote about Johnson’s monument and the epitaph Parr would compose for it: 

We have great time before us. The statue is hardly yet begun, so that the inscription will not be wanted for at least these twelve months: in the meantime, you will probably have an opportunity of seeing the monument itself, and the place which it is to occupy in St. Paul’s (ed. Ingamells and Edgcumbe 2000:225).

Samuel Johnson’s use of Yours sincerely is completely different from that of Reynolds. Although Johnson was already using Yours affectionately in 1754, it was not until 1783 that he started to use Yours sincerely and even then he only used it twice. In his letter to Joseph Fowkes, dated 19 April 1783, and in his letter to Edmund Allen, dated 17 June 1783 Johnson signed with I am, dear Sir, yours sincerely (ed. Redford 1994:131) and I am sincerely your’s (ed. Redford 1994:148).

Boswell, on the other hand, started to use the formula much earlier. He used Yours sincerely for the first time in a letter to John Johnston of Grange, dated 14 December 1762 (Walker 1966:32). Just as with Yours affectionately, Boswell liked to vary between yours sincerely and sincerely yours


3. Johnson's social network 

Reynolds, Boswell, and Johnson were not the only members of The Club who used yours sincerely. The Correspondence of James Boswell with Certain Members of The Club (ed. Fifer 1976) contains a number of in-letters, letters written to Boswell by Joseph Warton, Thomas Warton, Thomas Barnard, Bennet Langton, and Richard Warren, that are signed with the formula as well. Since The Club was founded in 1764 and Boswell was already using the formula in 1762, he could have been the one who introduced the formula to the other Club members. Because Boswell and the other members of the Club were “linked by ties of kinship, friendship, occupation, leisure activities and the like” (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1996:329), they together formed a closed network cluster within the social network of The Club. According to Milroy, there are three groups of network members, i.e. the innovators, who are “marginal to the innovation-adopting group”, the early adopters, who are “central members of the group within which they have contracted strong ties, and conform closely to group norms” and who can “provide a model for other non-innovative members of the group”, and their followers (1987:202). According to Tieken-Boon van Ostade, linguistic innovators are “people who are not fully integrated members of the network, existing at its edges and having only loose ties with some of the other members” so that they can “carry linguistic innovations from one network to another” (1994:2). In his introduction to The Correspondence of James Boswell with Certain Members of The Club Fifer notes that “Boswell never established real intimacy with his fellow Club members” (1976:xxii). His best friends, John Johnston of Grange and William Temple, belonged to other circles (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1996:332). Unlike Johnson, Reynolds and Burke, Boswell did not belong to the Streatham circle either (cf. Bax 2000). Because Boswell did have a strong tie with Johnson, who was at the centre of the network, he occupied a marginal position. It was because of his marginal position that Boswell could form a bridge between his own network and that of Johnson (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1996:333). This means that in the case of Yours sincerely, Boswell could have been a linguistic innovator, the members of The Club the early adopters and Johnson a follower.

To return to Reynolds’ use of Yours sincerely, there could also be another person besides Boswell who may have given him the idea of using the formula. The same goes for Reynolds’ use of Yours affectionately. According to Wendorf, Reynolds started 

to teach himself the arts of politeness at a fairly early age. An unpublished commonplace book, entitled ‘Extracts’ and dating from the 1730s, is filled with entries from books Reynolds had been reading (1996:32). 

John Edgcumbe informs us that the book was given to Reynolds by his father on his eighth birthday (Wendorf 1996:218). It is in this book that “Pope’s letters are extracted at great length, especially his elegant openings and closings” (Wendorf 1996:32). When discussing closing formulas in the letters of John Gay, Tieken-Boon van Ostade states that Gay could have been a linguistic innovator, who could have used Yours affectionately/sincerely in his letters to Alexander Pope, who as an early adopter could have picked it up (1999:108). Whether Pope’s statement “that familiar letters should be just that, familiar and informal ‘artless and natural’” and “as talking upon paper”, as Anderson and Ehrenpreis (1966:38) call it, meant using closing formulas like Yours affectionately/sincerely needs to be further investigated. It would be the only way to find out whether Reynolds was indeed influenced by Pope and indirectly by Gay, who just like Reynolds did not use variants of affectionately/sincerely yours, which we do find in the letters of Reynolds’ friends, Johnson, Boswell, and many other members of The Club.


4. Conclusion

According to the OED Yours sincerely was used for the first time in 1817. Just like Yours affectionately, the formula is not discussed in Johnson’s Dictionary. Tieken-Boon van Ostade has already shown that Gay’s use of Yours affectionately/sincerely “antedates the information in the OED by about a century” (1999:111). Reynolds, Johnson and Boswell’s use of Yours affectionately/sincerely also show that both formulas were already in use before 1817, when Sir Walter Scott ended a letter with “sincerely and affectionately yours”. A year later, the formula yours sincerely is attested for the first time: “1818 MOORE Fudge Fam. Paris vi. 228 Good-bye-my paper's out so nearly, I've only room for Yours sincerely” (OED online s.v. sincerely). Although we still do not know whether it was Pope or Boswell who gave Reynolds the idea of using Yours affectionately/sincerely, it is clear that the painter was “willing to please”, as Wendorf (1996:15) puts it. Of greatest interest here are the quotations in his “Extracts” book, which he copied out from the Tatler: “Politeness Is [sic] to do not that which pleases you, but the Person that you converse with” and from Richelieu’s The Art of Pleasing in Conversation: “Nothing is more important in the commerce of life than to please in Conversation” (Wendorf 1996:33). Although Reynolds did not like “talking upon paper” he wanted to please his correspondents as much as possible. This could have been the reason why he stopped following the prescriptions of the letter-writing manuals and started to use Yours affectionately/sincerely in his letters.  



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1. “Social letters" are described by Anderson and Ehrenpreis (1966:246 ) as letters which were written to inform family and friends of “activities, thoughts and plans during the period since the last meeting or exchange of messages”.