Dr John Ash was an eminent Birmingham physician and a co-founder of the Birmingham General Hospital, ‘for the relief of the sick and lame’. Ash was personally responsible for the planning of the building in which he served as senior physician from 1779 to 1787.
The painting is arguably Reynolds’ most elaborate and successful full-length institutional portrait. Ash is shown in the gown of a Doctor of Medicine worn over a black velvet suit with formal cravat and a powdered wig with rigid side curls of the kind that were already old-fashioned by the late 1780s. He holds the ground plan of Birmingham General Hospital in his right hand with the building itself seen in the distance. Behind him a statue representing Benevolence is seen sheltering a child with her robe. In format, the picture relates closely to William Hogarth’s spectacular portrait of Captain Coram (1740) and Allan Ramsay’s full-length portrait of Dr Richard Mead, both commissioned for the Foundling Hospital in London. They also include symbolic representations of virtues (Charity and Hygiene respectively).
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commissioned by the governors of Birmingham General Hospital in honour of the sitter’s services to the people of Birmingham; purchased with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery Development Trust, the Public Picture Gallery Fund, the Friends of Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, W. A. Cadbury Charitable Trust, Feeney Charitable Trust and the public