Reynolds’ early years in Plympton

Detail from Reynolds sketchbook © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

By Lawrie Thorne – project volunteer

Lawrie has carried out research into Reynolds’ early years up until the 1750s. This is the first in a series of posts looking at the significance of the recently acquired self-portrait, in the life and times of Reynolds. It is based on an Art Bite talk given in December 2014.

Joshua Reynolds was born on the 16th July 1723, the seventh of eleven children of The Reverend Samuel Reynolds and his wife Theophila. Five of the children died in infancy. His father was Master of Plympton Grammar School where Joshua was to be a pupil. Samuel had graduated from Corpus Christi College in 1702, and was elected fellow of Balliol College, Oxford in 1705. On both sides the family was clerical and scholarly.

Plympton itself was an important area with its ancient Priory granted a Charter by Henry III in 1253, its status as a Stannary town, and its ability to return two members of Parliament.

Plympton Grammar School was one of private foundation. From the part of the estate of Elize Hele of Cornwood, left for charitable purposes, the trustees in 1658 allocated £1,800 for building a school house, maintaining a Master, and providing him with a dwelling. Begun in 1663 the school was completed in eight years with Richard Taprell, appointed in 1671 as the first Head Master. A dwelling- house already on site served, with additions, as a Masters house until its demolition in 1869.

Plympton Grammar School, by Samuel Prout (1783-1852)
Plympton Grammar School, as painted by Samuel Prout  © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

The school was described as a Gothic structure of the most picturesque design and arrangement. Samuel Reynolds was appointed Head Master 1715 and was in post until his death in 1746. With few exceptions all the Heads were in Holy Orders.

Like Plymouth Grammar School under Bidlake, the Plympton School was famous for its artist-pupils. James Northcote was one, and both Charles Eastlake and Benjamin Robert Haydon finished their education there.

Samuel Reynolds had a wide ranging academic curiosity. He read political tracts, and had a small collection of anatomical and other prints, which Joshua copied. On his shelves were many of the era’s key texts, including essays by Jonathan Richardson – of whom more later, and perhaps most important of all he seems to have been a very sociable man with educated friends with whom he loved to discuss and debate issues. The group included James Bulteel of Flete, and two 2 lawyer friends, John Cranch of Plympton and Charles Cutcliffe of Bideford. One issue that occupied them was the future of Joshua.

Samuel’s first inclination was to bring up his son up as an apothecary – however, by 1740, Joshua’s interest in art was such that his father could write of his “very great genius for drawing and lately on his own head (he) has begun even painting”.

At this stage Joshua’s talent was sufficiently well known for a John Warwell to offer to train him free of charge as an apprentice. Under the general term of house painter, this would have involved coach and heraldic work, shop signs, chimney boards, over mantels and over door panels all of which needed skill and artistic imagination in the use of paint – a wide diversity of skills being deployed and developed.

For such an apprentice the seven years of servitude began at the age of 14 years, which contrasts with the four years pupillage later offered to Reynolds. Several of the founding members of the R.A. were to start in apprenticeships. Reynolds with ideas of his own stated that he would rather be an apothecary than an ordinary painter, and that he wanted to be bound to an eminent master.

Keep an eye out for the next post in this series, when Reynolds begins his training.

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