Decant Day, 9 November 2016: Packing up the Cottonian Collection

By Susan Leedham, Cottonian Collection Researcher

As we near the halfway point of Decant (ready for building work to start in the New Year) it was time to move one of our most important pieces – our nationally designated Cottonian Collection.

aha210211-4474The Cottonian Collection was gifted to the people of Plymouth in 1853 for our ‘amusement and instruction’ and we are incredibly lucky to be able to call this unique and fascinating collection our own! The collection contains over 10,000 objects including prints, drawings and oil paintings (including many by Plympton-born painter Sir Joshua Reynolds), along with 2,000 books, ceramics, sculpture, and some large pieces of unique eighteenth-century furniture. Because of its contents, the collection was awarded Designation Status by Arts Council England. This means that it has been identified as one of the most important collections in the country.

Although the Cottonian Collection was gifted to us by William Cotton III in the mid-nineteenth century, it is much older and started life 350 years ago. In mid-seventeenth-century London, a middle-class man called Robert Townson began buying books and a few prints. The collection then passed through the hands of two further gentlemen (William Townson and Charles Rogers) who each purchased numerous drawings, prints, paintings and books. By 1799 the Cottonian Collection was two-thirds larger than its current size – just imagine how impressive it would have looked! Sadly two sales in 1799 and 1801 reduced the collection to the size it is today, however the remainder was brought to Plymouth by William Cotton III in the 1830s and on his death was donated to the people of Plymouth.

As you can well imagine, moving a collection of this size and importance was no easy feat. With only one week to accomplish this task, we worked with a company of specialist movers who helped us to pack and transport our precious Cottonian Collection. The first objects to be moved were the three large bookcases. As you can see from our time-lapse footage this was a big job!

Carefully removing the books from the shelves (some are very large and heavy) the books were packed into boxes lined with acid-free bubble wrap and tissue for their journey to the offsite store.

It was essential that each box is marked with a shelf number so that we could make sure that all the books went back on the shelves in the right order! The large bookcases were then dismantled for the journey and placed in crates to keep them safe. Once at the other end, they were carefully re-built and the books were placed back on the shelves. This was a job that needed a lot of care as the eighteenth-century wood is sensitive to movement and changes in temperature.

Reinstalling the furniture in its new location

In the time-lapse and the images below, you can also see some of the oils, bronzes and other works being taken packaged ready to be taken off-site. This gives a sense of the scale of work undertaken!

It was a busy week and in total nine pieces of large furniture, 2,000 books, 9,000 prints, twenty-two oil paintings and 54 pieces of sculpture made the journey.


Decant Day, May 25th 2016: Secret Love Poem Discovery?

By Lottie Clark, Decant Curator

During any great development project involving collections you get an in-depth reintroduction to the treasures tucked away within the stores. While rifling through drawers of photographs, sketches or drawings; or working through boxes of costume; sky-high racks of painting and artworks; or cabinets of beetles, you’re bound to make discoveries or uncover hidden objects previously unrealised.

Sometimes a decant can be equated to a large-scale tidy up so finally getting to the back of that racking, or looking inside a porcelain pot to find a letter from the donor, or the scrap of an address, is not uncommon. We all remember being told to tidy our room, or finally setting aside that weekend to sort through the attic, only to spend hours looking through old music we forgot we had, posters we once hung on our walls, or that vital bit of cooking equipment we ‘couldn’t live without’. A museum collection is no different. Every so often you come across that label you were meant to file, or that exhibition card you were going to transcribe. While now is the time to get these administrative threads tied up, sometimes loose sheets of paper can lead to more questions than answers, as was the case recently when working through one of our Cottonian print folios.

Cottonian Gallery

The majestic folios, dating from c.1740, stand proudly in their original bookcases within the Cottonian Gallery here in the Museum. As Plymouth’s only ACE Designated Collection they have a precedent to be on display and be accessible under certain conditions. As such we have several streams of continuing work with the Cottonian Collection to see it, amongst other things, digitised for our online platforms.

While tying up one of those aforementioned ‘loose ends’ we managed to pair-up a set of over 400 images with their original, previously unknown, folio. Although time-consuming this was a brilliant piece of detective work that now means all those images can be digitally linked on our database to each page of the original folio – how exciting! However, this also meant the folio needed to be carefully removed from its place in the bookcase, then referenced page-by-page. No mean feat when these tomes measure, on average, 50cm x 40cm and weigh upwards of 10kg! Which is when our great discovery occurred!  Nearing the end of the folio a loose leaf of paper shifted and fell from the pages. We immediately ensured it wasn’t a loose image coming unstuck from the pages – but there were no gaps to indicate the 18th Century adhesive had disintegrated – all the images remained firmly on their pages. So we began reading what looked like a rudimentary list of prints, albeit it in French.

COP25 Interleave - Front - blog
Front of interleave, with list

Initially we thought the list could have been made by one of the collectors – a ‘wish list’ perhaps of prints they wanted sourcing, or were interested in obtaining. But then we turned the slip of paper over to discover a ream of writing, in what appeared to be Italian, signed faintly in pencil ‘P Mariette’.

COP25 Interleave - Back-blog-crop
Detail, back of interleave with poem
Charles Rogers

With the bit between our teeth we delved into the archive to discover a letter from Pierre-Jean Mariette, a renowned collector and dealer of old master prints, to Charles Rogers FRS FSA, founding collector of the Cottonian. The letter is thanking Rogers for the recent acquisition, by Mariette, of a print by Sir Robert Strange based on a Van Dyck work.*

Oh how the plot thickens! Had Mariette scribbled his poem on the back of a list – or vice versa? Who was the poem’s intended – and did they ever receive it? Was this an initial draft that became a more honed final piece (and, if so, why sign it)? How had the poem found its way into the folio – especially as Rogers never travelled to Europe  so would not have met Mariette in person, even if the folio, or the prints within it, were traded through him?

All of these questions from such a small discovery! Maybe one day we’ll have the time to delve deeper into the intriguing story of the poem l’amore, but for now we need to continue our documentation and decant work – and, perhaps more so, brush up on our European languages in order to translate it!

COP25 Interleave- blog
Both sides of the interleave

*Especial thanks to Exhibitions & Display Officer Kate Johnson who translated the letter for us with her impeccable French!

The early times of Reynolds at Plymouth Dock

By Celia Bean, project volunteer

Before he was 20 Joshua Reynolds had declared that if he did not prove himself to be the best painter of the age by the time he reached 30 he never would.  So we can assume that when he returned to Plympton St Maurice in 1743 after prematurely finishing his apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson in London he would have had this ambition in mind.  His decision to work in the up and coming area of Plymouth Dock (later Devonport) was the first step in this plan.

My involvement with the research for PCMAG’s planned exhibition is to research Reynold’s time at Plymouth Dock between 1743 and 1749, so I am looking at what the area was like at that time, who Joshua painted whilst he was there and the influences that he had.

On 3 January 1744, Joshua’s father, Samuel, wrote to his friend Charles Cutcliffe who had been instrumental in arranging Joshua’s apprenticeship to Thomas Hudson, saying that his son had started painting in Plymouth Dock and had painted 20 portraits, including that of ‘the greatest man in the place, the commissioner of the dockyard’ and that he had 10 more commissions lined up.  The commissioner at that time was Philip Vanbrugh, younger brother of Sir John Vanbrugh (d 1726) who designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

The Town Clerk of Plymouth Walter Kendall, an important member of local society not only wanted his portrait painted, but also that of his wife and five of his family.  The Kendall’s family home was at Pelyn, Cornwall where they would have mixed with the local gentry and they were in a position to spread the word about the young painter.

Later that year Joshua returned to London as he and Thomas Hudson had patched up their quarrel and were on good terms.  Joshua’s father wrote that ‘Joshua by his master’s means is introduced into a club composed of the most famous men in their profession’.  This club met at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane and the clientele comprised mainly artists and connoisseurs who had an interest in old-master prints and drawings. An ideal place for an ambitious young painter not only to learn from the company of like-minded people, but also to do some valuable networking.

Reynolds returned home around the time of his father’s death on Christmas day 1745.  His mother Theophila moved to Torrington, where she lived with her eldest daughter, Mary, until her own death and Reynolds and his two unmarried sisters, Fanny and Elizabeth took a house in Fore Street, Plymouth Dock. The sisters opened a millinery shop on the ground floor and Joshua had a studio on the floor above.

Around this time Reynolds painted portraits of his sister Frances (known as Fanny) Reynolds and a posthumous portrait of his father Rev Samuel Reynolds, as well as his own self-portrait (recently acquired by PCMAG).  Perhaps he displayed these in the shop window to advertise his skill.

Plymouth Dock was the site of the most modern and technologically advanced Naval port in Europe and a new modern town grew up around it.  It was an area of well-planned streets that were wide and imposing and paved with what appeared to be marble. It was probably limestone from the local quarries, which with its veined appearance would shine like marble when wet or worn. This town was still very small when Reynolds and his sisters arrived, consisting of about seven streets concentrated around the dockyard entrance.  The main one was Fore Street where Joshua and his sisters had settled and it was along this street that all those having business in the dockyard, be they naval or civilian, had to pass.  An astute location for an ambitious young man, as this was an area on the up and a useful place for Joshua to do some networking amongst the naval officers, who at that time were either aristocrats or gentry – the very people who would consider having their portrait painted.

He was fortunate that through his father Samuel he was acquainted with some of the local aristocracy such as the Parkers of Borringdon (later of Saltram) and the Edgcumbe family of Mount Edgcumbe and it is perhaps in these residences that he was able to examine paintings of merit.  He was particularly taken with the works of a Devon artist William Gandy of Exeter (d 1729) and in his early works Reynolds copied some of Gandy’s method, especially in regard to painting the head.  Reynolds also took note of Gandy’s observation that “a picture ought to have a richness in its texture, as if the colours had been composed of cream or cheese, and the reverse to a hard and husky or dry manner.”

Although he continued to travel to London, his principal patrons at that time were from the West Country, not only The Parkers and the Edgcumbes, but notably Richard Eliot, MP for St Germans and Liskeard.

With the contacts and commissions he was starting to get whilst living in Plymouth Dock, Reynolds was beginning to hone his skills towards becoming the best painter of the age.


Leslie, C.R. and Taylor, Tom, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1865

Northcote, James. The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1818

Cotton, William. Sir Joshua Reynolds and his Works, Gleanings from his diary, unpublished manuscripts, and from other sources  (ed. J. Burnet), London 1856

Robinson, Chris, A History of Devonport, Plymouth, 2010

Interview with Young Explainer: Rebecca Collins

Name: Rebecca Collins

Favourite Sandwich: Uhm… Chicken and red pepper ciabatta from Costa.

Where do you come from and what do you do?

I’m from a small village called Abercrave in the Upper Swansea Valley, Wales. I’m an Illustrator and I study illustration at the University. I like to make mixed-media images for a variety of contexts including Children’s Books and Surface Pattern.

What’s your role in Young Explainers?

I am the co-ordinator of the Social Media team and I run the blog. This has given me a chance to really understand promotion and social platforms on the internet, and helped me really appreciate organisation and consistency! I also help out with the design aspects of the project, including creating flyers and visuals for events, helping design text panels and information books.

Are you enjoying Young Explainers?

What have you learnt so far? Very much so! I have learnt a lot about team work, and about more practical things like Gantt charts and note-making. I have also learnt about creating design work for clients and as part of a team, and working in a professional environment, which is incredibly useful!

How does Young Explainers relate to and support your personal aspirations?

I don’t really know what I want to do in the future at the moment, but I think I am learning a great deal about applying my illustrations and design skills to a working environment, as well as achieving short-term goals like, gaining experience of working in a team, learning about budgeting and improving my communication skills. I have actually created a drawing project on the Cottonian Collection, as I was so inspired by the Young Explainers project.


Any words of advice to future Young Explainers?

Get stuck in! This project is a brilliant opportunity to pick up some skills and experience and to make new friends. Enjoy it and embrace it! …And turn up to every meeting!


A quick hello from the Young Explainers! We’ve had some very exciting developments recently and we’re here to share them with you. Many of our projects are coming into their final stages: the gallery text panel is written and about to be printed, the labels are nearly completed and ideas for a gallery catalogue are being rounded off.  The Art Nibbles are almost ready to be filmed and put onto the Museum website and the Art Bite gallery talks are almost ready to go (Sorry, you’ll have to wait until June to hear them!). The most exciting update of them all has to be the Event! We’ve got a time (7.30pm), date (9th May) and a place (the Roundabout pub, Plymouth), and an itinerary – there’ll be a quiz with prizes, a fun photo-booth, some snacks, some drinks and live music, all to an 18th Century Masquerade theme! Keep an eye out here, on our twitter, @youngexplainers, and on our facebook,, for more updates.