The art of ancestry among Cornwall's nobility
- Credit: DOM MOORE/THE BOX
A new exhibition shines a light on the relationship between one of the great British artists and the Eliot family of Port Eliot in St Germans, South East Cornwall. Plymouth-born Sir Joshua Reynolds was founding president of the Royal Academy and as a precursor to a major celebration in 2023 to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth, a new exhibition looks at the painter and his patrons.
Family & Friends: Reynolds at Port Eliot paints an intimate picture of how a rare fusion of patronage and genuine friendship supported Plymouth’s most famous portrait painter throughout his life. The son of the Reverend Samuel Reynolds, headmaster at Plympton Grammar School, Joshua showed early promise with his portraiture of naval officers living around Devonport Dockyard catching the attention of Captain John Hamilton, a close friend of the Eliots of St Germans.
Developing friendships with the Eliots (and the Parkers at Saltram, near Plymouth) paid dividends, says Emma Philip, Senior Curator at The Box where the exhibition is being held. ‘Before Reynolds, portrait painting was about recording people, it was not about communicating their character,’ says Emma. ‘But he showed us who these people are and how they wanted to be seen. The results are exceptional – interesting and engaging and they have stood the test of time. He was a really good judge of how to pitch it, and the people he was painting knew that too. They knew they were in safe hands.’
One painting in particular, The Eliot Family (1746), is a rare example of an early group portrait which remarkably shows children actually playing. Another picture which is a particular favourite of Emma’s is Lady Anne Bonfoy (née Eliot) (1755). ‘Anne was a fairly unremarkable woman who was not famous for anything,’ says Emma. ‘Joshua was both a fan of van Dyck and Rembrandt and he has painted Anne with her hand on her hip and her head turned to one side. It’s a dynamic stance for a woman and the image gives her great agency. It was one of the earliest of his portraits and he turned it into a print, which was very popular.’
Edward, later the first Lord Eliot, was one of Joshua’s consistent patrons and acted as a pallbearer at his funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1792. The close bond endured even after his death, with the family continuing to purchase his work when it became available, such as Hope Nursing Love which was acquired in 1835. The exhibition has 14 of the paintings accepted by Plymouth City Council in lieu of inheritance tax in 2007, and are part of The Box’s permanent collection.
Family and Friends: Reynolds at Port Eliot is at The Box, Plymouth, until September 5. Admission is free.
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