Plymouth’s Two Presidents

The Box

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Plymouth (or Plympton St Maurice to be exact), has an important part to play in the history of London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts (RA). In fact, we’re the only place outside London to have produced two of the RA’s presidents.

The founding president was Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Born in Plympton in 1723 and prodigiously talented, Reynolds became the foremost portrait painter of his age. He believed that making art was a profession and not a trade, and he championed a broader, deeper approach to the teaching of young artists.

Reynolds wrote and delivered a series of lectures to the pupils of the RA Schools called The Discourses. They are amongst the earliest examples of art education in this country and are still in print today.

We hold tracings made from Reynolds’ manuscript of The Discourses in the city’s collections. In all the crossings out and scribbles you can see the passion with which he hammered out his legacy.

Reynolds counselled his students to work hard, and to study but not to copy the work of their elders. He served for 24 years at the helm of the RA until he died in 1792.

Discover even more about Reynolds here.

82 years later, another son of Plympton – Sir Charles Lock Eastlake took up the post of President.

Eastlake decided on a career in history painting and apprenticed himself to fellow Plymothians Samuel Prout, and then Benjamin Robert Haydon. Eastlake was a student of the RA schools too, beginning his studies in 1809.

Eastlake’s rise to fame came courtesy of Napoleon. When the ‘peril of Europe’ was held captive in Plymouth Sound onboard the Bellerophon in 1815, Eastlake made two paintings with Napoleon’s consent.

The larger of the two (now sadly untraced), sold for a high price to a consortium of five local men, and the money gave Eastlake the means to head to Europe.

Based in Rome for 16 years, Eastlake developed a great European network of friends and scholars that would aid and inspire him throughout his life.

Eastlake had a gift for diplomacy and administration. On good terms with most of the Academicians (no small achievement), he rose from member to president in 20 years and remained in office until his death.

Eastlake opened the RA up to women, journalists and foreign artists (in its annual Summer Show).

Discover more about Eastlake here.

Both men were very different characters, but they were excellent leaders.

The journey from Plymouth to the Royal Academy is a long and interesting one. I wonder if we’ll produce another President in the years to come?

Emma Philip is Senior Curator for The Box, Plymouth

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