Joshua Reynolds and The Eliot Family: New exhibition at The Box in Plymouth

A new exhibition in Plymouth opened this month, celebrating the work of local artist Joshua Reynolds and his portraits of the Eliot family, who supported the painter early on in his career. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds was born in Plympton in 1723 and it was in Plymouth that he began painting portraits, creating images of naval officers based around Plymouth Dock. Eventually, he was to meet Captain John Hamilton, who was a close friend of the Eliots, who were from St Germans in Cornwall. 

Reynolds would paint lively and realistic portraits of the Eliots over his lifetime, and build a close relationship with the family. Edward Eliot commissioned him on a number of occasions and was one of the pallbearers at the artist's funeral in 1792. 

Some of the paintings he created of the family are ground-breaking to us today. The Eliot Family (1746) depicts children playing within the family scene - something which wasn't often depicted, with children usually standing stiffly for their portraits alongside the adults. This painting shows Richard Eliot and his wife Harriot with their children and grandchildren. Two children play with an older member of the family on the left, one riding on his back - and two more play, seated, on the floor at the centre of the painting. 

Richard Eliot was born in 1694 and sat in the House of Commons from 1733. He died in 1748 and after his death his wife Harriot married Captain John Hamilton - who Reynolds also painted. 

The Eliot Family, Joshua Reynolds. With permission from The Box, Plymouth

The swirling, dynamic painting of Lady Anne Bonfoy (née Eliot) in 1755 is also considered unusual. Reynolds has depicted her here in a confident pose, one arm on her hip - a self-assured stance painters of the time usually reserved for men. At a time when women were not allowed to own their own property separately from their husbands Reynolds has given Anne a confidence in her pose and direct gaze that hints at the woman she was in life. She was 25 years old when she posed for this painting. 

In 1762 - at 32 years old - she was widowed and never remarried, spending the rest of her life with her only daughter. She died in London in 1816. 

Lady Anne Bonfoy (née Eliot), Joshua Reynolds. With permission from The Box, Plymouth. 

Viewers to the exhibition can also view more of Reynolds' work, including a self-portrait from 1746, his sitter's book, palettes, mahl sticks, paintbox and his sketchbook from 1750-1752. 

Family and Friends: Reynolds at Port Eliot, can be viewed at The Box from 24 July to 5 September 2021. It's free to enter, and opening hours for the exhibition are 10am-5pm, Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday. Information correct at time of writing, check the website for any changes, alterations or to book tickets before travelling. 


You might also like: The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu (book review), A Tour of Elizabethan House, Plymouth, The History of the Sandwich and  The Daughters of George III (book review).