By Nicci Wakeham, project volunteer

Having seen the call for volunteer community researchers into the life and times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, I was eager to become involved.

This would involve research using books, journals, the resources of the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, information held at the museum itself and any other suitable resources available.

Our task was to investigate Reynolds’ early life (c. 1720-1750), the period he was growing up, his school life, apprenticeship and first studio.

My first mission was to explore his family and produce a family tree.  William Cotton’s book, Sir Joshua Reynolds and His Works: Gleanings from his Diary, Unpublished Manuscripts & from Other Sources,[1]  was a mine of information.  This, together with further material gleaned from the Johnson Family Tree [2], of which I found an existing copy at the museum, helped to build a partial picture of the Reynolds’ family. With additional facts found in the trove Pedigrees of Five Devonshire Families: Colby, Coplestone, Reynolds, Palmer and Johnson, compiled by Frederick Thomas Colby, DD FSA, in 1884, I have now amassed a tree with 130 individuals.

I fed all this fascinating material into a computer programme, My Heritage Family Tree Builder; I have enclosed a photograph of how huge the resulting paper chart has become – filing both kitchen and dining room floors; dimensions 525 cm x 120 cm!

The Reynolds family tree stretches rather a long way.... (photo courtesy of Nicci Wakeham)

The Reynolds family tree stretches rather a long way…. (photo courtesy of Nicci Wakeham)

A well-educated and pious family, many of the Reynolds men attended universities.  Sir Joshua’s father, Samuel was educated Oxford, as were two of his uncles and his great-grandfather (maternal).  His grandfather, Rev. John Reynolds was a Cambridge man (paternal), as was his nephew, Rev. John Palmer.  Four of Joshua’s great-nephews were educated at Cambridge and one at Oxford.

Joshua’s father’s family herald from Exeter and are probably related to the Pinhoe Reynolds’, who include Dr. John Reynolds (or Rainolds) (1549-1607), a scholar and President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford (1598-1607).  It was Dr. Reynolds who suggested to King James I that a new translation of the bible was required and was himself one of the translators.  He is said to have died of overwork at 58, leaving behind him a great reputation for scholarship and high character.[3]

Joshua’s Mother’s family are from the Great Torrington area, his two oldest brothers were born and baptised there.  His sister, Mary, although born in Plympton St Maurice, spent most of her years in Great Torrington, dying here aged 78.  In fact, Joshua’s brother-in-law, William Johnson (1728-1795), husband of his sister Elizabeth, was the Mayor of Torrington three times; 1757, 1764, 1771. FInd out more on his sister Frances (known as Fanny) in this Appendix.

This has proven to be both a rewarding and frustrating task; sometimes dates don’t match, nicknames are used, children are ignored if they didn’t live through childhood, the sharing of family names (out of 130 people, we have 11 x Marys, 10 x Williams, 9 x Elizabeths and 8 Johns). Some of the children’s names, from large families, are not recorded at all, i.e. Joshua’s nephew, Joseph Palmer (1749-1829) and his wife Eliza had 22 children; I have only found names for 14.

I shall continue to add to the family tree, making note of any anecdotes that I come across, but my next assignment will be to look at Sir Joshua’s early artistic interest, his schooling and the other artists from Plympton that followed in his wake.


[1] Cotton, William, Sir Joshua Reynolds and His Works: Gleanings from his Diary, Unpublished Manuscripts & from Other Sources, London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1856.

[1] Johnson family tree – Joshua’s sister Elizabeth (1721-1800) married William Johnson (1728-1795) in Great Torrington, Devon, in 1753.  The marriage produced seven children

[3] Hall, Isaac, ed., The Revised New Testament and History of Revision, Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers; Atlanta: C.R. Blackall & Co.; New York: A.L. Bancroft & Co., 1881.