by Emma Philip, Fine Art Curator

Throughout the autumn and winter we’ve been marking 250 years since the founding of the Royal Academy (RA), otherwise known as RA250 – and what better way to wrap up our coverage of this anniversary by highlighting Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Charles Eastlake, both of whom were Presidents of the RA?


The Royal Academy of Arts (the RA) was established 250 years ago this week – on December 10, 1768.

We’ve been doing lots of things to mark the anniversary of this internationally-recognised organisation which is run by a group of 45 artists, with the endorsement of the Crown but without funding from the UK Government.

You might ask why, but Plymouth (or Plympton St Maurice to be exact), has an important part to play in the history of the RA. In fact, it’s the only place outside London to have produced two of the RA’s presidents.

Self Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c1746 SmallWe’ve frequently highlighted the fact that 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 our collections. In all the crossings out and scribbles you can see the passion with which he hammered out his legacy.

Reynolds Discourses

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.


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.

Visitors looking at RA Painting
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).

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?

Listen to two of our Art Curators talking about their favourite works from our collections by Royal Academicians, including our sketchbook by Reynolds – believed to be one of only 9 in the world.