Behind The Scenes, 5 June 2019: Working ‘outside The Box’ at Port Eliot
by Emma Philip, Senior Curator
Port Eliot is a remarkable, historical and beautiful place – a Grade 1 listed house, set in Grade 1 listed parkland designed by Humphrey Repton. The house began life as Porth Prior, an early Celtic monastery founded by or after St Germanus, from whom the nearby village of St Germans takes its name.
After the Reformation (1530s), the priory site was granted by Henry VIII to the Champernowne family. They sold it to Plymothian Merchant Adventurer John Eliot in 1564, and so began the ownership of the House by the Eliot family which continues to this day.
In 2007 Plymouth City Council took ownership of 23 paintings in situ at Port Eliot as part of the Government’s Acceptance in Lieu Scheme. This is a provision in British tax law which enables objects and artworks of national importance to be acquired by the nation in lieu of inheritance tax.
The Box team is responsible for the care of these paintings at Port Eliot. We visit the House annually to check on their condition and organise any necessary conservation treatments.
Recently we’ve been working at the House to pack and remove some of the paintings in advance of major restoration and renovation work that will be happening there this year.
This process involved us condition checking each painting to note any changes to the paint surface or frame. We then cleaned the reverse of the paintings using a special conservation vacuum to remove dust before carefully wrapping, packing and labelling each work so we could then transfer it to our offsite store. The paintings will return to the House once the restoration works are completed and it reopens to the public in 2020.
The paintings at Port Eliot include 17 works by Plympton-born Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the Royal Academy and premier portrait painter of the Eighteenth Century. The Eliots were firm friends of the artist throughout his life, and their collection of portraits by his hand is the largest and earliest surviving group of his West Country work.
One of them is this early and very unusual group portrait. It shows the whole Eliot family and two of their friends and was commissioned from the young Reynolds by Richard Eliot (seated on the right with his wife Harriot).
Their son and heir Edward (later 1st Lord Eliot and Reynolds’s great friend) stands in the centre. To the left, Edward’s brother Richard runs in, yanking the coat of Captain John Hamilton, who has Richard’s sister Catherine on his back.
To the right of Hamilton stands a lady called Mrs Goldsworthy. She had recently separated from her husband following rumours of a scandalous affair and had taken refuge with her father in Plymouth. At the far right in blue is Harriot Eliot. Her sister Ann appears in green directly in front of Mrs Goldsworthy. Elizabeth and John Eliot are pictured playing on their knees at the front.
Whilst Reynolds undoubtedly took inspiration for this composition from the great Van Dyke’s life-sized Pembroke Family portrait (which he would have seen at Wilton House in Salisbury when he was travelling to and from London), this is an altogether less grandiose painting.
If you look closely you can see that the word ‘Amiticia’, or friendship, is written on the urn in the background – a nod to his friendship with the Eliots and the presence of the two friends in this ‘family’ group.