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Journey to Genius

Two important exhibits from the life of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), one of the most celebrated and influential painters of the 18th Century, were acquired for Plymouth thanks to a partnership effort supported by the community.

Self-Portrait (1746) and Sketchbook (1750-2) are of international importance and were acquired by private treaty, thanks to a £326,300 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant and support from the Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, and the Friends of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (FPCMAG). Many local people contributed to this purchase, ensuring the painting and sketchbook are saved for Plymouth and the region. This important acquisition followed on from the Acceptance in Lieu of Reynolds portraits from Port Eliot in 2007.

These magnificent items, were valuable additions to Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery permanent collection and will form part of The Box's collections.


The self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds was painted on his return to Plymouth in 1746, shortly after his apprenticeship to Thomas Hudson in London. It’s been suggested that he painted this work (and the portraits of his father and sister, which are currently on display in the Cottonian Gallery) to advertise his services as a portrait painter when he and his sisters, Elizabeth and Frances, moved to Dock (modern-day Devonport) after the death of their father in 1745.


The sketchbook dates to 1750-2 and was compiled by Sir Joshua Reynolds while in Italy. The book contains sketches of Old Master works that Reynolds studied during his travels. It shows his burgeoning interest in the history and theory of art and no doubt influenced his later activity as a collector of art. He studied and copied many of the works of Raphael, Michael Angelo, Caravaggio, and others, and filled several journals with his art notes. Only ten Reynolds sketchbooks are known to exist. In his Discourse XI, Reynolds advised the students of the Royal Academy to seek out the works of Italian Old Masters critically: Whoever should travel to Italy and spend his whole time there only in copying pictures…would return with little improvement…he must consider their works as the means of teaching him the true art of seeing nature… the great business of study is to acquire a mind…

Volunteers shared their research on this blog of Reynolds beginnings here in the Plymouth area, and what their discoveries about the life and times of Plympton, Plymouth, and Plymouth Dock (modern day Devonport) during the early to mid 1700s.