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The old Grammar School at the southern end of George Lane, is referred to by the Devon historian, W.G. Hoskins, who says, "Few schools in England can have such rich associations in the history of painting, but few towns in England can have been so unaware of their greatest son". JoshuaReynolds, the son of Samuel Reynolds, a Headmaster of this School, was born in the old school house in 1723. The house was pulled down in 1871, and there was no memorial to Reynolds until a tablet was put in the Church in 1904.

The School was known as Hele's School, Plympton, after Elize Hele who owned Sir Walter Raleigh's old manor house at Fardel, in the parish of Cornwood. Elize was born in 1560 at Winston Manor, three miles to the south of Plympton. He was a lawyer of the Inner Temple in London, had been treasurer to James I and owned much property in South and West Devon. After the death of his only child, Walter, at the age of 11, Hele decided to bequeath a number of his estates for charitable purposes. Elize died in 1635 and was buried in Exeter Cathedral. His trustees, John Maynard and Elize Stert, issued the money to fund three schools: Hele's School at Exeter and The Blue Maids School, Exeter, which was later renamed The Maynard School and, in 1658, Hele's School, Plympton. They also set up a Hele Trust, which still administers the Plympton School building.

The cost of the building completed in 1671, was £1,099. The School is built in a gothic style, possibly designed by the architect of Charles Church, Plymouth. A cloister of arches and columns decorated in contrasting bands of limestone and granite, supports the schoolroom. It has five large mullioned windows. Above the schoolroom door is a small gallery where the Headmaster could stand to watch his pupils at work.

The School was intended as a charitable school for boys of surrounding parishes but, such was its excellent reputation, the local gentry sent their sons too. John Parker of Saltram, who was to become the first Earl of Morley, used to walk daily to the School through Underwood. His grandmother, Lady Catherine Parker, gave Joshua Reynolds his first pencil. Joshua Reynolds was the seventh child of the Reverend Samuel Reynolds. Born on July 16th, 1723, his baptism is recorded in the St. Maurice Church register. He was actually named in the register as Joseph, and the record was later corrected. Preserved in the Royal Academy is a drawing, on the back of a Latin exercise, of the schoolhouse window.

On the paper his father has written, "This is drawn by Joshua in School out of pure idleness". Although Reynolds settled in London he returned frequently to Devon, visiting Saltram, where a number of his portraits of the Parker family can be seen. It was largely his personal links with families such as the Parkers, Edgcumbes and the Mudges, that introduced his friends, Dr. Samuel Johnson and Fanny Burney the eighteenth century novelist, to the South West. In 1768, Reynolds became the first President of the Royal Academy. He was knighted by George III in the following year.

In 1773 he was chosen as Mayor of Plympton. He told George III, "This gives me more pleasure than any other honour I have received", then tactfully added, "except that which Your Majesty was graciously pleased to bestow upon me". Reynolds painted a portrait of himself and presented it to Plympton Borough.

In 1773 he was chosen as Mayor of Plympton. He told George III, "This gives me more pleasure than any other honour I have received", then tactfully added, "except that which Your Majesty was graciously pleased to bestow upon me".

Reynolds painted a portrait of himself and presented it to Plympton Borough. The corporation, in financial difficulty, sold the portrait in 1837 to the Earl of Egremont for £150. In 1973, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Reynolds' birth, the Civic Association, in conjunction with Plympton Grammar School, arranged various celebrations including the donation of wrought iron gates to the old School. They were ceremonially opened by Sir Thomas Monnington, the President of the Royal Academy.

The Post Office honoured the famous son of Plympton by issuing a set of commemorative stamps. The respect for Reynolds talent, and the affection that he inspired, undoubtedly initiated the remarkable sequence in which three other artists who had attended the Grammar School, each became the pupil of his predecessor. James Northcote (1746-1831) joined Reynolds in London as his pupil and assistant.

A noted portrait painter, he also wrote the first biography of Reynolds. His amusing tales and remarks are recorded by William Hazlitt in "Conversations of Northcote". We read there that when Benjamin Haydon told him he wished to be a historical painter, Northcote retorted that "He would starve with a bundle of straw under his head". Haydon (1786-1846) had been Headboy of the School in 1801. At School he formed a drawing class, and once drew a hunting scene on the schoolroom wall with burnt sticks. Famed for his large canvasses of biblical subjects, such as "The Raising of Lazarus", he was also involved in schemes for artistic and social reform. Wordsworth and Keats, who were among his many illustrious friends, each wrote sonnets in his praise. Northcote's forecast of his financial fortunes proved all too accurate, however, and after having been frequently imprisoned for debt, he committed suicide.

Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865) was Haydon's pupil. He was elected President of the Royal Academy, and became the first Director of the National Gallery. Napoleon posed for Eastlake's popular painting of him on board the Bellerophon anchored in Plymouth Sound, before the voyage to St. Helena. Like Haydon, Eastlake was made a Freeman of Plymouth. Reynolds father was a lifelong friend of the Reverend Zachariah Mudge, who became the eminent Vicar of St. Andrews, the mother church of Plymouth, in 1731. John Mudge, his son, was a pupil of the School, and a friend of Joshua. Mudge, a Fellow of the Royal Society, was awarded a gold medal for his work on telescopes. He became a doctor of medicine, and was Dr. Johnson's physician.

Another former pupil was Jack Russell, the famous hunting parson, and breeder of the terrier. He became, as he said, "Cock of the walk", after beating, in a fight, Bulteel, the son of a well-known local family. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, an attempt to replace the classical curriculum of the School with commercial courses proved unsuccessful. Numbers dwindled, and the School closed in 1903. It was decided to re-open the School in 1921 on a co-educational basis. The School occupied Castle Barbican, purchased from the widow of J. Brooking Rowe, the author of "A History of Plympton Erle". By 1931, the growth of the Grammar School necessitated the use of the original old schoolroom. With continued growth in numbers, the School moved out of Plympton St. Maurice in 1937 to its present site in Stone Barton.


Based on:
© MILLS, Audrey F, 1981: Plympton St. Maurice Guide, First Edition, Plympton St. Maurice Civic Association