Sir Joshua Reynolds: His Maternal Ancestry and Kinsfolk.

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. VII, (1912-1913), Exeter: James G. Commin. 1913, p. 49-54.


O.A.R. Murray

Prepared by Michael Steer

Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, on 16 July 1723. the third son of the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, master of the Plympton Free Grammar School. His father had been a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, but did not send any of his sons to the university. One of his sisters was Mary Palmer (1716–1794), seven years his senior, author of Devonshire Dialogue, whose fondness for drawing is said to have had much influence on him when a boy. In 1740 she provided £60, half of the premium paid to Thomas Hudson the portrait-painter, for Joshua's pupillage, and nine years later advanced money for his expenses in Italy. His other siblings included Frances Reynolds and Elizabeth Johnson. The Note’s author explores the famed artist’s maternal ancestry. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers..

Note 30. SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS: His Maternal Ancestry and Kinsfolk. - It seems rather presumptuous to suggest that an accurate account of Sir Joshua Reynolds' maternal ancestry has never yet been given. There are strong reasons, however, for thinking that this is the case.

The ordinarily accepted account is that his mother was Theophila Potter, daughter of Matthew Potter, Perpetual Curate of Great Torrington (and a descendant of the Potters of Iddesleigh) by Theophila Baker, only child of Thomas Baker, Vicar of Bishop's Nympton, a celebrated mathematician. The story runs that Matthew Potter had been Curate to Baker, whose daughter he married against her father's wishes; that the latter disinherited her; and that her husband died a few years later, leaving her with three young children, after which bereavement she became blind through grief and anxiety. Even Sir Robert Edgcumbe, a descendant of the family, in his "Parentage and Kinsfolk of Sir Joshua Reynolds," accepts this traditional account in the main, though he does not repeat all the romantic details.

Of course, there is no doubt that Sir Joshua's mother was Theophila Potter, of Great Torrington, and that she married Samuel Reynolds at Monkleigh, near Torrington, on 9th December, 1711. But who were her parents?

In spite of the weight of authority, it may be confidently stated that no Matthew Potter was ever Perpetual Curate of Torrington, and that this was not the name of Sir Joshua's maternal grandfather, nor was his grandmother Theophila Baker, nor is the story of the disinheriting a reliable one.

No trace whatever of a Matthew Potter is to be found in Great Torrington Register, which, by the kind permission of the Vicar, the Rev. F. Emlyn Jones, I have carefully examined.

Christopher Furneaux was licensed as Perpetual Curate of Great Torrington in 1683, and was succeeded by Hercules Hoyles from 1698 to 1712. These dates cover the period when Matthew Potter should have been Perpetual Curate. The entries in the Register show that both Furneaux and Hoyles were actually resident, and that there was no gap between them during which Potter could have been Perpetual Curate.

Again, the Will of Thomas Baker, Vicar of Bishop's Nympton, dated 12th May, 1689, and proved 20th June, 1690 (P.C.C., 84 Dyke), shows that, far from having an only child, he had two sons, as well as several daughters, living at the date of his will: also, that his daughter Theophila (to whom, by the way, he left a portion £150) was then unmarried. The romantic story of an only child marrying against her father's will, and being disinherited, therefore falls to the ground.

In place of Theophila Baker, and the mythical Matthew Potter, I desire to claim the honour of being Sir Joshua's maternal grand-parents for Mary Baker, her elder sister, and for Humphrey Potter, Rector of Nymet Rowland, from 1682/3 to 1690, and Curate-in-charge of Lostwithiel from 1684 until about the same date.

This Humphrey Potter was the son of Philip Potter, a physician (or, more probably, apothecary) of Great Torrington. He was baptised at Torrington, 25th Dec, 1659, as the son of Philip Potter and Mary his wife; matriculated at St. Alban Hall, Oxford, 30th March, 1677 as "the son of Philip of Torrington Magna, D. Med., aet. 16; graduated B.A. from St. Mary Hall, 1680; was instituted to the Rectory of Nymet Rowland, 20th March, 1682/3 (patron, Richard Richards, of Rew, gent.), and died about the end of 1690, his successor being instituted on the 9th January, 1690/1, on the death of Humphrey Potter. He is mentioned, with his daughter Mary, in the Will of Thomas Baker, already referred to, being described as "of Lostwithiel, clerke," and the context leaves little doubt that they were respectively son-in-law and grand-daughter of the testator. It may be added that he was evidently not out of favour with the old mathematician who bequeathed to him "all such of my bookes as treate of the science of Mathematicks."'

By the kindness of the Rev. S. J. Daltry, Vicar of Lostwithiel, I am enabled to state that Humphry Potter seems to have been Curate-in-charge of that parish, and to have kept the Register from 1684 to 1690. It is not quite clear who was Vicar at this date, but probably James Salter, who was instituted 12th March, 1678/9, and was still Vicar in 1683/4, retained the living after his appointment as Master of the Grammar School at Exeter, on 4th March, i68f, and left Potter in charge. The next institution, I can find, is that of John Baker, on 1st April, 1691.

Mr. Daltry has also kindly made the following extracts from the Register: -

Anno Domini 1686. Elizabeth, the daughter of Humphrey Potter, clerk, and Mary his wife, was born the fifth day of October, and baptised the twenty-sixth day of the same month.

Anno 1688. Theophila, the daughter of Humphrey Potter, clerk, and Mary, his wife, was born the fourth day of June, and baptised the five and twentyeth day of June, 1688.

Anno Dni - 1690. Thomas, the son of Humphrey Potter, clerk, and Mary his wife, was born the ninth day of March ["1688" interpolated, but should be "1689,"] and baptised the ninth day of April, 1690

I submit that the connection with Torrington, and with Thomas Baker, the early death of Humphrey Potter, and the fact that Sir Joshua's eldest brother (baptised at Torrington, 24th February, 1712/3) bore the name of Humphrey - a name which does not seem to have been previously connected with the Reynolds family - all go to prove that it was this Theophila Potter, the daughter of Humphrey Potter and Mary Baker, born at Lostwithiel, in June, 1688, who became the mother of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

I regret that I am unable to say where Humphrey Potter was buried. Mr. Daltry informs me that it was not at Lostwithiel, and it was certainly not at Torrington. The Nymet Rowland Register does not date back to 1690, but the Rector, the Rev. H. Gordon Lowe, who has kindly made an extensive search, has been unable to find any M.I. or other record of his predecessor.

Some further account of the Potter family may be of interest.

John Potter, M.A., grandfather of Humphrey, belonged to the family of Potter of Broadhembury (later of Iddesleigh), whose pedigree is recorded in the Visitation of 1620. He was instituted to the Rectory of Newton St. Petrock, 14th February, 1615/6. (The Composition Books at the Public Record Office show that one of his sureties was John Cole, of Collumpton, gent. - doubtless a connection of the John Cole, of Collumpton, whose daughter Gertrude married George Potter, of Broadhembury, the first of the family named in the Visitation pedigree). He married (a) 1st October, 1616, Prudence, daughter of William Mill, Rector of West Putford, 1573-162: she was buried 22nd June, 1627, M.I., Newton St. Petrock; (b) 7th September, 1628, Abigail Waterman, living 1647. His will, dated 9th December, 1647, was proved 23rd March, 1649/50 (P.C.C. 44, Pembroke). He was then Patron of the living as well as Rector. He had issue: -

(1) Richard, baptised 1st March, 1617/8, of whom hereafter; (2) Alice, baptised 18th April, 1620, married John Hodge, both living with issue 1647; (3) Philip, baptised 19th July, 1622, of whom hereafter; (4) Elizabeth, baptised 30th January, 1624/5, married Arthur Bache, who succeeded his father-in-law as Rector, and died November 1660; (5) Thomas, baptised 24th June, 1627, died before 1647.

Richard Potter, eldest son of John, matriculated C.C.C., Oxford, 9th May, 1634, aet. 16; B.A., 1637; M.A., 1640; was Vicar of East Antony in 1655, his brother-in-law, Arthur Bache, having been Vicar from 1628 to 1640, and succeeded Bache as Rector of Newton St. Petrock, 26th March, 1661, married Prudence, daughter of Thomas Abbott of Luffincott, gent., and widow of Edward Reede, of Borraton, gent.; she was buried 20th January, 1689/90, M.I., Newton St. Petrock, which says she had four children by each husband - Arms, Potter of Iddesleigh, impaling Abbott. He was buried 2nd October, 1701, M.I., Newton St. Petrock. Will dated 26th August, 1701, proved Exeter P.R. 15th October, 1701. Issue (recorded by him on fly-leaf of Newton St. Petrock Register) (1) John, born 1st, baptised 12th November, 1647, at St. Budeaux; died v.p.; (2) Prudence, born 25th October, baptised 1st November, 1650, at St. Budeaux, married Newton St. Petrock 21st October, 1674, Joseph Spettigue of Luffincott; (3) Marie, born 8th, baptised 16th February, 1654, "in the chapel of 'Perricross,' "died v.p.; (4) Richard, born 13th, baptised 24th June, 1657, "in the ‘chapel of Perricross,'" died v.p.

Richard Potter left the advowson of Newton St. Petrock to Rachel (Hunkyn), wife of his grandson, Joseph Spettigue, and the latter succeeded him as Rector.

Philip Potter, second son, and executor of John, became a. physician, or perhaps an apothecary, in Great Torrington, His first wife was Mary, daughter either of Henry Larrymer, Rector of Huntshaw (1617-1630), by his second wife Mary (Moore) or of Humphrey Shute, who succeeded Larrymer as Rector of Huntshaw, and married his widow. His first wife dying 28th September, 1656 (buried at Torrington, 30th September), Philip Potter married secondly another Mary. He himself was buried at Torrington, 4th June, 1688, as "Mr. Phillipp Potter, senr.," and administration of his estate was granted nth October, 1688, in Barnstaple Archdeaconry Court. His children were (1) Mary, baptised 8th March, 1652; (2) Prudence, born 3rd, baptised 28th November, 1655 '1 (3) John, born 1st, baptised 23rd June, 1658, buried 19th September, 1678; (4) Humphrey - see above; (5) Eliah, baptised 4th May, 1662; (6) Philip, baptised 30th December, 1663 5 (7) Thomas, baptised 17th November, 1665; (8) Jane, baptised 26th August, 1669; (9) Elizabeth, baptised 14th August, 1671, died young; (10) Elizabeth, baptised 18th April, 1676.

I have not tried to trace all these children, but Philip Potter the younger was also an apothecary in Torrington; he married at Parkham, August, 1687, Jane, daughter of Francis Nation, Rector of Parkham and Inwardleigh, and had a son Philip, baptised Parkham, 1690, and buried Torrington, 1692; a daughter Jane, baptised Torrington, 1696; and another son Philip, who was baptised Torrington, nth September, 1695, resided there, married at Sutcombe 16th September, 1721, Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Eastway, Rector of Sutcombe (1685-1726), and had issue.

Jane, daughter of Philip Potter the elder, probably married at Monkleigh, 15th March, 1709/10, William Ley, gent., son of Alexander Ley, Vicar of Monkleigh. It will be recollected that some of Sir Joshua's sisters lived for a time with their great-aunt Mrs. Ley, a widow, at Torrington.

O. A. R. Murray