To make it people’s interest to advance you, by showing that their business will be better done by you than by any other person, is the only solid foundation of success; the rest is accident.
—Reynolds to His Nephew
On the curious little river Plym, five miles from Plymouth, is the hamlet of Plympton. It is getting on towards two hundred years since Joshua Reynolds was born there. The place has not changed so very much with the centuries: there still stand the quaint stone houses, built on arches over the sidewalk, and there, too, is the old Norman church with its high mullioned windows. Chester shows the best example of that very early architecture, and Plympton is Chester done in pigmy.
The birthplace of Reynolds is one of these houses in the “Row”; a greengrocer now has the lower floor of the house for his shop, while his numerous family live upstairs.
The Reverend Samuel Reynolds also had a numerous family–there being eleven children–so the present occupation is a realistic restoration of a previous condition.
The grocer has a leaning toward art, for his walls are well papered with chromos and posters; and as he sold a cabbage to a good housewife he nipped off a leaf for a pen of rabbits that stood in the doorway, and talked to me glibly of Reynolds and Gainsborough. The grocer considers Gainsborough the greater artist, and surely his fame is wide, like unto the hat–hated by theater-goers–that his name has rendered deathless, and which certain unkind ones declare has given him immortality. Joshua was the seventh child in the brood of five boys and six girls. The fond parents set him apart for the Church, and to that end he was placed in the Plympton Grammar-School, and made to “do” fifty lines of Ovid a day.
The old belief that to translate Latin with facility was the true test of genius has fallen somewhat into desuetude, yet there are a few who still hold to the idea that to reason, imagine and invent are not the tests of a man’s powers; he must conjugate, decline and derive. But Grant Allen, possessor of three college degrees, avers that a man may not even be able to read and write, and yet have a very firm mental grasp on the eternal verities.
Anyway, Joshua Reynolds did not like Latin. He hated the set task of fifty lines, and hated the system that imposed a fine of twenty lines for a failure to fulfil the first.
The fines piled up until young Joshua, aged twelve, goin’ on thirteen, went into such hopeless bankruptcy that he could not pay tuppence on the pound.
We have a sheet of this Latin done at that time, in a cramped, schoolboy hand, starting very bold and plain, and running off into a tired blot and scrawl. On the bottom of the page is a picture, and under this is a line written by the father: “This is drawn by Joshua in school out of pure idleness.” The Reverend Samuel had no idea that his own name would live in history simply because he was the father of this idle boy.
Still, the clergyman showed that he was a man of good sense, for he acceded to the lad’s request to let the Latin slide. This conclusion no doubt was the easier arrived at after the master of the school had explained that the proper education of such a youth was quite hopeless.
All the Reynolds children drew pictures and most of them drew better than Joshua. But Joshua did not get along well at school, and so he felt the necessity of doing something.
It is a great blessing to be born into a family where strict economy of time and money is necessary. The idea that nothing shall be wasted, and that each child must carve out for himself a career, is a thrice-blessed heritage.