Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palmer, Mary

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PALMER, Mrs. MARY (1716–1794), author, eldest daughter and third child of Samuel Reynolds, master of the grammar school of Plympton Earl, Devonshire, by his wife, Theophila Potter, was a sister of the great painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds [q. v.] She was born 9 Feb. 1716, and was thus seven years Sir Joshua's senior. Her fondness for drawing is said to have had much influence on him when a boy. In 1740 she furnished 60l., half of the premium paid to Thomas Hudson [q. v.] the portrait-painter, for Reynolds, and nine years later advanced money for his expenses in Italy.

Miss Reynolds married, 18 July 1740, John Palmer of Torrington, Devonshire. He was educated for a solicitor, but never practised. In 1752 he built a house at Great Torrington (now known as Palmer House), and it was there that Dr. Johnson stayed with the Palmers when visiting Devonshire with Sir Joshua Reynolds. It is told that when Dr. Johnson was asked by Mrs. Palmer if he liked pancakes, he replied, ‘Yes; but I never get enough of them.’ Whereupon Mrs. Palmer had a good supply served up, and the doctor ate thirteen. Palmer died in the autumn of 1770, his wife surviving him until 27 May 1794.

Mrs. Palmer had two sons—Joseph (1749–1829), dean of Cashel, and author of ‘A Four Months' Tour in France,’ 2 vols. 1776, and John (1752–1827), hon. canon of Lincoln—and three daughters: Mary, Theophila (‘Offy’), and Elizabeth (d. 1784). Mary and Offy spent much time in London with their uncle, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted Mary's portrait. He had great affection for them. Mary, his heiress, inherited nearly 100,000l., and married, in 1792, Murrough O'Brien, fifth earl of Inchiquin, subsequently Marquis of Thomond. Dying without issue in 1820, she left the property to her brother John. Offy sat for many of Sir Joshua's fancy subjects, notably for the ‘Strawberry Girl.’ In 1781 she married Robert Lovell Gwatkin of Killion, Cornwall, whom Miss Edgeworth describes as a true ‘Roast Beef of old England, king and constitution man.’ The same writer, in a letter dated 29 March 1831, thus speaks of Mrs. Gwatkin, who survived till 1843: ‘She has been very pretty, and, though deaf, is very agreeable—enthusiastically and affectionately fond of her uncle—indignant at the idea of his not having himself written the “Discourses;” “Burke or Johnson, indeed! no such thing—he wrote them himself. I am evidence; he used to employ me as his secretary”’ (Hare, Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, ii. 180–1).

Miss Burney often met the Palmers at Sir Joshua's house. ‘The Miss Palmers added to the grace of his table and of his evening circles by their pleasing manners and the beauty of their persons.’ ‘The eldest Miss Palmer seems to have a better understanding than Offy; but Offy has the most pleasing face’ (Diary of Mme. D'Arblay, i. 108).

Mrs. Palmer was the author of the admirable ‘Devonshire Dialogue.’ It is the best piece of literature in the vernacular of Devon, and gives some account of customs and characters peculiar to the west of England. It was written in the middle of the eighteenth century to illustrate the most striking peculiarities of the western dialect. During her lifetime the manuscript was shown to a few friends; extracts were taken from it, and from time to time inserted in various periodicals without acknowledgment. A portion appeared in 1837 with a glossary by J. F. Palmer; a complete version was edited by Mrs. Gwatkin in 1839, and there is an edition dated 1869. The little book has been many times reprinted, and is still sold by the local booksellers.

There are two portraits of Mrs. Palmer by Sir Joshua Reynolds, both of which passed to her great-grandson, Mr. George Stawell of Great Torrington. One portrait was painted about 1747, and the other when Mrs. Palmer was apparently about sixty.

[Leslie's Life of Reynolds; Allibone, ii. 1779; information kindly supplied by Sir E. R. Pearce-Edgcumbe.]

E. L.