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Portrait detective story ends in success for Sharpham

Portrait detective story ends in success for Sharpham

Published: 30 March 2016

Members of The Sharpham Archive have traced two important pictures linked with the Estate.

Captain Philemon Pownoll had Sharpham House rebuilt as a Palladian villa in 1765, living there with his wife Jane. Portraits of the pair by famed society painter Joshua Reynolds now hang in the Music Room. But it wasn’t always so.

Former Trust Director Chris Nicholls discovered the whereabouts of the Capt Pownoll portrait in the late 1990s. “The internet was new at the time and someone typed in Philemon Pownoll and Joshua Reynolds and up came this gallery in Munich,” he said. “It was a lot of negotiations to get a transparency of the painting. I had to sign a lot of forms!”

As for Jane’s portrait, The Trust knew that it existed as the Ash family, who lived at Sharpham House from 1962, had a small copy.

By around 2006, Chris was really interested in finding Jane’s original painting to go with that of her husband. “I knew that Pownoll was looking to the right and his wife was looking to the left, so it was likely that the portraits were a pair,” he said.

So he wrote to an antique-dealing member of the Durant family – previous Sharpham House inhabitants. “He told me that he knew where Jane Pownoll was…with a cousin of his, so I wrote to him and gave him the whole story. And I heard nothing” said Chris.

“So the hunt on the back burner, I was busy at Sharpham, things were changing…but a year later I got enthused to try again. And this time I got an answer.”

But this early excitement was only the beginning of a decade-long dialogue where things went quiet, hope was lost and then found again. Emails and phone calls went unanswered, the hunt got pushed back down the agenda.

Chris retired from his post in January 2014 and Jane Pownoll had still not been found. Then suddenly, 18 months after he’d left Sharpham, transparencies of Jane Pownoll’s portrait turned up unannounced in the post.

“We were so grateful. I was so chuffed,” he said.

High-quality digital prints of each painting hang in the Music Room. The Pownolls have been reunited after a detective hunt over more than a decade.