* see additional comment on this case study at the bottom of the page (March 2017)


Starting with a label attached to the portraits, the researcher used the evidence of wills and title deeds the researcher established birth dates for each sitter, and a death date for the elder brother. From the birth dates it was possible to infer an approximate date of execution for each portrait. The source material also provides further information that establishes a cultural context for interpreting the pair of portraits.


Both paintings were bequeathed to RAMM by James Moly of Charmouth in 1910.


Samuel Taunton by an unknown artist of the English school, c.1749-53. © Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery and Exeter City Council

Samuel Taunton by an unknown artist of the English school, c.1749-53.
© Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery and Exeter City Council


 “The clue to unravelling the history of this charming pair of portraits of the Taunton children is provided by the label attached to the paintings. Previously thought to be indecipherable it reads:


‘Sons of Captain Taunton/of Purzebrook House/ Axminster’.


Purzebrook House is a long Georgian house in Musbury Road, Axminster. It was substantially remodelled in the third quarter of the eighteenth-century to produce the present nine bay street elevation, with its elegant doorcase of fluted pilasters and a broken pediment. Thanks to the help of the present owners of Purzebrook, the writer has had access to research undertaken by the “Family Faces in Axminster” project, which shows that the Tauntons were associated with Purzebrook from 1743/6 until 1826. This research revealed that:
‘The Tauntons came originally from near Bridport and were wealthy merchants. They certainly laid out a great deal on Purzebrook House and its handsome gardens over the road, with its fountain and walk, to turn it into a gentleman’s residence. Samuel’s son, Thomas, came into the house in 1769 and he bought the fee simple from Axminster manor in the 1780s or 1790s so that it became virtually freehold. Thomas’s daughter married Charles Knight of Cannington, a member of the same Knight family which acquired Axminster manor.’


When they were bequeathed to RAMM in 1910 the documentation stated that the portraits were of Thomas and Samuel Taunton of Axminster. It also tells us that their father was a captain. So far no suitable candidate as a military or naval captain of this name, either in Axminster or Bridport, has been traced. By the time Samuel Taunton was settled in Axminster he was described as “Esquire”, a status that would suit Purzebrook House in its improved form.


The evidence of title deeds and probate material shows that the senior Samuel Taunton died in 1762, leaving his Axminster property to his eldest son Thomas, then thirteen years of age (1). Arrangements were made for the guardianship of his children because Samuel’s wife had already pre-deceased him. Samuel’s family comprised two sons (Thomas and Samuel) and five daughters (Dorothy, Mary, Frances, Ann and Elizabeth). Thomas, the heir, was born in 1744 and his brother, Samuel, in 1749. These dates give a terminus post quem for the portraits.


According to the documentation with the paintings both Thomas and Samuel “died young, but not before they had achieved fame in the field of science.” So far, no evidence has been found to support either of these statements. Thomas Taunton, Esquire, who was born in 1744, died at the age of eighty-four in 1828 (2).


The Donor
James Moly, who bequeathed the paintings to RAMM in 1910, was born c.1826 in Hawkchurch, Dorset. He was a draper and druggist in Hawkchurch, taking over a drapery and grocery business that had been run by his parents. By 1881 he had retired from the business and was living on “income from real and personal property” according to the occupational detail of the census of that year. His address was given as Longmoor (near the Axminster Road) Charmouth. By 1901 the address was Longmoor House. The inscription on the paintings gives the address as Ringmoor Manor. The details indicate that the writer knew something of the family history and wanted it recorded. There are records of the Moly or Moley family in Hawkchurch back to the 1780s, but to date no connection with the Tauntons has come to light.


Author: Stephen Price


  1. TNA PCC PROB11/881 Will of Samuel Taunton of Axminster, Esquire, 24 November 1762
  2. TNA PCC PROB11/1745 Will of Thomas Taunton of Axminster, Esquire, 20 august 1828


I am indebted to Morrison and Margaret Brown, the present owners of Purzebrook House, for sharing their knowledge of its history with me.



The following response to this case study was submitted by David Knapman at Axminster Heritage Centre in March 2017. It proposes a different identity for the sitters.


“The ‘Captain Taunton’ who is believed to be the father of these two young sitters could be Samuel Taunton who was appointed Captain in the South Devon Regiment of Militia on 8 July 1809 (The London Gazette of 17 March 1810 (accessible on line)). This information can be confirmed via the on-line document ‘A list of the Officers of the Militia of the UK, 1st August 1809’, and by the same list for 1820.


This Samuel Taunton was the son of Thomas Taunton of Chideock (between Axminster and Bridport), who later moved to Purzebrook. The Tauntons were a Catholic family, several of whom acted as attorneys and/or land agents for the Arundell family, whose estates included Lanherne and Trerice in Cornwall.


Thomas’s son Samuel was born in early 1780, and baptised on 7 May that year (familysearch.org website). He is believed to have died on 18 October 1823, killed ‘by the bursting of a blood vessel’ (The Hereford Journal of 5 November 1823; British Newspapers online). Although no strong ‘candidate records’ have been found for the marriage of Captain Samuel Taunton, or for the births of any children, it is possible that he was the Samuel Taunton of Lydford House, Somerset who married Mrs Sarah Calmady (or Calmedy) at Kensington in September 1803, and that his children were born in the succeeding years. Therefore it is possible that the two children, Thomas and Samuel, depicted in these portraits, were the sons of this Captain Samuel Taunton (1780-1823), born in the first years of the nineteenth-century.”