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Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn and a legacy of art

By Alys Lewis
Wrexham's Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn was the richest Welshman of his day and used his wealth to support the arts

Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn commissioned this portrait while travelling in Italy
Sir Watkin (left) commissioned the portrait while travelling in Italy

Following his father's death in a fall from a horse while hunting in Acton Park, Wrexham, Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn inherited the large Wynnstay estate in nearby Ruabon in September 1749. He was just a baby.

Like his father before him he had a career in politics, being Member of Parliament for Shropshire between 1772 and 1774 then MP for Denbighshire from 1774 until his death in 1789. He was also Lord Lieutenant of Merionethshire from 1775 to 1789.

However, his wealth allowed him to indulge his greatest pleasure, supporting the arts. And it is this passion and, in particular the painting (above), which been included in a joint BBC and British Museum project called A History of the World

In the 18th Century the Williams-Wynn family was the richest in Wales and Sir Watkin was able to travel extensively in France, Switzerland and Italy in 1768-9, spending his money on works of art.

While in Rome at the age of 19, he commissioned Italian artist Pompeo Batoni to paint a portrait of himself and his companions. Sir Watkin is seen on the left with Edward Hamilton, in military uniform, and Thomas Apperley.

Sir Watkin married Lady Henrietta Somerset in 1769, however, she died three months later. Reynolds painted a portrait of the couple in black, which implies that what began as a marriage portrait ended as a memorial painting.

Sir Watkin remarried two years later. His second wife, Charlotte Grenville, was the daughter of George Grenville who was Prime Minister in 1763-5. The couple had three sons and two daughters. Three of the children together with Charlotte are depicted in another portrait by Reynolds, thought to have been painted in around 1778.

In addition to commissioning pictures from Joshua Reynolds Sir Watkin also ordered work from landscape painter Richard Wilson.

He also commissioned furniture and silver from other artists and designers of the day and some of these pieces make up the Williams-Wynn collection at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

Sir Watkin spent time in London and had a house built in St James's Square, employing the neo-classical architect Robert Adam to design the house and many items of furniture, including a case for a chamber organ by Snetzler. The organ, which is still in working order, is in the museum's Williams-Wynn Collection.


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