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St James's Square, number 20, London, designs for a house and interiors for Watkin Williams-Wynn, c1772-1777 (99)

Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Bt. was born on 8 April 1749 to Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 3rd Bt. (1693?-1749) and his second wife Frances (1717/8- 1803), the daughter of Cheshire squire George Shakerly. Sir Watkin’s father, the 3rd Baronet, was born Sir Watkin Williams and assumed the name of Wynn when he succeeded to the Wynnstay estates. The 3rd Baronet was a powerful welsh Tory landowner, whom Horace Walpole implied had strong Jacobite leanings. Sir Watkin’s father died in a hunting accident in September 1749 when his only son was just five months old. Having inherited his father’s extensive estates in North Wales and Shropshire, young Sir Watkin was to become one of the wealthiest people in Britain. Charles James Apperly thought there to be no ‘more aristocratic person’ than Sir Watkin and goes on to state, ‘His manners were bland in the extreme and he had a very harmonious voice’. He describes the fine white linen worn by the baronet which he ‘changed three times within the twenty-four hours’.

Educated at Westminster School, 1760-66, Sir Watkin went on to study at Oriel College, Oxford, but left without a degree in 1768. In June that same year he visited Italy with his travelling companions Captain Edward Hamilton and Thomas Apperly alongside his personal steward Samuel Sidebotham, who diligently kept the Baronet’s accounts. Whilst in Rome Sir Watkin employed the antiquarian James Byres as his guide and also took the opportunity to expand his own personal collections, spending over £2,000 within five weeks on the purchase of paintings and marbles. He also commissioned Pompeo Batoni for a conversation piece of himself and his two companions, now within the collection of the National Museum of Wales.

Whilst travelling, Sir Watkin commissioned and purchased several items as gifts for his mother and his future wife Lady Henrietta Somerset. Following his return to England the couple were married on 11 April 1769. The marriage was tragically short, as Lady Henrietta died just three months later. Sir Watkin remarried in 1771, his second wife Charlotte (1744-1832) was the daughter of former prime minister, the Rt. Hon George Grenville and sister to the Marquess of Buckingham. Together they had three sons and three daughters.

Sir Watkin was one of the most significant patrons of the arts in the eighteenth century. Often referred to as the Welsh Maecenas, the Baronet had a great passion for music, theatre and architecture and he amassed a fine collection of paintings, marbles and silver. He was an early patron of Wedgwood and commissioned several pieces from Reynolds of himself and his family members. He employed Paul Sandby to instruct him in landscape drawing, with the artist residing at the Wynnstay estate for several months. In 1771 Sir Watkin acquired a piece by Nathaniel Dance of David Garrick as Richard III. Garrick had been a friend of the Baronet’s and Walpole records a visit from the actor to Wynnstay ‘to superintend a play that is to be acted at Sir Watkin Williams’. For his amateur theatricals Sir Watkin had a theatre designed and erected at Wynnstay, with sets painted by Paul Sandby and Drury Lane’s Rodger Johnston to fill it. Significantly Adam, also a close friend of David Garrick’s, would design a monument to the actor intended as a memorial within Wynnstay Park, but it was not executed.

Music possibly formed Sir Watkin’s greatest passion and he was known to spend an average of £300 a year on music lessons and new instruments. Musical breakfasts and country dances were known to be held at 20 St. James’s Square and in 1784 Sir Watkin was appointed a director of the Handel commemoration event, working alongside the King. In 1775 the Baronet was elected to the Dilettanti Society and he is shown in Reynolds' portrait of the group.

Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn’s legendary hospitality can be glimpsed through the proceedings for his 21 birthday. It was a celebration of the Baronet’s majority, which gave the young man access to the extensive estates he had inherited from his father twenty years before. Over 8,700 tickets were issued for the event which took place on 19 April 1770, where The Gentleman’s Magazine noted:

‘It is thought that there were at least 15,000 people at dinner in Sir Watkin’s Park, all at the same time’.

If this may seem an exaggeration the recorded bill of fare underlines the extent of the celebrations with 421 pounds of salmon; 18,000 eggs; 80 sheep; 50 calves; 50 hogs; 766 hams; 225 plumb puddings; 108 apple pies; 204 pork pies; 60 dozen trout; 40 brace of carp; 120 dozen bottles of wine, brandy, rum and shrub; and landscapes created out of jellies and blancmanges. The total cost of the event reached £1,621.

When Sir Watkin came of age in 1770 he gained an estimated annual income of £32,000. This extensive fortune, however, did not match the Baronet’s lavish spending on the arts, his elaborate building projects and famed hospitality. From 1770-81 Sir Watkin’s accounts are meticulously kept by his steward Samuel Sidebotham. By 1781, when the surviving records cease, the Baronet had borrowed upwards of £65,000 and the estate was in decline. Thomas notes that at the time of Sir Watkin’s death in 1789 the family debts stood at £160,000, including monies owed by his mother and father before him.

With Sir Watkin’s inheritance there came a political obligation, particularly as his father’s own political career within the Welsh Tory party had been one of such significance. In 1772 Sir Watkin stood as MP for Shropshire and in 1774 he stood unopposed for Denbighshire, a seat he retained for life. Despite his political heritage and his second wife’s position as the niece of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, Sir Watkin consistently voted with the opposition. The Baronet had little interest in politics and was criticized for his lack of attendance at Parliament and in his 17 years as MP he failed to give a single speech.

Sir Watkin suffered with recurrent bouts of erysipelas throughout the course of his life and, following a resurgence of the illness, he died on 29 July at 20 St. James’s Square. He was buried at Ruabon, Denbighshire and was succeeded by his son.

St James’s Square was first laid out in 1663 following a warrant issued for the construction of thirteen or fourteen ‘great and good houses’. The site at no. 20 was originally granted to one Abraham Storey by the Earl of St. Albans in January 1674 and a property first appears on the rate books of 1675. One of the earliest occupants of the house was Sir Allen Apsley, treasurer to the household of the Duke of York. No. 20 St. James’s Square remained in the Apsley family until it was sold in 1771 by Sir Allen’s grandson, the first Earl Bathurst. Through an Act of Parliament Lord Bathurst sold the freehold at no. 20 to Sir Watkin for £18,000 on the understanding that the present house would be demolished as it was ‘very ancient and much out of repair’.

The timing of the purchase is interesting as it coincided with the Baronet’s second marriage to Charlotte Grenville. Sir Watkin had previously owned a townhouse at 2 Grosvenor Square, where the 5th Duke of Beaufort (brother to his first wife) also resided. A new townhouse was likely seen as a tactful acquisition, allowing for Sir Watkin and his bride to create their own London home. As a result, in 1771, Sir Watkin approached Robert Adam to design his new residence at 20 St. James’s Square. Sir Watkin had already approached the architect the year before for changes to his estate at Wynnstay, but this was abandoned in favour of the London project.

20 St James’s Square is one of the few houses which Adam was able to fully build and decorate, with every element executed to the architect’s designs. Bolton highlights the extent of the working relationship between the client and Adam, with minute care given to individual objects such as an inkstand or doorknocker. Sir John Summerson stated the finished project to be an example of ‘the highest point of imagination and artistry in the handling of the London house’. Skilled craftsmen were selected to carry out Adam’s extensive designs, with the plasterwork undertaken by Joseph Rose and co., the interior painting executed by David Adamson, and John Hinchcliff employed to create the marble chimneypieces. Sheppard gives a list of further workmen and craftsmen engaged including John Devall and Edward Gray as mason and brick-layer, James Lloyd the glazier and Richard Collins the joiner. A number of metal workers were also engaged for the project, including Edward Gascoigne, William Bent and William Sparrow. In total Sir Watkin was thought to have spent upwards of £40,000 creating his London residence, for which Adam was paid a total of £1,388. 13s.

The three-storey, three-bay façade for 20 St. James’s Square is unusual for an Adam design in its uniform application of pilasters. As King highlights, this technique is only employed in Adam’s terraced townhouse designs, such as Roxburghe House and he notes the use of rustication and bowed wrought-iron balconettes to create emphasis and movement.

Within, Adam’s designs for the interiors were so exquisitely executed and survive in such detail and quantity that Bolton considered it to be one of the finest townhouses ever built.

Adam’s ceiling for the porter’s hall is preserved and was executed to a more modest design, which features an intricate centrepiece enclosed within an oval band. King notes alterations made on the execution of the ceiling, as the oval band is borrowed from the first, more elaborate design (SM Adam volume 12/44). Sheppard interestingly records that a large lead plaque, thought to have originally formed part of a cistern, has been installed in the space. It bears the inscription:


Bolton notes how the richly decorated hall forms a prelude to the extravagant staircase hall beyond. No Adam drawings for the staircase survive, but the stairwell includes a fine ornamental skylight ceiling above a well that rises the full height of the house. The staircase extends from the ground to the first storey, incorporating decorative apses and a copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration. The piece, set on the first storey, was damaged during the Second World War, but it has since been replaced. On the second storey King notes the inclusion of Corinthian pilasters and shallow arches around the walls which emphasise the elaborate ceiling above.

The first room of the ground floor suite is the eating room which retains its original interiors, including a coffered ceiling and a semi-circular apse with a Corinthian screen. The use of the ram head masks throughout the space is apparent, with ram head volutes inserted into the screen capitals. They are also repeated in the door cases, chimneypiece and dado rail. King notes the use of octagonal coffering for the ceiling design to be an unusual feature, as this form is more often applied in Adam’s earlier works.

The eating room is linked to the music room, which also maintains its original Adam features including a beautifully carved marble chimneypiece which King considers to be one of Adam’s finest. The central tablet inserted in the frieze was executed by Antonio Zucchi and depicts Apollo and a party of muses. The room contains grotesque wall panels and its original ceiling with its delicate ornamentation, including five roundels also produced by Zucchi, of which four remain in situ. Adam’s plan and elevation for the music room initially intended for portraits of famous musicians to be inserted into the overdoors, however on execution figures playing instruments were executed by Nathaniel Dance. Two larger paintings approximately eight feet in height were also commissioned for the spaces flanking the chimneypiece. The first was Dance’s ‘Orpheus lamenting the loss of Eurydice’ and a second a piece by Reynolds depicting Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. When Bolton recorded the interiors c1914 he noted the architectural vista as viewed from the music room, created by Adam’s courtyard beyond.

To the rear of the ground floor Adam installed a library with two Corinthian screens. King notes alterations to the screen leading to the music room and Bolton notes changes made to the room’s proportions with the later introduction of a service passage. Adam’s barrel and cross-vault ceiling survives. The large Venetian window originally overlooked the paved courtyard beyond.

Leading on from the library Adam designed an octagonal dressing room which was presumably executed. King notes that the shape and interiors for the space do not survive and that the ceiling was possibly removed when the room was enlarged.

On the first storey there is an ante room positioned above the hall, in which there survives an exquisite cross vault ceiling. As King notes, few such cross vaults were executed by Adam and yet two survive at 20 St. James’s Square.

Beyond the ante room the first / front drawing room contains another fine example of an Adam chimneypiece, executed in marble. As with the chimneypiece in the music room Zucchi was employed to carry out the designs for the central figurative tablet. Here the frieze depicts Helios in a quadriga surrounded by the hours and led by a putto bearing a torch. Harris makes comparison between the executed chimneypiece (SM Adam volume 23/10) and pl. IX of Piranesi’s Diversi Maniere d’adornare i Camini. The first drawing room also still has its fine ceiling and semi-circular apse.

To the rear of the first floor the second drawing room contains what King considers to be one of Adam’s finest segmental vault ceilings, which he compares to the design produced for the great room at Kenwood. The ceiling includes black and gold vase inserts, which were possibly executed by Wedgwood, of whom Sir Watkin was a patron. At either end of the room there are apses with semi-domes. Bolton considered the overall scheme to be ‘a masterpiece of stucco work and decorative painting’.

Beyond the second drawing room Lady Williams-Wynn’s dressing room survives, containing the second of the two cross vault ceilings produced for the house. King compares the central portion of the ceiling to that of a design produced for 27 Portman Square, to which it is almost identical. The room was altered at a later period, with its proportions shortened and plasterwork repairs were made following damage during World War II. The chimneypiece was executed in white marble with enamel paintings inserted. There survives a pair of bookcases designed by Adam as fitted features of the room.

Beyond the dressing room there is a further room of elegant proportions with a domed ceiling delicately ornamented with swags.

For the rear of the house Adam produced further designs for a domestic office block containing a laundry, a courtyard and elaborate screen to complete the architectural vista. Bolton recorded the office block and screen wall in c1914, where he noted the domestic offices to be well-designed, standing at two storeys in height. Bolton noted the rustication applied on the basement storey and a large Venetian window framed by Corinthian pilasters. The elaborate screen was executed to Adam’s design (SM Adam volume 40/72-73), but Bolton noted the absence of statues and vases. Unfortunately the rear of the house was altered in 1936, with the screen and office block demolished. A more recent restoration attempted to recreate the screen and office façade, with some alterations.

20 St. James’s Square remained occupied by the Williams-Wynn family until 1906, when it was leased along with its fixtures and furniture to the Earl of Strathmore, father of the future Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. When Bolton visited the property during the Earl’s residence in c1914 much of Adam’s original furnishings remained in situ. In 1946 a sale at Sotheby’s saw the dispersal of several pieces of Adam furniture and silver.

In 1935 the house was sold, along with no. 21, to The Distillers Company, who employed architects Méwes and Davis to create offices for the firm. In 1936 the façade of no. 20 was extended to incorporate no. 21 and the property was given a further two storeys and a mansard roof. It was around this time that the offices and screen wall to the rear of the house were demolished.

In 1988-89 a restoration project was undertaken by Hamilton Associates, after which no. 20 St. James’s Square became the headquarters of Grand Metropolitan PLC. It now forms the London offices for software company Autonomy.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1769, Diversi maniere d'adornare i cammini; The works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Esquires, 1778; The Gentleman’s Magazine, v. 40, May 1770, p. 233; Horace Walpole, Letters, ‘October 1, 1777, 1802, To Robert Jephson’, Vol. X, (ed. P. Toynbee); Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, pp. 54-64; Index, pp. 49-50, 92; F.H.W. Sheppard, 1960, ‘St James’s Square: No 20’, Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1, pp. 164-174; Christie’s ‘Important English Furniture.’ Country Life, October 19, 1989; Sotheby’s ‘Important Silver’, November 2 and 3, 1989; J. Olley, ‘20 St James’s Square: Part 1’, The Architects’ Journal, February 21, 1990, pp. 34-58; J. Olley, ‘20 St James’s Square: Part 2’, The Architects’ Journal, February, 28, 1990, pp. 34-58; ‘20 St James’s Square, London: 18th Century mahogany and ormolu wine cooler’, Country Life, September 6, 1990, p. 143; ‘Appendix 1: Grants and Loans made by the Fund from 1 April 1989 to 31 March 1990’, NHMF Annual Report, 1990, pp. 89-90; ‘Gain and Loss for Wales’, Country Life, April 30, 1992; S. Houfe, ‘Adam from the New World’, Country Life, August 26, 1993, pp. 54-56; ‘The Williams-Wynn Suite’, Important English Furniture, November 19, 1993, p. 71; M. Hall, ‘Threat to Wynnstay Organ’, Country Life, August 18, 1994, p. 26; A. Eccles-Williams, ‘An Adam Masterpiece’, The Auction Magazine, Spring 1995, p. 5; ‘Sale of the Williams Wynn chamber Organ at Lindisfarne College, Clwyd’, The Auction Magazine, Spring 1995; Philips, ‘An Important George III Painted Chamber Organ.’ Apollo, March 1995; J. Waddington, ‘Colourful Adam’, Country Life, April 6, 1995, 98; O. Fairclough, ‘Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn and Robert Adam: Commissions for Silver 1768-80’, The Burlington Magazine, June 1995, pp. 376-386; M. Yule, ‘Recent [ NACF] Grants’, The Art Quarterly, Autumn 1995, p. 16; ‘All Change for St James’s Mansions’, Country Life, November 16, 1995, p. 30; E. Harris, ‘Cardiff, National Museum and Gallery: The Williams Wynn Chamber Organ’, NACF Review, 1995, pp. 180-182; ‘The William Wynn Chamber Organ’, NACF review, 1995, pp. 180-182; Phillips, Auctioneers and Valuers, The Williams Wynn Chamber Organ by Robert Adam, 1995; C. Hartop, ‘Robert Adam’s Tureens for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn’, Christie’s International Magazine, April 1996, p. 28; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 10, 11, 12, 20, 22, 26, 28, 66, 94, 264, 275-9, 391, 402, 413, pls. XII, 567; Volume II, pp. 19, 78, 97, 131, 170; M. Fisher, ‘Treasures of Britain’, Country Life, October 3, 2002, p. 130; ‘New to the Collection’, In-sight: National Museum Wales, Summer 2007; ‘The Intimate Portrait: Miniatures and Pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence’ British Museum Magazine, Winter 2008, p. 34; E. Harris, ‘A tale of two tables’, The Burlington Magazine, June 2013, pp. 390-395; F. Sands, Robert Adam's London, 2016, pp. 134-139; P.D.G. Thomas, ‘Wynn, Sir Watkin Williams, fourth baronet (1749-1789)’ September 2014, www.oxforddnb.com; ‘The Williams-Wynn collection’, www.museum.wales; ‘Organ NMW 51193’, www.museum.wales; ‘Sir Watkin Williams-WYNN, 4th Bt., Thomas Apperly and Captain Edward Hamilton – Batoni, Pompeo (1707-1787)’, www.museum.wales; ‘Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn and Lady Henrietta Williams-Wynn his wife, in masque costume – Reynolds, Joshua (1732-92)’, www.museum.wales; ’20 and 21, St James’s Square SW1’, www.historicengland.org.uk (accessed January 2021)

Anna McAlaney, 2021
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