Plas Newydd – carved wood

Home page for Plas Newydd and its inhabitants

This page includes the following with full transcriptions of relevant descriptions:

  • Introduction
  • When were the carvings erected?
  • Illustrations of the exterior
  • The nature of the carvings
  • The sources of the carvings
  • Extracts from Eleanor’s journal respecting the carvings
  • The Lions
  • Subsequent references to specific sources
  • Varnishing or painting the carvings
  • General Yorke’s and subsequent owner’s contributions.
  • William John Bankes of Soughton Hall near Llangollen who also collected carved wood.

Photographs of interior carvings may be found on People’s Collection Wales

Wood carving of a ‘tounge-sticker’

Wood carving of ‘caryatid’ on stairpost

Wood carving depicting the ‘Green Man’

Wood carving of an amphisboena (double-headed serpent)

Wood carvings on the staircase

Print of the porch by Samuel and George Nicholson,  who visited Plas Newydd in 1819 and published this an a view of the whole cottage in Plâs Newydd and Vale Crucis Abbey correctly drawn from nature, (Published by the authors, 21, Islington, Liverpool, and by R Ackerman, 101 Strand, London, 1824).

INTRODUCTION

One of the features which makes Plas Newydd almost unique in Britain is the decoration of the inside and outside of the cottage with carved oak. It came from a variety of sources but it is not known exactly how most of it was acquired, nor when it was put in place or by whom.

It seems that many of the carvings were put in place by the end of 1814, several years before the Ladies were able to purchase the property (in January, 1819). The acquisition of carved oak continued after that date but it is not known whether the new material was incorporated with the original scheme.

There is very little in Butler’s diaries, Ponsonby’s account books or their letters about the carvings. It might be expected that they would have recorded the arrival of some of the pieces; noted payment to those who transported or erected them; discussed the significance of the imagery, or commented on the reason for preserving them but very few references have been found. However, journals for only two years after 1807 are known to have survived, that for 1819 and 1821 both of which have several references to the acquisition of carved wood.

Several tourists stated the source of a few of the carved timbers (see below) but most of these were written decades after the deaths of Butler and Ponsonby and might be based on assumptions and myths. So far, the source of only one item can be linked to a particular record – the  Lion couchant which came from the Warden of Ruthin in 1819. The much repeated suggestion that part of a pew from Llangollen church in now in a window recess in the former kitchen is open to question.

The 1832 auction catalogue noted that there were ‘Summer Houses of richly carved Oak’ in the grounds but almost nothing is known of these.

This creative work by the Ladies is obscured by the fact that subsequent owners, especially General Yorke, made additions and alterations to the building. On acquiring the property in 1876, Yorke immediately began to add the false timber framing and was probably responsible for placing some of the carved panels on the exterior.

In 1878-1879 the General made an extensive new wing to the back of the house. … He takes great delight in carving and much of his handiwork may be seen in and about the house.
John Prichard, An account of the Ladies of Llangollen [n.d.], p. 15

For more on the trade and use of old carvings, see Harris, John, Moving Rooms, the Trade in Architectural Salvages, (Yale University, 2007), particularly chapter 3.

 

WHEN WERE THE CARVING ERECTED?

It is said that work began on collecting and erecting the carvings in 1798, but there are no references to expenditure on purchasing or erecting them in the account books for that and the subsequent two years. It is possible that this early date came from the brief description and view of the back of the cottage published in the European Magazine, vol. 25, (London: J. Sewell, April 1794), p. 174 which stated that:
This beautiful little mansion and its appendages were embellished and decorated by the exquisite taste of the two elegant Ladies who now reside in it.
However there is no evidence at all that oak carvings were erected inside or out before 1814 when Sarah wrote: [we have] the oak carving mania. [quoted by Mavor in The Ladies of Llangollen, (1971), p. 176]

Eleanor told Harriet Pigott on the 5th February 1814 that they had ‘removed every article of furniture from the lower to the upper regions which we now inhabit.’ Presumably, this was to enable the workmen to clad some of the downstairs walls with carved oak but the letter continues ‘it is now accomplished and the spare bedchamber and dressing room [upstairs] are converted into a state apartment.’

This date is confirmed by the inscription of 1814 on a triangle with the Ladies’ initials in the Oak Room [former kitchen]. Mavor noted that there was a porch-warming party in October 1814 to celebrate the completion of at least some of the work, but she did not quote her source. (It is likely to be in one of the letters from Eleanor to Harriet Pigott, see The Ladies of Llangollen, (1971), p. 177). Although the work on the porch and staircase might have been finished by 1814 the Ladies continued to acquire specimens of carved wood, as entries in the journals for 1819 and 1821 clearly show, but what they did with them is unknown.

There are two undated illustrations of Plas Newydd showing the external carved features. A print, dedicated to the Ladies, was drawn on stone by J.W. Guy from a drawing by H. Billingel and printed by George Smith, Liverpool. The other is a sketch by Harriet Pigott (1775–1846), published in Mavor’s The Ladies of Llangollen (1971), without source. Both might date to about 1815.
[illustrations of Plas Newydd]

In August 1816 Lady Maria Josepha Stanley wrote to a friend that The entrance to the cottage, a Gothic porch, the inner entrance, staircase, and kitchen are just fitted up with old carvings of wood, the contributions of various friends, or the plunder of churches and choirs. It has a very good effect.
Letter from Lady Maria Josepha Stanley (whose husband’s family came from Penrhos near Holyhead) to Louisa. Adeane, Jane H., (editor), The early married life of Maria Josepha Lady Stanley, (London, 1899), p. 390

In 1816, Captain Hanmer and Sarah his wife travelled from their family home at Bettisfield Park, Flintshire, with the specific intention of visiting Llangollen and the Ladies.
All the staircase, banisters, Porticos over the doors, and windows, and the entrance door are composed of old carved oak, highly varnished, and tastefully arranged which has a singular appearance.
‘Tours through Part of North Wales in 1817 and 1819 by Captain and Mrs Henry Hanmer’, NLW, ms. 23996C, pp. 10-19
Eleanor’s diary for 4.10.1819 recorded that Captain Hanmer sent the Ladies a carving from St Georges Chapel, Windsor (see below).

25.10.1818
[they] have stuck up something of carved oak against the corner of the house which they call an Oratory, and is more absurd than any protuberance they have yet put out.
Letter, Lady Charlotte Williams Wynn to her sister, Frances, NLW MS 2787D

1821
Mary Gosling understood that they had ‘been four years in forming it the different pieces having been given them by several friends,’ i.e. dating the beginning of the project to about 1817-1818,
A Tour Through Part of North Wales Ireland &c [1821], Duke University in Durham, North Carolina

1821
Plas Newydd the beautiful cottage of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby. The exterior of the cottage is ornamented with old Oak, curiously carved. – over the door in old English characters “Watch for ye know not the Hour”.
This was accompanied by two pencil sketches of the house showing the carved porches.
Henrietta Matilda Crompton (1793-1881), Welsh tour sketchbook, 1821, North Yorkshire Country Record Office. ZCM, MIC2709, ff. 2-5

7.10.1821
A neat low railing surrounds the cottage in the centre of which the family arms all emblazoned on a raised scroll supported by a figure which I suppose is supposed to represent her Ladyship’s crest.
Dickinson, J. D., Journal of a tour in Wales, September-October, 1821, NLW, mss. 15569 B, pp. 98-99

1822
In a letter to Anne Lister, Sarah Ponsonby reported that they were trying to ‘make the place as old as they could’
Lister, Anne, I Know my Own Heart, (1988), p. 203

1824
Lady Harvey requested that her daughter ‘make me two drawings of the two views of the Ladies house as it now is as my view of it is was before the Gothic Carving’
Letter, Lady Louisa Harvey to Louisa Lloyd, [21 Nov, 1824] NLW, Aston Hall Correspondence, 3582)

1825
The ladies did not steal their carving out of churches, but bought it fairly out of old farmhouses, or cottages or wherever it was to be had piecemeal and ??? it afterwards disposed of as we saw – it required much taste to use it so well.
Atherton, Ann, Tour of North Wales and Cardiganshire, National Library of Wales, 20366B

1829
The cottage is remarkable for the taste of its appropriate fitting up with ancient oak, presented by different friends, from old castles and monasteries, &c, none of it of less antiquity than 200 years.
Murray, John, A Publisher and His Friend, (1891), vol. 2, p. 304

1830
A palisade in front of the house is ornamented with antique and grotesque figures carved in oak which incloses the front before which a profusion of the choicest shrubs and flowers are tastefully arranged. The entrance door and windows are formed after the manner of ancient religious houses and decorated with carving in the same material. The entrance door is unique and a great curiosity, being ornamented with well polished carved figures, the whole of which are of black oak and kept well varnished and particularly bright.
Coleman, Thomas, ‘Journal of a Tour into north Wales with Mrs Coleman, 1830’ NLW Minor Deposit 1544 f. 34

1830
The door and windows are ornamented with rich carved work, and a palisade, which encloses the front, is decorated with antique and grotesque figures carved in oak.
Gastineau, H., Wales Illustrated in a Series of Views … Accompanied by Historical and Topographical Descriptions, [1830], p. 46-47. Includes a print of Plas Newydd

1830
The house is very handsome if you examine it but at a distance it looks too black and heavy for the country.
Aldam, Isabella, An account of a Journey in Wales, Doncaster Archives Department, DD/WA/D2/2

1832 THE AUCTION CATALOGUE
The 1832 auction catalogue lists only ‘four remarkably curious figures in carved oak; a large box of pieces of old carved oak and a curiously carved lion couchant, in old oak, (day 6, lots 47, 51 and 52, suggesting that these were the only spare pieces of carved oak left on the premises and that they had disposed of any that they had acquired which they had not fixed on the building, inside and out, or that the auctioneer did not think than they were worth selling (but he did auction various garden tools and flowerpots which cannot have had a high monetary value).
On the 7th day of the auction, when the furniture was sold, the following pieces of carved wood, mostly oak, were included:
Dining room:
Various carved mahogany chairs and stools, some Gothic pattern
Best Bedroom:     
31 A Capital four-post bedstead, with back, roof, tester and posts of very richly carved oak in high relief.
34 A very handsome large Wardrobe, with chest of drawers, enriched with the finest old carved oak.
35 A Noble large bookcase, with massive oak sliding doors, richly carved
39-41 Three very handsome old carved oak armchair with scarlet leather cushion.
Dressing room:
53 A Carved oak Basin stand
Room Over kitchen:
57 A handsome four-post bedstead, the posts, back and roof of carved oak.
68 A Large strong chest of carved oak.
Housekeeper’s room:
69 Four carved oak chairs
Kitchen:
76 Two curiously carved semi-circular oak arm chairs
77 Two carved oak chairs

After the death of Miss Ponsonby in 1831, visitors and guidebook editors mentioned the wooden palisade ‘ornamented with antique and grotesque figures carved in oak’ but most said nothing of the interior of the cottage because only a few were allowed to see it.

1830s
a gingerbread sort of gothic porch has been stuck on whose only merit is the grotesque oak carving about it [.] the windows above by the aid of woodwork are formed into a bow with pointed arches the mullions or partitions of which are painted white the glass badly stained here and there with patches of yellow, green and red, a little wooden railing before the door on which is the figure of a cat or some nondescript quadruped between which is placed a rampant figure something between a dog and a lion holding a shield on which is depicted the facsimile of himself.
Foley, Edward, Tour of north Wales, 1830s, NLW R.K. Lucas Papers nos 1951, pp. 10-11

1833
The building is long and low, so completely cased in richly-carved oak, that it might be mistaken for an enormous wardrobe.
Sinclair, Catherine, (1800-1864), Hill and Valley, or Hours in England and Wales, 1833
(1st edition, New York, 1838, p. 83; 2nd edition, Whyte and Co, Edinburgh, 1839, 462 pp. 83-89)

1844, Louisa Costello was allowed inside the cottage.
the cottage, as it now stands, is by no means either a rural or picturesque object. It is covered inside and out with carved wood, some of value, and some quite worthless; and all that remains of the taste of the former proprietors merely proves how little was required to please fifty years ago.
Costello, Louisa Stuart, ‘The Falls, Lakes and Mountains of North Wales’, (London, 1845), p. 211

1847, John Hicklin was allowed inside the cottage.
It is rather fantastical than tasteful, and savours more of eccentricity than sentiment. In the Gothic entrance, there are undoubtedly many fine specimens of carved wood-work, some of which we suspect were the plunder of despoiled convents and churches during the continental wars of the last century; but classical, mythological, and scripture subjects are intermingled in odd confusion, and with “most admired disorder.”
Hicklin, John, ‘The Ladies of Llangollen, as sketched by many hands; with notices of other objects of interest in that sweetest of vales’, (Chester and London, 1847), p. 53-57

1851, Benjamin Silliman, an American, was allowed inside the cottage.
The ancient oak, carved in great profusion of figures, crowded into panels, staircase, hall-passage, doors, mantels, and ceiling, are venerable for association, and interesting from their titled donors. One door is from the Prince of Prussia, this from Valle Crucis Abbey, &c.; for the carved figures are antiques, taken chiefly from celebrated ruins of abbeys, castles, and palaces of the olden time, and age has given it a deep and sombre hue.
Silliman, Benjamin, A visit to Europe in 1851, (New York, 1853), pp. 61-63

1870
The Ladies received many distinguished visitors and it is said that on a second visit they were expected to bring a present of carved oak.
Roberts, Askew, (1826-1884), Gossiping Guide to Wales, (Oswestry: Woodall, Minshall, and Co. [1870?]), pp. 114 – 115

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE EXTERIOR

For all the known 19th century illustrations of Plas Newydd see Illustrations of Plas Newydd

One of the most reproduced images of the façade of the cottage was by W.L. Walton, after Edwin W. Jacques. It was first published in about 1840. This shows the carved timber porch and the palisade with its grotesque carvings of animals. The same image was reproduced with the portrait of the two ladies, based on the lithograph by J.H. Lynch, standing in front of the fence. It is not at all certain that the palisade looked like this during the Ladies’ lifetime.

THE NATURE OF THE CARVINGS

David Bostwick’s report on the carvings, based on a survey in 2001 [copy available at Plas Newydd] suggests that it came from a variety of sources.
Bostwick showed that the carvings comprised:
(1) Sources

  • Panels from chests, boxes, beds, chair backs, cupboard doors and overmantles.
  • Bed posts
  • Church pews and bosses.

(2) Date

  • mostly 17th century
  • some mediaeval and 15th and 16th century work
  • no 18th century examples
  • some 19th century carving and framework into which earlier carvings are set.
  • Some of the samples are dated (e.g. 1607, 1634, 1673, 1695)

(3) Type of wood

  • mostly oak
  • some might have been walnut and stained pine (but most of the carvings are heavily painted black)
  • one item is of Chinese red wood and another two items are Chinese
  • two items of inlay

(4) The carvings represent:

  • 29 trees of life;
  • tulips and other plants
  • birds, animals and mythical beasts (including 44 dragons),
  • classical allusions
  • 103 male and female caryatids including the back view of a naked man and a pregnant figure.
  • Green Men
  • Few geometric patterns and only 4 linenfold panels – presumably there were not to the Ladies’ taste although a great deal might have been available at the beginning of the 19th

Bostwick identified that several carvings in different locations in the house had come from the same workshops and that in general the quality varied from that made by skilled craftsmen to the mass-produced products of poor workshops.
It proved impossible to identify the exact provenance of most of the examples but the Biblical scenes were probably Flemish and may had been imported into England in the 16th and 17th centuries.

THE SOURCES OF THE CARVINGS

There is nothing in the earlier documents to indicate how the carvings were acquired or where they came from. Jane Thomas, a former employee of the Ladies recalled in 1885 that ‘everybody who had a piece [of carved timber] to sell used to bring it to them’ and that ‘They kept one man almost constantly employed in arranging their old oak etc.’ but this was written about 70 years after the event. (Recollections of the Ladies of Llangollen Chiefly Related to Those by Jane Thomas, who was in their Service and Knew them Well’, in Papers relating to ‘the Ladies of Llangollen’, compiled by Isobel Jane Crewe, National Library of Wales, NLW 21746B, f. 22v).
None of the letters from the Ladies requested their correspondents to send carvings or to ask their friends to do so.
Various comments by those who wrote about Plas Newydd and the Ladies after their deaths imply that visitors brought presents for the Ladies with them. This might be true for books and trinkets but not for the carvings, which, considering their sizes, would have require well-organised transport.  Not one visitor reported bringing carved timbers with them: most would not have had the resources to transport large, heavy carvings on a tour of Wales or when travelling to or from Ireland and unless they had forewarned the Ladies in advance, some gifts might not have pleased them. It is much more likely that local gentry and friends arranged for the transport of the timber to Plas Newydd but unless they kept a record of such expenditure, little more is likely to be known about how the carvings arrived at Plas Newydd.
Some visitors and subsequent writers noted that some of the carvings came from churches which were undergoing restoration during the late 18th and early 19th centuries when there was a serious need to improve or rebuild parish churches in Wales. Llangollen and Llantisilio in particular were named as sources but there are no records to confirm this, either of their existence in the churches before removal, during restoration or arrival at Plas Newydd.
From the end of the 18th century many mansions were restored or rebuilt. It is likely that the old carved wood they contained was disposed of and with the replacement of old domestic furniture, much of it carved, there appears to have been a large choice of carved wood for the Ladies. It seems likely that they had tapped into a market for such items but no documentation for such a trade has been found in Wales.
Bostwick’s report suggests that the Ladies were selective and restricted the displays, both inside and out, to deeply carved oak [more]
The catalogue of the auction of the contents of the house in 1832 show that some loose carvings were offered for sale. These were presumably those acquired but not used in the overall scheme, or were given to the Ladies after they had finished ornamenting their home with carvings.

Butler’s journals for 1819 and 1821 are the only ones surviving after 1807. The 1819 journal has 24 references to the acquisition of the carvings; the 1821 journal has only 4.
These show that the carvings came from a variety of individuals: the poor of the village; various craftsmen, local clerics and gentry, and former visitors.
The evidence from these journals suggest that the Ladies were not actively collecting carvings at this date, but local people, knowing of their interest in it, brought or sent pieces, possibly on approval, some for sale, and, in the case of the poor of the village, in the hope of a few shillings reward.

EXTRACTS FROM ELEANOR BUTLER’S JOURNALS

28.1.1819
The son of poor John Hughes brought us two old oak carved ????? –
16.2.1819
A beautiful Lion couchant carved in oak – some centuries old – from the Warden of Ruthin pr Daniel. [The Rev Richard Newcombe was appointed Warden of Ruthin in 1804 and remained in that post for 47 years. He and his family occasionally visited the Ladies at Plas Newydd. Daniel was one of the carriers of various goods in the area.]
27.2.1819
The old carved oak head from Sir Foster Cunliffe [3rd Baronet (1755–1834), of Acton Park near Wrexham and Dinbren near Llangollen.]
12.4.1819
The so long expected hamper sent by Miss Dorothy Wilmot Sitwell to Liverpool was brought this morning from Chester by Evan the clogmaker – it contained fine old oak carving the most ancient & the most curious of all we possess
[Dorothy Wilmot Sitwell (1780-1863) of Quarndon House, Derbyshire, daughter of Edward Sacherevell (Sitwell) Wilmot-Sitwell and Lucy (Wheeler) Sitwell]
22.4.1819
Roberts the Shrewsbury Gardener came last night
Brought many curious plants and two old oak carved ?Masks
27.4.1819
John Davies the Shoemaker – brought from behind Bala two pieces of carving being the heads of two Bees – one remarkably fine the date 1569 –
29.4.1819
Old carved bracket from Roberts the Glazier
13.5.1819
Piece of carving from Thomas Davies the glazier
Purchased some fine old oak carving from a woman near Corwen
18.5.1819
Brace brought the expected carving from the castle ?[squiggle] ?Falcon – such a disappointment
22.5.1819
a cupboard with Carved Door – a Carved head Board [,] two ugly flat ?Pannels – two curious masks – by Brace [the carrier]
24.5.1819:
A square piece of deep carving procured from a poor woman from Glynn
4.6.1819
Price [?the Bookseller] brought a piece of carving
7.6.1819
The press in our state room moved from its original place Covered with old oak carving
12.6.1819:
Two ???? bed posts from John Bowen … an oak cupboard for inspection – three panels to purchase from Edward the Marble Mason.
17.6.1819
Two carved oak Parts from J: Bowen Junr pr Brace
21.6.1819
The carved oak from Peter Davies of Glyn – in a cart
27.6.1819
Brace brought from John Bowen Junr the most Superb piece of deep carving we ever beheld three Images & a Curious old chair
2.7.1819
Daniel returned from Wrexham – brought the two Bed Posts
3.7.1819
The Carved Oak bed put up in the State Bed Chamber
5.7.1819
Two flat pieces of inlaid oak – a piece of Deep carving a small head of an angel pr Liverpool Coach from that grateful Miss Broster
19.7.1819
Three Red Morocco leather seats for the carved oak Chairs – pr Liverpool Coach from J. Gill upholsterer
21.7.1819
Price the ?Bookseller sent us a fine carved Image – & a Curious head – a present
7.9.1819
per Liverpool coach a letter from those civil young artists the Nicholsons with the curious image of the Blessed Virgin & child which was found in that Manila Galleon-xxxx laden with the richest commodity of India which was captured by Commodore Anson in his voyage round the world in 1743 – on its return from Acapulco to Manila – it was given as part of the prize money to one of the Crewe and afterwards brought from him by the grandfather of these young Nicholsons – who gave it to their Aunt – They also sent two bits of wood taken from a yew tree in Studley Park [near Ripon] – seven of which stand together and are called the Seven Sisters and are professed to be at least 2000 years old. They were in their prime the year Fountains Abbey was built which was in the year 800.
[The Nicholsons were Samuel and George, who published Plâs Newydd and Vale Crucis Abbey correctly drawn from nature, (Published by the authors, 21, Islington, Liverpool, and by R Ackerman, 101 Strand, London, 1824), NLW BV138. This includes two images of Plas Newydd:
no. 5 ‘Entrance to Plâs Newydd [a very detailed illustration of the main entrance porch]
no. 6 ‘Plâs Newydd’ [General view with Dinas Bran in the background]
4.10.1819
some fine carvings of Gibbons from the old stalls of the Knights of the Garter in St Georges Chappel – which ?are ?now undergoing a new alteration [?from Captain & Mrs Hanmer R.H.G.]
26.10.1819
Messenger from the Warden [of Ruthin, Mr Newcombe] with a Beautiful Old Writing desk magnificently carved with the date 1625 at each end
24.11.1819
The son of poor John Hughes brought us two old oak Carved ?Pieces
26.7.1821
Back of chair from Mr Scullock [It is not at all clear what this means, but the backs of some chairs were used in the carvings on the walls].
1.11.1821
Present of Hare and Pheasant from Mrs Mather – and of two lions heads in the evening
2.11.1821
Letter and key of oak chest from Mr Scollock, Oak chest and ?????? ?stand by Shrewsbury waggon.
20.11.1821
Old oak chest put up

THE LIONS

The following include all the known references to carvings of Lions.
16.2.1819 Journal
A beautiful Lion couchant carved in oak – some centuries old – from the Warden of Ruthin per Daniel [the carrier]
17.6.1821 Journal
Mr ?Bowen gave a coat of varnish to the Lion
13.9.1821 Journal
Mr John Bowen came and painted the Lion’s shield
1.11.1821 Journal
Present of Hare and Pheasant from Mrs Mather – and of two lions heads in the evening
1847
Among the remembrances of former days, is the effigy of a guardian ‘lion,’ (which, under the name of a ‘bear,’ has been noted by an author whom we have quoted;) the melancholy quadruped is now considerably “used up,” and excites a laugh at the burlesque on the monarch of the forest, which his attenuated figure and shrivelled hide present.
Hicklin, John, ‘The Ladies of Llangollen, as sketched by many hands; with notices of other objects of interest in that sweetest of vales’, (Chester and London, 1847), p. 53-57
1995
The main porch is supported by two carved lions – a present from the Duke of Wellington and held a Porch Warming Party when it was complete.
Wainwright, Clive, ‘Plas Newydd, Clwyd’, Country Life, 2.2.1995

EXPLICIT REFERENCES TO THE SOURCE OF THE CARVINGS

Several sources, mostly written at least 40 years after Butler and Ponsonby died, give quite specific provenances for some of the carved wood, but these cannot be backed up by firm evidence and only a few are reported by more than one person. It is possible that some of the provenances derived from local tradition, enhancements of the history of the building by guides and attendants and the supposition of some visitors who might have said to an attendant “That looks like some carving in such and such church or house”.
Possibly one of the most interesting entries is in Eleanor’s journal for October 1819 ‘some fine carvings of Gibbons from the old stalls of the Knights of the Garter in St Georges Chappel‘. Eleanor did not use apostrophes very often and it is probable these were the work of the famous wood carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) or another sculptor of the same family name. A Mr Gibbons was paid for a new altar rail in St George’s chapel in 1681 and no other work of his is known to have been there. However no items have yet been identified as Gibbons’ work at Plas Newydd but it is possible that the Ladies did not incorporate his work in their house, or that it was removed and disposed of by a later occupant. [I am most grateful to the Archivist & Chapter Librarian of St George’s Chapel, Windsor for this information.]

In 1819, Philadelphia Cotton wrote that the cottage had a ‘quantity of curious old carved oak both outside & inside of their house … large piece from Speke hall Lancashire brought there by Cl. Norris plunderer of Stirling castle after battle of Flodden.
Cotton, Philadelphia, Lady, Tour through North Wales, Cambridgeshire County Record Office, 588/F48, pp. 1-2

1827
Eliza Rand was told that Mrs Coutts the present Duchess of St Albans gave the ladies a great deal of [the carving].
[Harriot Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans (née Mellon); 1777 – 1837, the wife of banker Thomas Coutts then William Beauclerk, 9th Duke of St Albans]
Tour of north Wales, 1827, NMW 207044, pp. 37-38

1878
The greater part of the oak roof of St Derfel’s Church, Llandderfel (NPRN 43870) is said to have been brought here after it was damaged by fire in 1878.
RCAHMW Coflein

1882
The Window recess is panelled with the Oak fittings from the Pew in Llangollen Church in which the Ladies sat for 50 years.
Portal door composed of very old oak from Llantysilio and Llangollen churches
Grotesque carved heads of Queen Anne’s time from Northumberland House, Strand. London
North Gable: Five emblems of the crown of Charles 1st time, from St Thomas Church, Isle of Wight.
Below the west gable is the old doorway from Llantysilio church.
[General John Yorke, later owner of Plas Newydd, died 1890], ‘Plas Newydd as it was and as it is; with A Catalogue of its contents; and a few reminiscences of Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon Sarah Ponsonby by one who received their welcome in his younger days [in 1827 and at other times?]; (Llangollen, printed and published by Hugh Jones, 1882)
(another edition 1884 incorporating the addenda), ff. 32-48

1890
Presents came into them from all quarters, including a finely carved oak chest from the Duke of York, a variety of Oriental treasures from one of our Indian Viceroys, and ornaments in bog-oak and other Hibernian treasures from one of the Lords Lieutenant of Ireland.
Cardiff Times. 5.7.1890

1890
The “Oak Room … In it are two curious seats or “thrones; ” the one called the Confessional Throne came from a Spanish monastery. It bears a figure with a mask, with open mouth and ears for communication between the priest and his penitent. The other, or “Washington Throne,” equally quaint in its adornments, is so called because it is made out of an old oak tree at Sulgrave, in Northamptonshire, the residence of George Washington’s ancestors. The window recess is panelled with … [more]
The Builder, vol 59, (1890), p. 28

1995
The main porch is supported by two carved lions – a present from the Duke of Wellington. The Ladies held a Porch Warming Party when it was complete.
Wainwright, Clive, ‘Plas Newydd, Clwyd’, Country Life, 2.2.1995

VARNISHING OR PAINTING THE CARVINGS

Most of the external carvings are now covered in thick layers of black paint, but it is not known how they were treated when they were first erected. The internal carvings are varnished and the following entries in the 1821 journal might be a record of this.
17.6.1821 Journal
Mr ?Bowen gave a coat of varnish to the Lion
18.6.1821 Journal
William Lewis arrived to varnish and beautify and we passed the whole day superintending him.
1.7.1821 Journal
William Lewis arrived in good time and all the furniture, pictures etc. removed with surprising expedition. [He might have come to whitewash the walls and ceilings.]
9.7.1821
William Lewis arrived [but no explanation why]
13.9.1821
Mr John Bowen came and painted the Lion’s shield

GENERAL YORKE AND AFTER

In 1876, General Yorke purchased most of the grounds and the cottage to which he added a new wing. He opened part of these to the public adding his own collections of ivory and carved wood. It is difficult to identify which surviving carved wood was installed by the Ladies or by him.

1878
The particular direction or bent of these ladies’ aesthetic desires was the accumulation of antique woodcarvings; … Their friends, willing to indulge these longings, supplied them to their heart’s content with old, richly carved oak from all parts of the world; so that their doors, windows, wainscotings, staircases, and all other constructive wood-work in the house was of a kind to make Horace Walpole’s mouth water;
Anon, ‘Our own country, descriptive, historical, pictorial’ [1878?], vol. 1, p. 190-192

1882 (pre)
All statesmen and nobles paid tribute and homage at Plas Newydd, and none ventured a second visit without bringing a contribution of carved oak which was the regular passport. … Plas Newydd does not seem to have been decorated with oak outside until 1810, subsequent to the death of their faithful servant, Mary Carryl in 1809.
The Window recess is panelled with the Oak fittings from the Pew in Llangollen Church in which the Ladies sat for 50 years.
The porch and front door … supported by bed posts of Charles 1st
Portal door composed of very old oak from Llantysilio and Llangollen churches
Grotesque carved heads of Queen Anne’s time from Northumberland House, Strand. London
North Gable: Five emblems of the crown of Charles 1st time, From St Thomas Church, Isle of Wight.
Below the west gable is the old doorway from Llantysilio church.
[General John Yorke, later owner of Plas Newydd, died 1890], ‘Plas Newydd as it was and as it is; with A Catalogue of its contents; and a few reminiscences of Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon Sarah Ponsonby by one who received their welcome in his younger days [in 1827 and at other times?]; (Llangollen, printed and published by Hugh Jones, 1882)
(another edition 1884 incorporating the addenda), ff. 32-48

1886
the lower part of the outer walls is hidden by a number of carved panels of black oak of different styles, periods and origin, bought from various places, and put together in curious confusion. Some of the wood carvings are of great artistic merit, having been taken from old churches and antique furniture, for in the medley of decorative panels portions of old sideboards or bedsteads are in juxtaposition with fragments of reredos, organ screens, or church doors. The cottage stands in a garden fenced in by iron chains connecting carved oaken posts, and is entered through an elaborately carved porch of Japanese design. … The door and window-frames, as well as the mantel-piece, display the same carved oak decoration which prevails inside and outside.
Myrbach, Felician and Paul Villars. Sketches of England. (London: The “Art Journal” Office, 1891), pp. 164-165

1887
For all lovers of the romantic in art, Plas Newydd will be the greatest attraction, for the remarkable collection of carved oak and other articles of virtu which it contains. … It has been fitly called the “quaintest of carved oak muniments chests” as it is covered inside and out with figures the most fanciful and grotesque. The palisade of oak round the flower garden, and the entrance door, are richly carved, and the black oak porch is supported by elaborately sculptured bed-posts of Charles First’s time, filled in every niche with wonderous forms of the four evangelists, with their appropriate emblems; coats of arms, royal and noble; and solemn bas-relief warnings against the “convivial excesses” of intemperance in man and obesity in women. But all this is surpassed by the richer work within. Each room contains rich carvings in great profusion, and is crowded with curiosities, varied and full of interest. Indeed, the place has for many years been converted into a museum of art.
Darlington, Ralph, Darlington’s Penny Guides, Llangollen and Corwen: … (Llangollen: Ralph Darlington, Oswestry and Wrexham, Woodall, Minshall, and Co. [1887], pp. 3-4

1888
[as above, Darlington 1887, with the addition of the following]
But all this is surpassed by the richer work within. A softened light through the old windows of stained glass reveals the crowded beauties of the Oak Room: a delicate group of fruit; a “Head of a Female”; statue of “St Paul”; a fine Italian panel, with “Venus and Cupid appealing to Justice.” One seat is called the Confessional Throne, having a huge grinning mask at the back, and another is composed of carvings taken from a bed of Queen Anne’s time with a comical face at the top representing the wild Indian of the prairies. The walls are covered with embossed leather of the 16th century. Designs of the “squirrel, lion and mermaid” are in alto-relief on the balustrade of the staircase, which is carved oak bearing the date 1192. Each room contains rich carvings in great profusion, and is crowded with curiosities, varied and full of interest.
Darlington, Ralph, The Vale of Llangollen and the course of the Dee, (Llangollen: Darlington & Co.; London: W.J. Adams & Sons), ([First edition] c. 1888), pp. 22-28; Another edition c. 1893; Another edition c. 1900

1888
[When General Yorke purchased the estate in 1876 he built] a large new wing behind the house, the oak carving that decorated the exterior has been very much increased.
The Globe, 8.11.1888 (cutting in Papers relating to ‘the Ladies of Llangollen’, compiled by Isobel Jane Crewe, NLW 21746B

The sale of the property in 1890 attracted much interest, resulting in a number of similar newspaper articles, some of which derived their information from General Yorke’s catalogues on 1887 and 1888.

1890
The last few years of his life [General Yorke] spent in decorating and improving the place, on which he lavished a considerable sum, repurchasing many relics which had found their way into other hands at the time of the sale, and adding a large quantity of finely-carved oak timbers as an external embellishment.
Llangollen Advertiser, Denbighshire, Merionethshire, and North Wales Journal, 27 June, 1890

1890
[The Ladies] added an upper story … the walls they lined with carved oak panels, some ecclesiastical, but others secular in character, thus producing a jumble of styles which would scarcely satisfy the more educated taste of the present day. Presents came into them from all quarters, including a finely carved oak chest from the Duke of York, a variety of Oriental treasures from one of our Indian Viceroys, and ornaments in bog-oak and other Hibernian treasures from one of the Lords Lieutenant of Ireland. At that time few persons understood the value or appreciated the beauty of the oak carving of the Tudor and Stuart eras, and so the cottages and farmhouses of Shropshire, Cheshire, and North Wales were easily rifled, and pretty largely too, by their admirers in order to give presents to “the ladies;” and further, if the truth must be told, a great deal of oak panelling and of chancel screen carving came to Plas Newydd, being cast out from Welsh churches and those in the counties bordering on Wales. … General York [added] a large quantity of finely carved oak timbers as an external embellishment.
Cardiff Times. 5.7.1890
Undated cutting in Papers relating to ‘the Ladies of Llangollen’, compiled by Isobel Jane Crewe, National Library of Wales, NLW 21746B

1890
The porch is made almost entirely out of old oak from the churches of Llantysilio and Llangollen, mixed up with grotesque carved heads of Queen Anne’s time from Northumberland House in the Strand. The staircase is a mass of carved oak, of various dates and styles, and it is surmounted by a very handsome reredos, probably taken from some church on the Continent. On the handrail are sculptured a lion, a squirrel, and a mermaid a panel close by hears the date 1192; but this date may be questioned. The porch and front door deserve special notice. The outside, as well as the inside, is rich in old oak. The entrance is supported by bed-posts of the time of Charles I., worked deftly into the surrounding woodwork, and bearing the royal arms and texts from sacred and profane sources, warning against all excesses. On the door are carved the emblems of the four Evangelists and other sacred subjects, and by their side are Indian and other Oriental carvings.
The Cambrian, 18th July 1890

1890
The “Oak Room is so called from carvings which cover the walls, the intervals between each being filled up with richly-embossed leather of the sixteenth century. In it are two curious seats or “thrones; ” the one called the Confessional Throne came from a Spanish monastery. It bears a figure with a mask, with open mouth and ears for communication between the priest and his penitent. The other, or “Washington Throne,” equally quaint in its adornments, is so called because it is made out of an old oak tree at Sulgrave, in Northamptonshire, the residence of George Washington’s ancestors. The window recess is panelled with …
The Builder, vol 59, (1890), p. 28

1890
The porch is made almost entirely out of old oak from the churches of Llantysilio and Llangollen, mixed up with grotesque carved heads of Queen Anne’s time from Northumberland House in the Strand. The staircase is a mass of carved oak, of various dates and styles, and it is surmounted by a very handsome reredos, probably taken from some church on the Continent. On the handrail are sculptured a lion, a squirrel, and a mermaid. A panel close by bears the date 1192; but this date may be questioned. The porch and front door deserve special notice. The outside, as well as the inside, is rich in old oak. The entrance is supported by bed-posts of the time of Charles I., worked deftly into the surrounding woodwork, and bearing the royal arms and texts from sacred and profane sources, warning against all excesses. On the door are carved the emblems of the four Evangelists and other sacred subjects, and by their side are Indian and other Oriental carvings.
The Cambrian, 18th July 1890

1893

The house was visited during an excursion by the Cambrian Archaeological Association
Plas Newydd, Llangollen. … The house contains some good specimens of old oak carvings and panels, the spoil of many a Welsh church.
Anon, Archaeologia Cambrensis (1893), p. 125

1902
They had long converted their cottage from a labourer’s dwelling to the likeness of a curiosity shop, and had begged all the ancient Elizabethan, Carolean and Jacobean carved wooden four-poster bedsteads within a circle of twenty miles from Llangollen to decorate the interior and exterior of Plas Newydd. … so wedded to this passion for old oak did the Ladies become that no-one was welcome as a visitor who did not bring with him an offering of this sort.
Harper, C.G., The Holyhead Road: the Mail Coach Road to Dublin, (1902), (2nd edition, 1902), pp. 193-203

1913
The windows on each side of the porch are carved with heraldic and other devices, principally the gifts of the Duchess of St Albans to the Ladies. On the west side of the portal door composed of old oak from Llantysilio and Llangollen Churches, with grotesque carved Heads of Queen Ann’s time from Northumberland House. [The] old doorway is from Llantysilio Church.
Catalogue for the auction of Plas Newydd (Copy in RCAHMW)

1995
The main porch is supported by two carved lions – a present from the Duke of Wellington and held a Porch Warming Party when it was complete.
Wainwright, Clive, ‘Plas Newydd, Clwyd’, Country Life, 2.2.1995

William John Bankes of Soughton Hall near Llangollen

Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby present their compliments to Mr Bankes and shall have great pleasure in seeing him and his friend this morning.
Plas Newydd Llangollen
3rd October”
Dorset History Centre D-BKL/H/J/1/6
This probably dates to 1809 when William John Bankes (1786-1855) and his future brother-in-law Edward Boscawen (Viscount Falmouth) toured Wales. (Dorset History Centre, D-BKL/H/J/4/26)
He inherited Soughton Hall near Llangollen in 1815 which he improved with the help of the architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), incorporating Gothic carved oak which he had been collecting including some oak carvings from a convent in Flanders … now in a stable in Northhamptonshire. (undated letter to his mother, Frances Bankes in Dorset History Centre)
He was accused of sodomy in 1841 fled the country.
Sebba, Anne, The Exiled Collector, William Bankes and the Making of an English Country House, (2004), pp. 43, 123