Handel with care: remnants of the Wynnstay music collection

Collections - Posted 03-10-2022

On 6 March 1858 a devastating fire swept through the mansion at Wynnstay and the inhabitants fled in their night clothes. No lives were lost but much of the library was destroyed, along with furniture, paintings and other valuables. A report in the North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality on 13 March described the remains of the rare books and manuscripts as ‘masses of black substance in the shape of books but hard and wet, mixed with scraps of black-letter books (some partially legible), music and engravings’.

This dramatic description supplied the motivation for investigating the fate of the fourth baronet’s music collection. Did it all go up in flames……or not?

Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, 4th Baronet (1749-1789)  was a passionate devotee of the fine arts. He almost bankrupted the Wynnstay estate through his excessive expenditure on pictures, sculpture, theatre and music. At great cost he created a private theatre at Wynnstay for plays and concerts. His luxurious London home in St James’s Square,1 designed by Robert Adam, had its own lavishly decorated music room containing a Snetzler organ. Sir Watkin’s interest in music developed early, perhaps influenced by the family harpist, John Parry, or perhaps during his teenage years at Westminster School. As a young man he joined the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Catch Club  and he quickly became involved with the contemporary musical scene in London2  He was a steward at the annual music festival at St Paul’s to benefit the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy and treasurer of the committee for ‘Antient Concerts’. Inevitably he was on the committee for organising the Handel Commemoration Concert in Westminster Abbey in 1784.

Sir Watkin’s collecting habits were probably inspired by his Grand Tour3 in France and Italy, 1768-9. The first evidence comes from the account book4 of his long-suffering servant (later his steward) Samuel Sidebotham. The expenses included purchases of pictures, statues, furniture and rare books, concerts by Piantanida, Giovannini and others, music for the French horn for Mr Morris (a Wynnstay servant), harp strings and at Turin a violoncello for Sir Watkin, who was a proficient amateur player. Back at home the Wynnstay accounts (loose bills) for 1773 included a bill from Stephen Paxton for purchases of Haydn’s quartets, Boccherini’s quartets, Hamal’s select overtures, Ebdon’s harpsichord sonatas, Noferi’s duets, Kent’s Volume of Anthems and Giordani’s quartets; as well as alterations to the cello, numerous concerts, and music lessons for Sir Watkin and for the bass singer, Mr Meredith. In 1774/5 some music by Handel was acquired, described in the Wynnstay accounts as: cantatas, 2 books of 12th collection, 2 sets of lessons and 3 sets of concertos. In April 1779 Sir Watkin attended the three day sale of the ‘truly valuable and curious library of music late in the possession of Dr William Boyce5 where he bought ten lots, comprising songs, madrigals, motets and instrumental works by Porpora, Bononcini, Orlando de Lassus, Caldara, Steffani, Gabrieli, Geminiani, Handel and others. The Williams Wynn family naturally subscribed to the works of John Parry, whose British Harmony being a collection of Antient Welsh Airs, published in 1781, was dedicated to his patron.



Wynnstay EH4/1, account book, 1768-69


More evidence of the Wynnstay music collection comes, unsurprisingly, from Charles Burney, whose Account of the Musical Performances in Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon May 26th, 27th, 29th; and June the 3rd, and 5th, 1784 in Commemoration of Handel6 described the grandiose event in equally magnificent detail. Fortunately Burney incorporated a list of Handel’s works, both in the royal collection and in the hands of private individuals, including Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, who owned printed operas, oratorios and Te Deums (sic); and in manuscript the Te Deum in A, the anthem Let God arise, I will magnify thee, As pants the Hart for five voices (‘with several alterations and additions by Handel himself….’), The King shall rejoice, Sing unto God, Blessed are they, versions for voices without instruments of Let God arise and As pants the Hart, and Ode or Serenata for the Birthday of Queen Anne.

Among the Trevor Owen Manuscripts (now NLW MS 2785C) is  A catalogue of the Wynnstay library, 1840 (therefore predating the fire) which lists histories of music by Hawkins and Burney, The Welsh Harper by John Parry and other scores by Haydn, Avison, Clark, Handel, Gay, Corfe and Arnold, stored in the library, study and other rooms at Wynnstay. These were probably components of the fourth baronet’s music collection. Other sad remnants were viewed by Alexander Hyatt King in 1945, ruined by damp, mouldering in the stables at Wynnstay, described as ‘…practically all unbound, mint, in wrappers, as issued. The bulk was English, back to the seventeen-thirties, but it also included many Hummel and Roger editions, beside some French and Austrian publications.’7

Clearly Sir Watkin had amassed a music collection of national significance. Sadly the inventory of books and furniture at 20 St James’s Square, dated 1789, is too fragile to access.8 The full extent of the collection is unknown and it is difficult to assess exactly what proportion was lost to fire or to damp. Nevertheless some of it did survive, ultimately to be sold together with the silver, pictures and other Wynnstay heirlooms, to discharge debts and tax demands in the 1940s. Tantalising fragments have turned up later, in archive repositories, libraries and unexpected places.



Wynnstay Estate by John Ingleby (1749-1808)


An article by Martin Picker in the Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries9 describes eleven volumes of Handel, acquired by the Rutgers Library, New Brunswick, c. 1950, which appear to have originated from Wynnstay. Six of the volumes correspond exactly in content and order to those listed by Charles Burney. The uniformity of the binding and the consistent use of the same copyists suggest that all the volumes once belonged to Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. Picker notes the locations of other Handel scores from the collection, notably anthems in the Gerald Coke Handel Collection at the Foundling Museum10 and Italian cantatas and early editions of operas at the University of Sydney, Australia.11

Donald Burrows, in Newsletter of the American Handel Society12 notes the unexpected discovery, in a Manchester animal charity shop, of a Messiah score in the hand of John Matthews probably from the 1760s, once belonging to Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. Other manuscripts from Wynnstay, containing excerpts from the operas of Pasquale Anfossi, Piccini, Monza, and Gassman were formerly in the library of St Michael’s College at Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, and are now held at the Bodleian Library13

Sir Watkin’s musical interests obviously were not limited to Handel. The British Library holds seven manuscripts of Purcell, comprising ‘dramatic music, odes, etc.’ [1683×1695], the majority copied c. 1771 by Jos. Fisher, Darwen, Lancashire.14  The name of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn is inscribed on the flyleaf of one volume and the Williams Wynn eagle crest appears on the spine of several in that series. Purcell’s theatre music featured in the programmes of the Catch Club and the Concerts of Antient Music, promoted by the Earl of Sandwich and Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. Sir Watkin is known to have owned copies of King Arthur, The Indian Queen and The Tempest.15



NLW MS 14427B, including compositions by Handel and John Parry, c.1764


Remarkably two of the instruments from the Wynnstay collection have survived the ravages of time. The first and most obvious is the magnificent Snetzler organ in its Adam case, originally located at 20 St James’s Square, removed to Wynnstay in 1864 and purchased by the National Museum Wales in 1995. The second is the cello which Sir Watkin bought in Turin on the grand tour in 1768. It cost him 480 Piedmontese livres and it was already an antique when he acquired it, bearing the label of Chiafredi Cappa, Mondovi 1697. The instrument was purchased from Wynnstay by Alfred Hill of W.E. Hill & Sons, London, and its provenance was confirmed by Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., Cincinnati & New York, 1931, Alfred Hill, 1934, Adolph Hoffman (n.d.), Desmond Hill, 1962 and Kenneth Warren & Son, Chicago, IL, 1962. It was entered for sale at Christies, New York, 6 March 1986, where it failed to achieve the anticipated $60,000.16 It has been identified as the cello which is now played by Marc Coppey, but confirmation is lacking.

Finally, immerse yourself in the sound world of the eighteenth century, recreated from music manuscripts held at the National Library of Wales.




  1. NLW Wynnstay Estate Records EH3/10.
  2. See NLW Blog 08-03-2021.
  3. The tour is described by Paul Hernon, Sir Watkin’s tours : excursions to France, Italy and North Wales, 1768-71 (Wrexham : Bridge Books, 2013).
  4. NLW, Wynnstay Estate Records EH4/1. Further account books of the fourth baronet are numbered EH4/2-10. Loose accounts are EH3/2-12.
  5. Robert J. Bruce and H. Diack Johnstone, ‘A Catalogue of the truly valuable and curious library of music late in the possession of Dr William Boyce (1779): transcription and commentary’ in Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle No. 43 (2010), pp. 111-171 (Taylor & Francis Ltd on behalf of the Royal Musical Association)
  6. Charles Burney, ‘List of Handel’s Works’ in An Account of the Musical Performances in Westmisnster Abbey and the Pantheon May 26th, 27th, 29th; and June the 3rd, and 5th, 1784 in Commemoration of Handel (London : T. Payne and son [etc.] 1785) pp 45-6.
  1. Alexander Hyatt King, Some British Collectors of Music, c. 1600-1960 (Cambridge University Press 1963), p. 18
  2. Denbighshire Archives, ref. Wynnstay Manuscripts DD/WY/7944.
  3. Martin Picker, ‘Sir Watkin Williams Wynn and the Rutgers Handel Collection’ in Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries Vol 53, No 2 (1991) pp. 17-26.
  4. Gerald Coke Handel Collection: Let God arise and Te Deum Laudamus, ref. 2/B/LET GOD ARISE (Former Coke Catalogue Number HC415a/C1 HC479c/C2)
  5. Reference not found.
  6. Donald Burrows, ‘Newly recovered Messiah Scores’ in Newsletter of the American Handel Society Volume IV, Number 3 (December 1989) pp. 1, 5.
  1. Bodleian Library, ref. MS. Tenbury 656 and MS. Tenbury 1153.
  2. British Library: Search Archives and Manuscripts, ref. Add. MS 62666-62672.
  3. S. Tuppen, ‘Purcell in the 18th century: music for the Quality, Gentry, and others’ in Early Music Vol. 43; Number 2, 2015 (Oxford University Press) pp. 233-245.
  4. Christies New York sale catalogue, ‘Important Musical Instruments’ Thursday March 6 1986, pp. 36-7.


Hilary Peters


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