Wynnstay connections in the papers of James Harris

Collections - Posted 08-03-2021

This article aims to explore some musical connections between the Wynnstay estate records at the National Library of Wales and the Harris family papers deposited by the Earl of Malmesbury at Hampshire Record Office.

In the Library’s printed collections is a substantial volume entitled Music and Theatre in Handel’s World by Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill (Oxford : Oxford University Press 2002). It contains edited extracts from the family papers of James Harris (1709-1780), who directed the concerts and music festivals in Salisbury for almost fifty years.

James Harris knew Handel personally and his brother was a beneficiary of the composer’s last will. He was MP for Christchurch from 1761 and he held several other prestigious public appointments. His duties frequently took him to London, which presented his family with ample opportunity to attend the theatres and musical concerts there. The Harris family letters and diaries supply a lively contemporary commentary on the cultural life of the capital. Familiar figures in their world included David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles Burney, Thomas Arne and Johann Christian Bach. Inevitably the Harris family’s musical and theatrical interests brought them into contact with Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, fourth Baronet Wynnstay (1749-1789).



Sir Watkin had inherited the Wynnstay estate as an infant, upon the death of his father in 1749. As might be expected of a prominent landowner, he was MP for Shropshire and Denbighshire but political ambition was not the prime motivator in his life. He was renowned instead for his extravagant patronage of culture. The Wynnstay estate records provide the evidence of his lavish expenditure on art, music and theatre, the indulgence of his interests, within exactly the same social milieu as the Harris family.

Sir Watkin was a steward at the annual music festival at St Paul’s to benefit the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy and he was treasurer of the committee for Antient Concerts. His London residence provided the venue for private concerts given by the popular musicians of the day. His musical tastes had probably developed while he was still at Westminster School. From an early age he knew John Parry, the famous blind harpist, who had been associated with Wynnstay in his father’s time, probably since 1741.

John Parry frequently accompanied his patron to perform in London during the 1740s. Historical sources record that he gave other concerts in Leeds, Oxford and Cambridge. He also appeared at Salisbury, as Jane Collier described in a letter to James Harris, dated 1 April 1744:

The famous Mr Parry gave us a voluntary on the Welsh harp, in hopes of inclining the company to be at his benefit next Tuesday night.

Two days later Mary Smith referred to Parry ‘as a successor of [the biblical] David’s who is come from Wales harp in hand, to exorcise the evil spirit, & raise contributions here; & last Tuesday advertised a benefit for himself without the least ceremony, at halfe a crown a ticket; & this very night is to have another’.

The Harris papers contain several direct references to Sir Watkin and Lady Williams Wynn.

In spring 1770 James Harris attended several musical events in London, including a concert by J. C. Bach, and catches and glees at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, conducted by Thomas Arne. On 20 March he dined at the Catch Club where, unsurprisingly, the company included Sir Watkin Williams [Wynn], who had been a member since 1768. It may be noted that Sir Watkin was also a regular attendee at the concerts arranged by J.C. Bach and Karl Abel.

One interesting celebrity of the London stage was the Italian castrato, Gaetano Guadagni, star of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Eurydice, premiered in Vienna in 1762. Guadagni and the cellist, Stephen Paxton, both spent eight weeks at Wynnstay in the late summer of 1770 and gave solos in a concert to celebrate the installation of the new organ in Ruabon church. On 12 January 1771 Richard Owen Cambridge reported to James Harris that Fielding menaced Guadagni, referring to the magistrate, Sir John Fielding, a month before the prosecution of Guadagni and Theresa Cornelys for staging unlicensed operas at Carlisle House, Soho Square: for hire, gain or reward without license. The Wynnstay accounts for March 1771 noted a payment to Guadagni for a private performance at Sir Watkin’s first London house in Grosvenor Square. The content of the concert was not specified but Guadagni dedicated the libretto of Orfeo to his benefactor, claiming that he sang for no financial gain! James Harris’s wife, Elizabeth, wrote to her son, James [future first Earl of Malmesbury] in May 1771: ‘Guadagni……is the finest acter [sic], the finest figure, & the finest voice imaginable, & is undoubtedly the most insolent of all fellows; he gives out that he acts only to oblige Sir Watkins Williams [sic] & takes no reward whatever’.

Given Sir Watkin’s propensity for theatre, it was no surprise to encounter him at Lady Townshend’s house just before a May Day masquerade at the Pantheon in 1772, dressed as a milkmaid! Elizabeth Harris gleefully described to her son:

…a most jolly party of milkmaids with the May Day garland. Sir Watkins William Wynne [sic] carried the pail and was a most excellent figure; Lady Williams Wynn, Lady Frances Wyndham and another danc’d round the pail in the true milk maid stile.



In the spring of 1775 the Harris family attended a ‘musical breakfast’ hosted by Sir Watkin and Lady Williams Wynn in their newly renovated house at 20, St James’s Square. The lavish interior, designed by Robert Adam, included an exquisitely decorated music room equipped with chandeliers, music stands and a Snetzler chamber organ. Elizabeth Harris described the event to her son James, who was then in Berlin, 5 May 1775:

The rooms below are elegant and large; the music room is very judiciously ornamented, a fine picture of St Cecilia by Reynolds, Orpheus by Dance and many smaller paintings in the musical way. The upper floor is not quite finish’d so not open’d. All the fine world were there……..The music was all Handelian.

More details of the interior decoration may be discovered in the Wynnstay accounts.

The Wynnstay accounts recorded the names of the musicians who played and sang at Sir Watkin’s concerts during the 1770s: Giardini, Baumgarten, Linton, [Richard] Hay, [Stephen] Paxton, Sykes, Noferi and Meredith, among others. This last name was not mentioned by James Harris but an editorial note draws attention to the Wynnstay connection. On 12 December 1774 Harris attended a concert at the Pantheon, noting only the conductor, Giardini, and the soprano, Agujari. The names of the other singers at the Pantheon for the winter season of 1774-5 are known from contemporary concert advertisements and they included the Welsh bass, Mr Meredith.

Edward Meredith was reputedly talent-spotted by Sir Watkin Williams Wynn while singing at his work in a Wrexham cooper’s shop. His career is described in Charles Avison in Context, ed. Roz Southey and Eric Cross (Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge 2017). He was trained, partly at least, at Sir Watkin’s expense; the Wynnstay accounts for 1773 recorded 165 lessons for Mr Meredith. His first known public performance was at Durham in August 1772, in a benefit concert organised by William Paxton, the brother of the cellist. Meredith sang to acclaim in Handel’s Messiah at the Haymarket Theatre, London, in February 1773. Despite his subsequent success in the London concert venues he left the capital in 1778 to take up employment as a ‘singing man’ at Durham Cathedral, where he worked with Thomas Ebdon, Matthias Hawdon and the Welsh tenor, William Evance. Having taken the trouble to appoint him, the Cathedral authorities must have been exasperated by his frequent departures to Wynnstay, where he took part in the dramas and music festivals of his erstwhile patron.

James Harris died in December 1780. It is regrettable that he did not live to witness the colossal Handel commemoration celebration at Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon in 1784, under the management of the Concert of Antient Music. The organising committee included the Earls of Sandwich and Exeter, and needless to say, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn.


  • Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill, Music and Theatre in Handel’s World (Oxford : Oxford University Press 2002).
  • Patricia Howard, ‘Guadagni in the Dock : a crisis in the career of a castrato’ in Early Music, Vol. 27, No. 1, Music and Spectacle (Feb., 1999), pp. 87-95
  • Roz Southey and Eric Cross (ed.), Charles Avison in Context (Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge 2017)

Hilary Peters
Assistant Archivist

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