Plas Newydd (plass no-with) is the only National Trust property on Anglesey so we had a day off from crossing the Britannia Bridge back to the mainland. We couldn’t get away from the bridge completely, though, as it is very much part of Plas Newydd’s impressive portfolio of views. Perched high up on the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait, the imposing house looks out on the bridge to the north east, on Y Felinheli village and harbour to the south and to the mountains of Snowdonia directly opposite. The weather gods were certainly smiling on us as well, giving the mountains a nice dusting of snow overnight, which resulted in an even more beautiful view across the Strait.
The views alone make Plas Newydd a must-see property, but for me, it is the Whistler mural in the dining room that turned this into a must-must-must-must-see and in fact single-handedly justified my eight and a half hour journey to Wales. I think we were planted in the mural room for about half an hour, discussing aspects of the painting with the volunteer and constantly finding new things to look at. The mural shows a harbour scene with a town to one side and mountains in the background and it is packed with detail and interest. Whistler was a clever and fairly cheeky painter and he included various members of the family in his picture, including some in a little rowing boat in the foreground, plus others in the town scene on the left-hand side. Here, you can also see a man with one leg leaning against the wall and this is a shout-out to Henry ‘One Leg’ Paget, the 1st Marquess of Anglesey (more of him later). The wet footprints leading out of the water next to an abandoned crown and trident suggest that Neptune has walked from the sea and into the dining room to have a meal with the family. There is much more to spot in the picture, though, so I would advise giving yourself half an hour with the volunteer so you can get the most out of it.
Thankfully, Plas Newydd doesn’t run scared of the light and allows the blinds to hang at half mast so visitors can truly appreciate Whistler’s work in a way that they can’t at Mottisfont. The mural also made me wonder what might have been at Mottisfont if Whistler had been allowed to follow his heart rather than being constrained by the owner’s demands for plain work. We do have Mottisfont to thank for some bonus material, though, as their exhibition of Whistler’s work includes many items that are usually displayed in Plas Newydd’s own exhibition room so a number of new items have been taken out of the archive as replacements for the time being.
As far as the rest of the house is concerned, I couldn’t really make my mind up about it. It’s very long, which gives the impression of vast size from the east front overlooking the Strait, but it is only two rooms deep (albeit rather large rooms!) and is a real mix of eras, with neo-Gothic from the 18th century blended with some Georgianised exteriors and more modern interiors added to make the house more comfortable for family life. There are some eye-catching rooms, including the grand Music Room and more intimate Octagon Room, but without the Whistler mural or the views, it wouldn’t really have the wow factor that you find at some properties… but then again it does have the Whistler mural and the views and that was enough ‘wow’ for me.
But that wasn’t all. I was actually extremely interested in the story of the 1st Marquess of Anglesey (the aforementioned ‘One Leg’), who made his mark on the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars, before finally – and famously – losing a leg at the Battle of Waterloo. It was said that he had eight or nine horses shot from under him during the battle but his luck finally ran out late in the day when his right knee was smashed by grapeshot. He is rumoured to have turned to the Duke of Wellington and said ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ to which the reply came, ‘By God, sir, so you have!’. This story and that of his military career are the subjects of a special cavalry exhibition in the house where you can also see one of the Marquess’ wooden legs, several of which were apparently found forgotten in the attics by the 6th Marquess.
While a series of Bagenals, Baylys and Pagets have owned Plas Newydd over the years since the 16th century, it is from the time of the 1st Marquess that things get most interesting. As well as his glittering military career, the 1st Marquess also had a colourful personal life, having 18 children – 8 by his first wife and 10 by the second. There was no straightforward transition from wife one to wife two, however, as the Marquess was embroiled in a scandalous divorce in 1810 and eloped to marry Charlotte Wellesley, who was the Duke of Wellington’s former sister-in-law. He fought a duel with Charlotte’s husband (both survived) and the decision also damaged his relationship with Wellington, which took some time to repair. Through his 18 children and 73 grandchildren, the Marquess also ensured that there was a steady stream of Pagets in Victorian court life and Prince Albert – presumably not keen on some of them – once described the family as ‘a plague of locusts’.
Jumping ahead through a few Marquesses, we reach the 5th Marquess who was another flamboyant character. It was rumoured that he was actually the son of a French actor, Benoit Coqeulin, and was brought up by the actor’s sister in France after his mother died, which certainly suggests that there may have been some truth to the rumours. His genes may also have encouraged an obsession with the theatre and he loved dressing up in lavish costumes, particularly those dripping with jewels. Unfortunately, jewels are expensive and his spending didn’t seem to have an off switch, so he quickly worked his way through his finances… and beyond.
The 6th Marquess was instrumental in rescuing the house after these excesses and it was he who commissioned Whistler to paint the mural, thus adding those extra ‘musts’ to Plas Newydd’s must-see status. He also created the rhododendron garden, which is only open at this time of year and was well worth the 1km walk to reach it.
The Trust has been in charge of Plas Newydd since 1976 and continues to make improvements, adding a new Mansion tearoom in 2016. Something I was particularly hoping to learn about was the ground-breaking change to the heating system made in 2014, with the previous oil-fired boilers being replaced by a new green technology that sucks heat from sea water from the Menai Strait. I was intrigued to know how this is done but there was no information on display anywhere. Perhaps the Trust feels that it’s just a lot of hot air, but I for one would have found it interesting.
Highlights: Whistler’s mural; the cavalry exhibition; the views; the rhododendron garden
Refreshments: Pot of tea and a shortbread; chicken and mixed vegetable salad with new potatoes, egg and a spring dressing
NT Connections: Mottisfont, which also has a notable Rex Whistler mural