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The History of Plas Newydd

From its earliest known resident in 1470, Plas Newydd has changed through various shapes and sizes and has been passed by inheritance and marriage through 500 years of a family's increasing concentration of wealth, titles and estates. Becoming the family home of the Marquis of Anglesey. The house is an elegant 18th-century mansion designed by James Wyatt in a mix of Classical and Gothic styles, built around a 14th-century hall.

Inside the house is a 58 by 12 feet mural painted by Rex Whistler which needs to be seen in person to be able to take in its magnitude. Along with the dining room at Tate Britain this is an amazing example of his talent.

The Whistler room at Plas Newydd was once a functioning dining room - in fact, it was once a series of smaller rooms that were knocked through to make one larger room. From one side of the room is a great view of the Menai Strait and with the addition of the mural, a landscape painting of mountains, harbours, towns and people guests were able to enjoy a view from any angle.

Rex Whistler created his first commissioned mural whilst still a student at the Slade School of Art. Once the mural was unveiled in the Tate Britain in 1927, he became sought after. Whistler first visited Plas Newydd at Easter in 1936, and the commission was agreed that April.

By July that same year, Rex has already created a smaller, detailed watercolour of the whole composition. The 58-mural is believed to have originally been the idea of Lady Marjorie, the wife of the 6th Marquess, but the scenery and details therein were entirely Whistler’s fantastical imagination and playfulness. As well as a commissioned artist during his time at Plas Newydd, he was also a much-welcomed guest of the 6th Marquess’s family, attending parties and staying at the house. Whistler always intended to return to Plas Newydd after the Second World War to complete some of the unfinished details of the mural. Tragically, he was killed on his first day of active duty in France on the 18 July 1944.

Reportedly, The Times newspaper received more letters about Whistler's death than for any other war victim. His death is mentioned in a letter to Alec Guinness in 'Sir John Gielgud A Life in Letters', Gielgud notes that 'Whistler's death is a major tragedy' adding that 'He wanted to prove that 'artists can be tough' and alas, he has done so - but the world is greatly the poorer for his sacrifice'.

Background on the house

Though the house we see today is largely 18th century, the roots of Plas Newydd go back to the 14th century, when the estate was owned by the Griffiths family of Bangor. The Great Hall has survived, with doorways at either end. A pair of striking towers were a later addition.

The estate passed in time to the Bayly family, who later changed their family name to Paget. In the late 18th century James Wyatt was called in by the Pagets to design a fashionable new mansion. Wyatt, perhaps belying his nickname 'Wyatt the Destroyer', kept the towers and the hall, and merged them into an elegant Georgian house, with a broad, sweeping lawn down towards the water.

Henry Paget fought at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He lost a leg in the battle, but his bravery on the field and qualities of leadership made him a national hero, and led to him being named the 1st Marquess of Anglesey. The Marquess was the first person in Britain to use a fully articulated wooden leg, that is, one that bends like a normal leg. There is an exhibition on the Battle, and the Marquess's role, and you can see his artificial leg on display.

Henry Paget, commander of the Allied cavalry

On June 18, 1815, the Duke of Wellington was able to beat off Napoleon and win what became known as the Battle of Waterloo. This was due in no small part to the efforts of the Allied cavalry and their commander, Henry Paget 2nd Earl of Uxbridge, who later became the 1st Marquess of Anglesey.

The day had started badly for Henry, when a charge of Allied cavalry was badly defeated by French forces. Initially successful, the charge had swept away thousands of French infantry. Unfortunately Henry allowed himself to be carried away by the excitement of the fight and was not in a position to recall or support the Allied cavalry as it galloped on, out of control, towards the French lines. Henry never forgave himself for this error which cost many Allied cavalrymen their lives.

Determined to make amends, Henry led the remains of the cavalry in numerous other charges, acting with supreme bravery and professionalism. These acts earned Henry great respect and even drew grudging praise from an unfriendly Duke of Wellington.

Despite this, the day ended in tragedy for Henry when his right leg was amputated after being hit by cannon shot. Henry was left with a wooden leg for the rest of his days. He was the first person to receive a fully articulated wooden leg, with a hinged knee and ankle, later known as the 'Anglesey leg'.

In the late 19th century the 5th Marquess converted the chapel to a theatre, and the family would put on regular theatrical performances, with the Marquess often taking the lead male role.

The house today reflects life at Plas Newydd in the 1930s, a decade captured beautifully by the 6th Marquess's home movies of family life, for he was an avid cinematographer. He made the last notable changes to the house, getting rid of his father's theatre and combining three servant's rooms to make the current dining room.

The 6th Marchioness, Margery, was heavily involved in creating the elegant interiors we see today. It was she who called in Rex Whistler to paint the superb mural that is the highlight of a visit to Plas Newydd. Whistler became a firm family friend, and fell in love with the family's eldest daughter Caroline. His death on active service in 1944 seems to have affected the family deeply.

From 1949 Plas Newydd was used as a naval cadet training base. The first cadet school was the HMS Conway, which was moored in the Menai Strait close to the house. In the 1950s some of the cadets lived in the east wing of the mansion, with the old stable block used as classrooms and further accommodation. In 1964 the entire school was moved to purpose built building in the grounds. Though the building still stands, the school closed in 1974.

Today the National Trust run and look after the house. I really can't recommend a visit highly enough, especially when taking the acres of grounds in to consideration. On a summer's day it's heaven!

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