Before the lockdown paintings specialist Abigail Molenaar of Halls Fine Art auctioneers in Shrewsbury received a call about a group of portraits which had been left in an attic by the previous occupants following a house sale and had been languishing unknown and unseen for decades.
It has turned out that the paintings, found in a property in a village between Ludlow and Bridgnorth – the exact location is not being disclosed – are all oil-on-panel portraits depicting several generations of the Williams family from Pencoed Castle in Monmouthshire.
Abigail said: “I love a good mystery. One of my favourite aspects of being an auction specialist is coming across a painting about which nothing is known and trying to identify the sitter and piece-by-piece seek to reconstruct the history of an artwork”.
After locating the Williams’ as living at Pencoed Castle and farm during the 19th century, Abigail made contact with a number of local history groups in the area and teamed up with genealogist researcher Michael Edwards of Athena Ancestry, who turned out to be a great-great-nephew of Margaret Williams, one of the portrait subjects.
Identified in the paintings are four generations of the Williams family – Margaret Williams senior (1826-1902) who was the matriarch, known as a generous hostess and a real figurehead of the local community; her eldest daughter Amelia (1844-1929); granddaughter Margaret (1880-1969); and likely an infant great-grandchild.
The research found the Williams’ worked the farm and land at Pencoed Castle throughout the 19th century, with Margaret retiring in 1895 and putting the entire estate up for public auction.
How the paintings ended up in Shropshire was quite a puzzle, until it was realised that Margaret senior’s son Thomas moved his family to the county in the 1880s and this branch of the family settled and worked in Shropshire.
Margaret junior later married Frederick Brookes and they raised their family and farmed around the south Shropshire area for the rest of her life.
The portraits are painted in a folk art style, all by the same hand, and were probably created by an amateur artist or family friend.
Abigail says they date to 1906 when the Pencoed estate had already been sold and the family separated. It is likely that they were all painted at the same time and passed down the generations until at some point they were left stored in an attic and forgotten about.
The portraits will be coming up for sale in Halls Fine Art spring auction on March 17, lots 127-129.
According to information on the internet, Pencoed Castle was let out to farmers after it became run down. It was granted Grade II-listed status in 1952. An episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood was filmed there in the mid-1950s.
Just over 20 years ago there was a failed attempt to turn it into a theme park around the ruins, which would have been known as Legend Court.
It was in the headlines for less happy reasons in 2016 after a millionaire property developer murdered his paid personal escort in a bungalow in the grounds. He was jailed for life.
The castle and its land was sold at auction last September for £1.1 million.