William Wells of Redleaf, Penshurst. An art collection to rival some of the best in Britain?
The fact that the Royal Academy’s current much praised exhibition, “Charles 1st, King and Collector” uses as its headline feature, a painting that passed through the hands of Redleaf’s owner, William Wells, should give us a clue as to his extraordinary achievements. The painting I am referring to is of course Van Dyke’s triptych of Charles 1st that was commissioned by the King so that it could be sent to the Italian sculptor Bernini for him to use as a three dimensional “photograph” from which he could carve a marble bust of Charles. As one of the perks of the commission Bernini was allowed to keep the Van Dyke and some 170 years later it was sold by his descendants to one William Wells.
William Wells made his fortune from the sea, firstly as ship’s captain for the East India Company, a very profitable posting, and then from owning the Blackwell shipyard, which he sold in 1806. At about that time he purchased the then Georgian house, of Redleaf. Like many 19th century entrepreneurs Wells decided that art was the thing to collect. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, it is clear from what he collected he had a great “eye” and this is somewhat confirmed by the fact he became an early trustee of the National Gallery.
In 1822 Wells was persuaded to sell the Van Dyke triptych to George IV for the not inconsiderable then sum of £1,000. It has remained in the Royal Collection to this day. Actually this wasn’t the only painting to pique the royal interest, as some years later he sold Sir Edwin’s Landseer’s “The Sanctuary” to Queen Victoria so she could give it to Prince Albert as a birthday present. In fact Landseer by then had become an important part of William Well’s life as this extract from Richard Ormond’s book, “Sir Edwin Landseer” demonstrates:
“One of Landseer’s favourite haunts from the early 1830’s was Redleaf, the house of William Wells, a remarkable sportsman and collector. Landseer painted many animal studies for Wells and he came to regard the bachelor establishment of his friend as a second home. He sometimes spent months at Redleaf, as in 1844 when his house was being rebuilt, and at least a quarter of his early surviving correspondence was written from there…..From the accounts of many artists that stayed at Redleaf it was clear that Landseer, who was represented in the (Wells) collection by more than twenty works, was its presiding genius.”
Jill Allibone, in her book on George Devey, throws some more light on who these artists were that stayed at Redleaf, They included E.W Cooke, W.P. Frith, Frederick Goodall, Thomas Sidney Cooper,F.R.Lee, Thomas Webster and J.M.W. Turner. Naturally Wells owned works by all of them.
And then there are the Old Masters. Some idea of the scale of his collection here can be found with the sale of part of his collection at Christies on the 12th May 1848 following his death. Christies call their catalogue of this sale the “Catalogue of matchless collection of pictures by Old Masters, WilliamWells, esq, deceased, removed from Redleaf”. They had a point. There were an amazing one hundred and seventeen pictures in the auction and these included works by Veronese, Titian, Van Dyck, Bruegel, Canaletto, Guido, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van der Veld, Jan Steen and Cuyp.
For awhile in the 19th century, Penshurst, through its connection with William Wells at Redleaf became the centre of one of the greatest gathering of artists and art that our country has seen. Quite an achievement for “an old sea dog” as Richard Ormond liked to describe him.
Author: Stephen Hazell-Smith