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Long Lost Relatives Discovered in the Attic
19 Mar 2021
by Katy Rink

These eye-catching family portraits (lots 127-129), unseen for decades, went under the hammer at Halls Fine Art recently.

Halls is used to unearthing unique and unusual items in the most random places. Before the lockdown, paintings specialist Abigail Molenaar received a call regarding 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.

The paintings are all oil on panel portraits depicting several generations of the Williams family from Pencoed Castle in Monmouthshire.

“I love a good mystery," Abigail said. "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 incidentally turned out to be a great-great-nephew of Margaret Williams herself!

Identified in the paintings are four generations of the Williams family; Margaret Williams Snr (1826-1902, Lot 127 in red- SOLD for £320) who was the matriarch of the family, known as a generous hostess and a real figurehead of the local community. 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.

Margaret Snr (nee Rosser) was married to George Williams in June 1844 and they inherited the Pencoed Castle estate and farm upon George's father's death in 1851. The couple produced 10 children with 6 surviving infancy and were key figureheads and active members in the community. Margaret herself was frequently mentioned in local news for her prominent role in local events; awarding prizes, judging competitions and for her reputation as a hostess. Following George's death in 1888 she continued to live at Pencoed until 1895 when she retired and the farm estate was sold at public auction. Margaret spent her retirement living with her eldest daughter Amelia Hodges until her death in 1902 aged 76 and left the remainder of her estate worth £483 3s 3d to Amelia. Margaret and George are buried at Bethany Chapel Church in Llanvaches.

Margaret's eldest daughter Amelia (1844-1929, in green, UNSOLD) first married local farmer Thomas Hillier in 1872 with whom she had no issue. Following her husband's death in 1883 she remarried William Hodges in 1888 aged 43 and lived at Holly Cottage, Vinegar Hill in Undy. Her mother Margaret came to live with her upon her retirement in 1895, by which date Amelia was a widow again.

Margaret's granddaughter Margaret (1880-1969, Lot 128 in white with a necktie, SOLD for £250) was the daughter of Thomas Williams, born in 1880 while the family were still living in the Llanmartin area and held the estate of Pencoed Castle farm. Thomas and his family relocated to Shropshire in the 1880s, eventually settling near Bridgnorth in Shropshire. Margaret married Frederick Brookes in 1912 and they had a farm in the nearby area which they ran with their children.

The lots included a portrait of an infant member of the Williams family, by the same hand (UNSOLD).

How the paintings ended up in Shropshire was quite a puzzle, until it was realised that Margaret Senior’s son Thomas Williams moved his family near Bridgnorth in the 1880s and this branch of the family settled and worked in the county. Margaret Junior later married Frederick Brookes and they raised their family and farmed around the Bridgnorth area for the rest of her life.

The portraits are painted in a very folk art style, all by the same hand, probably created by an amateur artist or family friend. 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 in Ludlow and forgotten about.