I follow one of Britain’s National Trust blogs that specializes in chinoiserie. Through the blog I was familiar with Erddig, a very popular National Trust site, outside of Wrexham in Wales. What I didn’t know was how the painting above was related to Erdigg and the extraordinary relationship between the Yorke family, Edward Prince and his successors.
The painting of Edward Prince has been in my file for a while but until I could decipher the writing on the scroll, Edward had to wait. Last night I found the poem and much more about the carpenters of Erddig.
Erdigg was built in the 1680s and passed into the Yorke family in 1733. Phillip Yorke I (1743-1804) commissioned portraits of six estate servants and composed poems to be included in the paintings. The paintings were completed between 1791-1796 and in addition to the carpenter, included an elderly housemaid, the blacksmith, the gamekeeper, the kitchen porter and the butcher and publican in Wrexham. Except for the butcher, all the servants were middle aged or elderly and had been in service from a young age. The series of paintings and the poems started a Yorke family tradition of acknowledging and honoring the servants of Erdigg. This remarkable and unique tradition continued for almost 200 years with the paintings, and later photos, displayed in the Servants Hall.
John Prince, father of Charles and grandfather to Edward, was the first recorded carpenter at Erddig. Charles Prince, known as “The Black Prince” because of his dark complexion, succeeded John. Edward became his father’s apprentice. As head carpenter Charles was paid 1 shilling 6 pence per day for a 6 day week; Edward the apprentice was paid 1 shilling per day for a 6 day week. In 1779 Edward succeeded his father as Head Carpenter and we learn a bit more about him from the poem in the painting:
Phillip York called these little compositions of his “Crude-Ditties” and actually published a volume of them. It isn’t a poem meant for a collection of classics, but a message of warm regard for the Prince family as a mainstay of Erddig and an affectionate thank you to Edward for his long service. And four wives! With each new wife I can just imagine what kind of greeting Phillip gave Edward, can’t you?
In 1830 Thomas Rodgers was the carpenter at Erddig and at age 48 he was painted at his workbench. Simon Yorke II wrote the inscription at the bottom.
Rodgers started working at Erddig in 1798 first as a pig-boy and later as a thatcher’s assistant and a slater. After working at Erddig for over 65 years he was made a pensioner at age 90 and died in 1875 at age 94. Twenty-two years after the painting we find Thomas in a photograph taken in 1852. He is holding his saw with his son and successor James Rodgers next to him.
The Yorke family documentaion of their domestic staff gives us a rare look at a 19th-century craftsman in a painting and a photograph. It is a reminder of how much life was changing mid-century. Although the pace of change was slower on a country estate, the traditional ways of life and of making things by hand was being challenged and changed by new technologies and machines.
John Jones, a descendant of Erddig servants, was the head carpenter at age 56 in 1911 when his photo was taken. He entered service in 1872.
Thanks to the Yorke family’s respect for their staff we have a glimpse into the lives of multiple generations of carpenters at one country estate. Hands down, this beats Gosford Park (except for Clive Owen) and Downton Abbey any day.
In 1973 Erddig became a National Trust property. Not long after that a local mine collapsed threatening the stability of the main house and out buildings and a major job of shoring up was undertaken. Although I couldn’t find any photographs of the carpenter’s shop taken in the 19th century I did find a few photos taken prior to and during the 1970s renovations, and a few current photos. Except for the current photos of the workshop all images in this post are from the National Trust.
If you would like to learn more about Erddig go here.
Rona Walker from New Zealand wrote “A Brief Story of the Prince Family” for a family reunion. I wonder if there are any Prince woodworkers in New Zealand?
P.S. If you would like to see the original six paintings by John Walters, including the blacksmith, go here.