Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


ATTRIBUTED TO THOMAS FRYE  (Edenderry 1710 – London 1762)

Portrait of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn 3rd Bt, MP (?1693 – 1749) late 1730s

inscribed Sr Watkin Williams Wynn Bart. in the upper left

oil on canvas

50 x 40 inches        (127 x 101.2 cm.)


Private Collection, New York, 1940’s, and thus by inheritance to

Private Collection, New Jersey, 1950’s, until the present time


This newly-published portrait is a highly important addition to the iconography of ‘the Great Sir Watkin,’ leader of the Tory country squires, who on inheriting the estates of Wynnstay from his mother in 1719 became the greatest Welsh landowner of the mid-eighteenth century. He was also the nation’s leading Jacobite, whose support for the restoration of the exiled Prince James Edward Stuart was an open secret.

It is testament to the strength of his far-reaching power in North Wales and his personal authority that Sir Watkin survived the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 to die in a hunting accident and not on the scaffold. It is also a mark of his prudence: although Sir Watkin was known to have publicly burnt the King’s picture in 1720, and to have been a founder member of the Cycle of the White Rose, a Jacobite Club at Wrexham in 1723, he kept secret his treasonous correspondence with the Pretender as well as his visits to France to confer with Louis XV, and he pledged no open support to an insurrection unless it was accompanied by a French invasion. Nonetheless, he did his best in Parliament to make the way clear for the Pretender’s army, and his otherwise uncharacteristic vote for the Government on January 23, 1745 to maintain troops in the Low Countries was clearly aimed at stripping the country of its defences. When the Pretender arrived without the necessary French support Sir Watkin hurried to London and compliantly sat out the Rebellion under the Government’s eyes in Parliament. Active Jacobites such as Lord Lovat suffered the extreme penalty but Henry Pelham looked on Sir Watkin almost indulgently, feeling that the embarrassment of so great a gentleman was punishment enough.

Sir Watkin, son of Sir William Williams 2nd Bt, was elected to the family seat of Denbighshire in 1716, and with one interruption in 1741 – which he successfully disputed – held the seat until his death. In Parliament he was the most persistent and vocal of the Tory squires who opposed the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. At one stage the Prime Minister tried to buy Sir Watkin’s compliance with an earldom, which Sir Watkin with immense pride declined, being ‘well content with the honours that he had… and resolved to live and die Sir Watkin.’[1] Sir Watkin’s first wife Ann Vaughan died in 1748. He married secondly Frances Shakerly of Cheshire, who was the mother of his heir, the great patron Sir Watkin Williams Wynn 4th Bt, who was still a baby when his father died falling from his horse.

This portrait is an interesting alternative to the more familiar icons of this sitter. These, from the 1729 portrait by Michael Dahl (Wynnstay), through Thomas Hudson’s portrait of the late 1730s (engraved John Faber c.1740), Allan Ramsay’s portrait of 1741 (Wynnstay), to Hudson’s second portrait of the later 1740s (formerly with Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts), employ a standing pose to conjure the unshakeable authority of a man known only half in jest as ‘the Prince of Wales.’ Our painter by contrast shows Sir Watkin at a table, half-turned as if about to address the viewer. His bearing still commands respect, but the greater sense of familiarity that our portrait conveys may suggest it was commissioned for a family member or friend of comparable rank.

Frye’s portraits show a deft appreciation of the gradations of manner and nuances of decorum familiar to his subjects. A Gentleman of the Lloyd Family (Christie’s New York, May 22, 1998, lot 94) is shown similarly turning towards the viewer but it is a conversational likeness of a more modest sitter without the awesome dignity which Frye conveys in the present portrait. Of other more formal portraits Frederick Prince of Wales 1737 – 38 (Royal Collection) suggests a sense of frivolity and the illusion of familiarity, well-suited to the Prince’s character, whilst Sir Charles Towneley as York Herald (College of Arms) signed and dated 1740 approaches Sir Watkin’s cool hauteur but with a self-conscious air wholly lacking from Sir Watkin’s bullish sense of self.

Frye arrived in London from Ireland c.1735. His earliest known works are a pair of pastel portraits of two young boys (Earl of Iveagh Collection) dated 1734 apparently influenced by Rosalba Carriera, but he was an extremely versatile artist and as accomplished in oils as he was in pastels as well as in mezzotint engraving. A pastellist’s technique is apparent in our portrait not only in the moulding of the face, and delicate application of the whites in the wig and linen, but also in the powdery shimmer that he gives to the velvet coat, which shows Frye’s characteristic silvery highlights. This textural richness is apparent in Mr Crispe of Quex Park signed and dated 1746 (Tate Britain) and shows how distinct Frye’s work is from the slicker, more polished products of the contemporary drapery painters such as Joseph Van Aken. Frye gained important patronage early, and having become part of the Prince of Wales’s circle in 1737 he was exposed to the influence of Jean-Baptiste Van Loo who arrived in England in that year. Sir Watkin’s portrait, datable on details of the sitter’s wig and by his age to roughly this period, is significant in showing a strong flavour of the French painter’s work, although the portrait’s pose and solidity remain quintessentially British. The loose suggestion of an architectural background with asingle pilaster to the right of the sitter echoes the rather imprecisely-conceived features that form the backdrop to Mrs Wardle signed and dated 1742 (Christie’s, London, January 17, 1947).[2]

Pentimenti visible throughout the sitter’s coat, showing the previous placement of the buttons at front and back, reveal that at a late stage in execution the sitter’s body was moved to the right. This marks the portrait as a prime work, but also suggests something of Frye’s willingness to experiment, as well, perhaps, as hinting at Sir Watkin’s demands as a patron. Frye’s career is marked by his unwillingness to remain fixed in one mould. In 1744 when his career as a portraitist was at its height he became one of the founders of the Bow porcelain works, and continued as manager of the factory for fifteen years until forced to retire by ill-health, perhaps a victim of his own tireless industry. He continued to produce portraits in watercolour and oil during this period, and when he left the Bow factory in 1759 he went on a tour of Wales to recover his health, during which he is known to have accepted commissions. In 1760 he returned to London where he took up his portrait practice again, although the best known of his later works is the double series of ‘character’ heads engraved in 1761 and 1762 after studies in the style of Giambattista Piazzetta. These show his lifelong interest in the subtleties of facial expression and fascination with the work of Continental artists.

Frye died at Hatton Garden on April 3, 1762 and for the next forty-five years retained a high reputation with connoisseurs and his fellow artists. His subsequent obscurity was undeserved and he has re-emerged as a subtle and inventive portraitist as well as an important pioneer in the introduction of Continental taste into English art in the mid-eighteenth century.

We are grateful to Dr. Brian Allen of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, in consultation with colleagues Dr. Martin Postle and John Ingamells, for proposing an attribution to Thomas Frye on the basis of a photograph.



[1] Peter D. G. Thomas, “Sir Watkin Williams Wynn 3rd Bt (?1693 – 1749)”,  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[2] Michael Wynne, “Thomas Frye (1710 – 1762)”, Burlington Magazine, CXIV, February, 1974, pp.79 – 84.


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