Lady Emily Dundas (British, d. 1900)
The Ladies of Llangollen at Plas Newydd
Watercolour over traces of pencil, inscribed verso: Llangollen-lan-Llangollen and inscribed on mount: Emily Dundas, a tiny sketch of a girl’s head verso
9.3 x 9.4 cm
The notorious Ladies of Llangollen became a cause célèbre of Regency society.
Eleanor Charlotte Butler (1739–1829) (seated in this drawing) was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Ormonde of Kilkenny Castle and known as a bluestocking. Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831) lived with relatives, Sir William and Lady Elizabeth Fownes, in Woodstock, County Kilkenny. Ponsonby attended boarding school at Kilkenny, and it was there, aged 13, that she met Butler, who was 16 years her senior. They became fast friends and corresponded regularly.
Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, or into a convent in the case of Butler, the pair left County Kilkenny together in April 1778 dressed as men, with a pistol and Sarah’s beloved dog Frisk. Family opposition threw obstacles in their path, but they finally moved to Wales and in 1780 established themselves near Llangollen at a cottage which they renamed Plas Newydd and refurbished in a Gothick style.
They developed a passion for old, carved wood, collecting pieces from medieval churches alongside fragments of Elizabethan furniture. The extraordinary front porch of the cottage incorporates carvings of the four evangelists, Latin inscriptions, seventeenth-century bed - posts and lions donated by the Duke of Wellington (visitors soon learned that to appear with gifts of carvings ensured a welcome). A library was filled with finely bound books and curiosities of all kinds. They added a circular stone dairy and created a garden in the picturesque style. Eleanor kept a diary of their activities.
Living on a modest income from unsympathetic relatives, the pair lived a quiet life, studying literature and languages, which they described as their ‘system’, and improv - ing their estate. They did not actively socialise and were uninterested in fashion, wearing dark riding habits for formal and informal occasions, and beaver hats (as seen in Dundas’s drawing). Their hair remained cropped in the ‘Titus’ style, fashionable in the 1790s, and they continued to use hair powder, which went out of fashion after the same decade. Many observers commented on their masculine appearance.
Butler and Ponsonby’s life began to attract the interest of the outside world, and Plas Newydd became a magnet for visitors, as the two women became a celebrated example of retirement from society in favour of a rustic idyll. They were also admired for their ‘Romantic Friendship’, and were visited by writers including Southey, Wordsworth, Shelley, Lord Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb and Sir Walter Scott, as well as by the Duke of Wellington and Josiah Wedgwood. The two formed a literary circle which resulted in copious correspondence and which encompassed Mary Tighe, Ann Talbot, Anna Seward, Hester Thrale ( Dr Johnson’s friend, otherwise known as Hester Piozzi, who was a neighbour), Henrietta Bowdler and Madame de Genlis.
On some days as many as twenty visitors arrived. The two women’s notoriety spread abroad, and continental visitors included Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the German nobleman and landscape designer, who wrote admiringly about them. Queen Charlotte wanted to see their cottage and persuaded George III to grant them a pension.
Butler and Ponsonby lived together for over fifty years until the end of their lives. Their books and glassware carried both sets of initials, and their letters were jointly signed. Eleanor Butler died in 1829 and Sarah Ponsonby in 1831. They are both buried at St Collen’s Church in Llangollen. Plas Newydd is now a museum run by Denbighshire County Council.
Not many images of the pair are known. Lady Mary Leighton (née Parker) sketched them individually in pencil, and a lithograph was made by Richard James Lane, after Lady Leighton, c. 1830–1840s, showing them seated at Plas Newydd. A second, pirated version was made by James Henry Lynch and printed by Day & Haghe, c. 1833–45, and shows the pair full-length wearing riding habits and top hats in their garden. Lady Delamere sketched them in old age, showing them walking inside Plas Newydd (see Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen – a study in Romantic Friendship, 1971, for illustrations, facing frontispiece and facing p. 97).
The artist of this drawing, Lady Emily Dundas, née Reynolds-Moreton, was the fourth daughter of Thomas, 1st Earl of Ducie. In 1847 she married Admiral Sir James Whitley Deans Dundas, G CB (1785–1862) as his second wife. He became the First Naval Lord in the first Russell ministry in July 1847 and they lived at Admiralty House. Thackeray records that during the 1850 season Lady Emily Dundas gave a party at which anyone who was anyone would wish to be seen (Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century – ‘A Human Awful Wonder of God’, 2007).
Lady Emily Dundas is recorded as accompanying her husband on many official engagements such as inspecting the fleet in various places from Cork to Malta. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean in 1852 and led all naval operations in the Black Sea, including the bombardment of Sevastopol in October 1854 during the Crimean War. She went with him to Turkey and took a house at Therapia. Lady Dundas evidently enjoyed a good social life during the war and is recorded as attending a picnic for twenty-seven on the summit of the Giant’s Mountain, Therapia, organised by the Earl of Carlisle.
Lady Emily Dundas had four sisters. Her youngest sister, Lady Catherine Reynolds-Moreton (d. 2 December 1892), married (on 14 December 1841) John Raymond-Barker, of Fairford Park, Gloucestershire (d. 21 May 1888). Raymond-Barker had two daughters by his first wife, Harriet Bosanquet (1798–1830): Augusta (1827–1900) and Leonora (1829–1906). Augusta assembled the scrapbook from which this watercolour comes. Another sister, Lady Mary, married William, 7th Earl of Denbigh, who from 1830 was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to William IV. In 1833, he was made a G CH, admitted to the Privy Council and transferred to Queen Adelaide’s Household, first as her Lord Chamberlain, then as Master of the Horse.
Augusta Raymond-Barker (step-niece of the artist), Fairford Park, Gloucestershire; thence by family descent until 2016
Fiona Brideoak, The Ladies of Llangollen – Desire, Indeterminism and the Legacies of Criticism, 2017.