Skip to content
Press release

Conservation of rare full-length portrait of an 18th century servant reveals tantalising clues about his identity and role

The conserved portrait of John Wilton in the servants' hall at Chirk Castle
The conserved portrait of John Wilton in the servants' hall at Chirk Castle | © National Trust Images/James Beck

A rare full-length, life-size portrait of a servant at the National Trust’s Chirk Castle in Wrexham has gone on display following conservation and research to reveal some remarkable clues about his background.

For many years, John Wilton (c.1691-1751), a disabled man who was taken in as a youth by Sir Richard Myddelton of Chirk Castle, and remained there until his death, received accommodation, clothing and food.

Unlike the other servants, John Wilton appears to have received no wages, but after Robert Myddelton succeeded his cousin, he paid for a portrait to be done of Wilton. Gold lettering on the portrait describes John as Decus Culinae, which translated from the Latin reads as ‘glory’ or ‘pride’ of the kitchen.

With short hair, and moustache curved down to a small beard, he is depicted in smart brown breeches, stockings and shoes and a jacket with gilt buttons. The castle’s accounts during his life record the numbers of occasions where John had clothes paid for, including a sum to his own mother to make shirts for her son, and shoes were purchased and mended for him.

A chronology of Chirk servants lists many of them and their roles, but John appears in the form of a mini biography, described as ‘a deformed Cripple taken into the Family by Sir Richard Myddelton, 3rd Bt (1655-1716) and kept for Charity from his Youth to his Death which happen’d in October 1751 – near sixty years old.’ In the portrait, John is seen seated, with both legs severely bent.

Clues to his possible status can be seen in the glass of beer or ale in his hand, and a decorative blue jug on the table beside him, which has the initials GR for ‘George Rex’ (King George). Alongside it is a crank handle, possibly for use on a spit jack in the kitchen or for a clock, but nothing in the archives of the castle confirms whether kitchen work was carried out by John Wilton.

The portrait of John, when he was around 38 years old, was undertaken by Thomas Whitmore, about whom little is known. He is likely to have been a travelling painter-decorator as he is noted as receiving £2, 2 shillings for the portrait along with payment for other tasks at Chirk Castle such as painting and gilding in the garden summer house. Numbers on the crank handle in the portrait read 1728/9, probably to indicate when it was painted.

However, what is so unusual about the portrait of John Wilton is that servants were rarely the subject of full-length, life-size studies which were the preserve of Royalty or the nobility and showed off their status and wealth.

John Chu, National Trust Senior Curator for Paintings and Sculpture explains: “We don’t know why Sir Richard Myddelton specifically gave John Wilton a home at the castle and why his cousin commissioned such a large portrait of him. The rarity of examples of full-length portraits of servants means we don’t know for sure how they were regarded at the time.

“While John Wilton is being celebrated as an individual, the gold inscription describing him as the ‘glory’ or ‘pride’ of the kitchen is in Latin. If there's a play on high and low forms of art and stations in life here, how fully could he have been in on the joke in this learned language?

"However, historic portraits typically record a relationship between at least three people; the artist, the sitter and the person who commissioned it. While this picture was painted for Robert Myddelton, a man of very high status, this is also an artistic document of one working man's encounter with another. We're seeing Wilton through Whitmore's eyes: and in that respect it provides an incredibly rare if not unique insight."

John continues: “The jug we see in the portrait is high quality but old fashioned, and so was likely used below stairs at this date. The GR indicates the loyalty of the whole household to the Hanoverian monarchy, and we might presume that John is raising a glass to toast the King. The crank handle is painted by John's side where items denoting rank would be placed in a more high-status portrait - a crown and sceptre for a monarch for example. Is the object John Wilton's 'symbol of office' for his kitchen duties?”

Over the centuries, the portrait which is known to have been on display in the kitchen from at least the 19th century, had been darkened by dirt, soot, and discoloured varnish, and much of the detail had become hard to make out.

Paintings conservator Annabelle Monaghan undertook the task of cleaning, re-touching, and varnishing the portrait. In tackling the work, she made some interesting discoveries.

Annabelle says: “It seems clear that the intention was for this painting to be full- length and life-size. John Wilton in the painting measures approximately 165cm which is about the average height for a man at that time. The artist started off with a fairly large piece of canvas that was ready primed, and he could easily have painted the portrait on this single piece of canvas. John Wilton would have been reduced in size, but it still would have been a good size portrait for a commission like this. Instead, Whitmore went to the trouble of stitching four additional pieces of canvas to give himself enough space to paint Wilton life-size and include the jug and crank handle. It feels like a real statement on the part of the artist or the person who commissioned it.”

Jon Hignett, General Manager at Chirk Castle adds: “There are many questions about John Wilton that we may never be able to answer, but unlike any other servant who lived or worked at Chirk, his portrait looms large. Whatever the motives were for taking him in, he was given a home here, and remained here for the rest of his life. With the portrait now glowing with richness and colour again, it is wonderful to think he will continue to be a part of Chirk Castle’s story for visitors for many years to come.”

The portrait of John Wilton is on display in the Servants Hall at Chirk Castle from Monday 4 March.

You might also be interested in

Summer in the garden at Chirk Castle

Chirk Castle 

Magnificent medieval fortress of the Welsh Marches

Chirk, Wrexham

Fully open today
The north west corner at Chirk Castle, Wrexham

History of Chirk Castle 

Chirk Castle was never planned as a family home. It was one of several medieval Marcher fortresses along the Welsh-English border, built to keep the Welsh under English rule.

A look inside the Chirk Cabinet, made of Ebony with tortoiseshell inlays, internal silver mounts with oil paintings on copper, made circa 1640-50, found in Chirk Castle.

Chirk Castle's collection 

Living in a castle for 400 years a family gathers a diverse collection of art, furniture and curiosities. Here’s some of the treasures in Chirk’s collection.