Sometimes I come across people from the past that I would really would have liked to meet. Lewis Wingfield is one of them. He was the youngest brother of the 7th Viscount Powerscourt, Mervyn. Their father died in 1844, when Lewis was two and Mervyn eight, leaving the estate in Chancery for 10 years. Another brother—Maurice Richard—died soon after his 27th birthday.
My first encounter was with his work—early photographs of the Powerscourt estate and neighbouring village of Enniskerry from the early 1860s. These he collected together and presented them to friends in an album entitled “Powerscourt: Immortalized by Lewis Winfield 1863“. There is a very fine copy in the National Photographic Archive at the National Library of Ireland, dedicated to his friend, Rev. Charles McDonagh. Recently, I held a copy of the album in private hands which was dedicated to La Touche. Included in this one is a little postage-stamp sized photo of our man Lewis, in profile, beside the dedication. It seems he made copies of these albums for friends.
Lewis latterly became a painter, and was elected associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1871 (IT, 27/7/1871). An exhibition with a painting of Joan of Arc was displayed in the Academy in 1870, which seemed to meet with good reviews, apart from his rendering of faces (IT, 19/11/1870). Another painting, which gives perhaps some insight into his character was “Scene No. 36”, a painting of a clown and his two sons donning their suits in a room next to an amphitheatre—the crowd outside just visible—while in the room there is also a female figure laying dying on a table, with a second female drooped over her weeping. There is a quote attributed to this (IT14/3/1873):
Men must work, and women must weep.
Where there’s little to earn, and many to keep.
Lewis also painted some panels of Moore’s melodies which were used to decorate the saloon at Powerscourt (IT29/6/1894). These were sold in the Powerscourt Estate Auction in 1984 (Christies) and therefore very likely still exist. One image is shown in the Christies auction catalogue. There is a reference somewhere to a bust of him (Christies contain a lot “A bust of a gentleman of the Powerscourt family”, alongside a lot of a bust of Mervyn).
I’m struggling to get a handle on Lewis’ character. His mother Elizabeth prevented him going into the army, because of the delicacy of his constitution (DNB). His eldest brother Mervyn considered his younger brother to be a bit of a dandy, apparently despised him, and as he was then childless, went to great efforts to spend his money (on creating gardens at Powerscourt) so that Lewis wouldn’t inherit it.
The more I read about Lewis, the more I wonder about these now oft-quoted descriptions of his character. There was no doubt he was close to his mother—he cancelled his debut as a comedian at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool to travel to Dieppe as his mother, Marchioness of Londonderry, had become ill. (She must have recovered as she died in 1884). Perhaps her concern over an army career was more a protectiveness on her part. Lewis joined the ambulance corps and was in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, where he became a surgeon (interestingly, two pieces rescued from Palais Royal at this time are now in Powerscourt Gardens, having been later purchased by Mervyn). He reported from Paris for various newspapers (and indeed drew a painting of the siege of Paris). This was a man who got about – he literally travelled the globe. He was one of the earliest Englishmen to obtain permission to travel to China (IT, 16/11/91). While his constitution may have been “delicate”, I wonder if it was in the sense that he wasn’t the large well built man his elder brother was. His voice was said to be reedy and effeminate (DNB). Nevertheless, he did eventually join the English army in 1884—the year his mother died—and became ill in Egypt. He travelled to Australia in 1890 to recover, but died young, in 1891, a few months before his 42nd birthday. Early deaths in the family were unfortunately all too common.
His relationship with his brother that is also intriguing. The quote about the sibling hatred comes from no less a source than the Knight of Glin (Christies), who says that Sheila Wingfield, wife of the 9th Viscount, writes in Sun Too Fast that the 7th Viscount found himself childless after several years and as he intensely disliked his brother, heir presumptive, decided to start spending all the cash. While its true that there were no children for Mervyn until 1880, work began in earnest at Powerscourt soon after his majority—if Mervyn was anguishing about spending money, he didn’t wait too long. There is a painting in the Christies catalogue of a hunt in Scotland, which has among its several subjects both Mervyn and Lewis, so they evidently travelled together on at least this occasion. Mervyn also donated to the Royal Hibernian Academy a painting of him by Lewis in 1890, just before Lewis’ death (WIT, 8/2/1890). Indeed, Lewis became associated with the Academy at the same time that George Hodson Bart, another Enniskerry local boy, became an honorary member. Lewis was certainly not excluded from the society circles his brother moved in. Sheila was two generations down the line, and perhaps was exaggerating. If so, I’m a bit disappointed in her; as a Jewish female poet who felt her work was not valued by critics and especially family (JEPLH), she must have privately shared some sense of compassion for Lewis.
I immediately warm to Lewis. He moved from photography to painting to reporting to acting, became an army surgeon, travelled and ultimately focussed on writing, both plays and novels. I see him ballooning around furiously scribbling notes for his reportage. He seems to have been extremely intelligent. In My Lords of Strogue, a three volume historical novel, he weaves in historical accounts into a funny (so far as I am at the moment) story of upper society, a work obviously underpinned by significant background research. Books are dedicated to friends, as we saw with photo albums above, and his friendships were of great importance to him.
His humour was noted in an article in the Weekly Irish Times in 1885, which reported:
Much amusement was caused the other day at Brighton by the publication of the following unique circular by the Hon. Lewis Winfield:- “The Honourable Lewis Wingfield, having taken a house at Brighton, and wishing always to be on pleasant terms with his neighbours, intends to make a practice of giving an annual treat to the well-behaved children residing in Marine gardens, the entertainment to take place about Christmas-tide. Such of the children, however, who prove themselves to be ill-mannered and badly behaved-who, that is, make an uproar in the alley before nine o’clock in the morning, or who hang about the Parade end of Marine gardens in the daytime as if it were a playground (which it is not), and scream and cry and make unnecessary noises there, to the annoyance of the dwellers at 75 Marine parade, will not be included in the invitations to the proposed annual gathering.”
I wonder how successful that strategy was!
Lewis was married, but I do wonder if he was gay—or at least as gay as you could be in Victorian upper class society. Fuel to this fire is provided by a story that appeared in the newspapers in April 1879: “Strange Charge of Watch Stealing“. This article reported that Lewis left his home one morning and “fell in” with a soldier in Hyde Park. Lewis later accused the soldier of stealing his watch, but the soldier made “disgraceful allegations” about Lewis. Despite it being mentioned in court that Lewis was a visitor to the barracks, the poor soldier got five years hard labour as punishment—an all too convenient method to push the whole affair under the carpet.
Please do contact me if you know any more about this intriguing man. I have some references to follow up in the National Library, so will hopefully have more at some stage.
- Christies: Christies Auction Catalogue for Powerscourt, 1984
- DNB: Dictionary of National Biography
- JEPLH: Journal of Enniskerry and Powerscourt Local History
- IT: Irish Times
- WIT: Weekly Irish Times
This post was originally posted on my old history blog and has been slightly modified in this update.