When Hester Thrale began her tour in North Wales with the celebrated poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer, Dr. Johnson, it was with the intention of taking ownership of the Bachegraig Estate which she had inherited after the death of her uncle, Sir John Salesbury. The tour was not without its ups and downs, and Johnson in particular did not entirely enjoy his time in North Wales, complaining that it afforded very little he could not have experienced elsewhere.
Hester was a Salesbury by birth, one of the most powerful and influential families in Wales, but her father was not terribly astute with money. Her marriage to the wealthy brewer, Henry Thrale allowed Hester to take her place in society, a place which a sharp wit and excellent education allowed her to take full advantage. Her friendship with Dr. Johnson resulted in letters which go somewhat to redressing the one sided view of the man gained from a reading of James Boswell's, ‘Life of Dr. Johnson’, while also painting a picture of a vibrant, intelligent and sometime caustic woman, who very much reminds one of earlier Salesburys. Johnson called her a rattlesnake, ‘for many have felt your venom, few have escaped your attractions, and all the world knows you have the rattle’. While Hester was often simply thought of as, ‘Dr. Johnson’s Mrs. Thrale’, she was far more than that, and her writing has been justly praised for its astuteness and vivacity.
On the death of Henry Thrale, Hester found herself with a fortune and considerable freedom. She was, at the age of forty still considered to be of marriageable age, and rather predictably, the papers gave full vent to any number of suggestions for a future husband. Even Dr. Johnson was mooted, much to Hester’s embarrassment and possibly one of the several causes of the break in their friendship. Much to everyone’s surprise, Hester married Gabriel Piozzi in 1784, a man she had come to know well since she had employed him as her daughter’s music teacher. In truth, she had probably been in love with him before the death of her husband, Henry, though nothing had come of it. She certainly respected him as a musician. Piozzi had had a leave of absence from London to play for Marie Antoinette, much to Hester’s chagrin, and she was pleased to have him back. There was scandal, of course, since Piozzi was poor, Italian and worst of all, Roman Catholic. Hester, however, was a Salesbury at heart, and would have little to do with those who shunned her and Gabriel. Indeed, she shunned them, leaving for Italy for a while. Johnson, who perhaps had designs on Hester himself, was horrified at the marriage, and told her in no uncertain terms how appalled he was. Their friendship was patched up a little before his death, but the relationship between Johnson and Hester never really healed to what it was before her marriage to Piozzi.
On the Piozzi’s return from Europe, they retired to a purpose built Palladian villa, Brynbella which they had built in 1794. There was no question of taking up residence at Bachegraig, since the place was neglected and near ruin. Gabriel spent heavily on restoring it, but perhaps because the building had always suffered a poor reputation, it was finally demolished in 1817. The name, ‘Brynbella’ was combination of the Welsh and Italian languages, translating as ‘Beautiful Hill’. It was designed by Clement Mead, and reused some of the materials from Bachegraig. Brynbella was built to remind the Piozzi’s of their time in Italy, and used much Portland Stone to do so. It is considered as one of the finest Georgian villas in Wales.
After Piozzi’s death, Hester remained at the heart of society, not retreating an inch from being the centre of things. She died in 1821, in Bristol and was buried by Piozzi at Corpus Christi Church at Tremerichion, near to Brynbella. In 1909, a marble was erected in the Church to her memory,
Near this place are interred the remains of
Hester Lynch Piozzi.
"Doctor Johnson's Mrs. Thrale"
Born 1741. Died 1821.
Witty. Vivacious and Charming. In an Age of Genius
She Ever Held a Foremost Place
This Tablet is Erected by Orlando Butler Fellowes
Grand-Son of Sir James Fellowes. The Intimate Friend of
Mrs. Piozzi and her Executor.
Assisted by Subscriptions
28th April 1909
After her death, Brynbella was inherited by her adopted son, Gabriel Piozzi’s nephew, the tiresomely named, John Salusbury Piozzi Salusbury, who threw away his inherited fortune in a number of ill-advised ventures. Brynbella drifted through the remains of the Salesbury family until Frederic Salusbury sold the estate due to its neglected state in 1920. Today it is a private residence, the gardens of which are open to visitors spring to summer.