Portrait of Cardiff retail legend unveiled in Mansion House

For more than 150 years, James Howell’s department store on St Mary Street was synonymous with the best retail experience Cardiff could offer.

The ambitious Pembrokeshire-born draper established his business in the city in 1865, building it up into a sprawling family-run concern based in a magnificent building that could rival anything London had to offer.

But did you know that Howell made his mark on Cardiff in another way? He built a magnificent double-fronted house on Richmond Road as a family home, for his wife and children. Originally called The Grove, it was bought by the old Cardiff Corporation in 1912 and a year later was officially opened as the Mansion House – the official residence of the Lord Mayors of the city.

While the Mansion House today is used by the Lord Mayor to host civic functions, James Howell’s link to the Grade II-listed property has now been officially recognised thanks to the donation of his portrait.

The painting, by noted Victorian artist Parker Hagarty, once hung in the offices of Howell’s store but when the store – by then rebranded as House of Fraser – closed in March 2023 it was given to the council in the hope it would be hung in his old home.

Today, two former employees of the store – Martin Hunt and Susan Trepleton – were on hand to see the painting unveiled officially by the current Lord Mayor, Cllr Bablin Molik, who said: “I’m thrilled that we have this evocative painting to hang at the Mansion House to remind us of James Howell’s achievements – not just in establishing a great department store we all remember fondly but also in building this wonderful mansion in the heart of Cardiff.

“It’s clear from talking to those who worked at Howell’s how fondly people remember their time there and that the ethos James Howell created left an impression on staff right until it closed last year.”

Susan Trepleton, who worked as a sales assistant at the store for 17 years and took staff on history walks around the building, has written a book about the store and the owner. “When James Howell built the store in the 1860s the staff lived in accommodation on the top floors,” she said. “They had to live by strict rules – they had to be in by 9pm every night, there was no smoking in the rooms, they couldn’t clean their shoes in the rooms or leave the gas lights on.

“He was certainly a disciplinarian but kind of heart, too,” she added. “His wife, Fanny Logan, was a shop girl he met while he was building up his career and together they built The Grove in 1896 and, with the help of a retinue of servants, raised a family there.

“This portrait was still in the shop when it closed in 2023 and I’m thrilled that it’s now hanging in the Mansion House and everyone who sees it can appreciate what he did for Cardiff.”