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Ellis, son of Thomas Ellis, by Elizabeth Ordway of Barkway, Hertfordshire, was born at Oundle, Northamptonshire, in July 1790, and after receiving a good education came to London. In 1812 he became a haberdasher, hosier, and mercer at 16 Ludgate Street, city of London, where he gradually created the largest silk business in London, adding house to house as opportunity occurred of purchasing the property around him, and passing from the retail to a wholesale business in 1830. After his retirement in 1871 his firm assumed the title of John Howell & Co.
In 1831 he withdrew his candidature for the aldermanic ward of Castle Baynard to contest the parliamentary representation of Leicester. As an advanced liberal he sat for Leicester from 4 May 1831 to 29 December 1834 and again from 22 March 1839 to 23 July 1847. He was an advocate for the total repeal of the corn laws, of free trade generally, of reform in bankruptcy, and of greater freedom in the law of partnership. In the committees of the House of Commons he exercised considerable influence. He was a Justice of the Peace both for Hertfordshire and Kent, and was pricked to serve as sheriff for the latter county, but was excused in consideration of his having discharged corresponding duties for Hertfordshire in 1851–2.
He purchased the manor of Ponsborne Park, Hertfordshire, in 1836, but sold it in May 1875. He also owned Tankerton Tower, near Canterbury. He had an intense dislike of betting, horseracing, and gambling, though he was a lover of other sports. He made an extensive collection of ancient and modern pictures, many of which are described in Waagen's Treasures of Art, ii. 293–8.
He married in 1814 Mary Maria, daughter of John Smith of Lincoln. She died in 1872, and was buried in a mausoleum designed by Charles Barry, and built in Whitstable churchyard. Near this her husband soon after erected almshouses to her memory.
He died at his residence, 30 Cadogan Place, Sloane Street, London on 20 November 1875 and was buried with his wife at Whitstable. By his will he left very numerous legacies to charitable and religious institutions, including £50,000 to the trustees of the Simeon Fund. His personalty was proved under £600,000 on 8 January 1876.
His Old Master pictures, 402 in number, he left to the English nation, but of these the trustees of the National Gallery selected only 44, which have since been exhibited as the Wynne Ellis collection. The remainder of these Old Masters, together with his modern pictures, watercolours, porcelain, decorative furniture, marbles, &c., were disposed of at Christie, Manson, & Wood's in five days' sale in May, June and July 1876, when the total proceeds were £56,098. 2s. 3d. In the sale of 6 May Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, was purchased by Thomas Agnew & Sons for £10,605. The Agnews exhibited the painting at their rooms, 39B Old Bond Street, London where, on the night of 26 May, the canvas was cut out and stolen. It was finally recovered in Chicago in 1901 and purchased by the American financier and collector J. Pierpont Morgan.
- Boase, G. C. (1888). "Ellis, Wynne (1790–1875), haberdasher and art collector". Dictionary of National Biography Vol. XVII. Smith, Elder & Co. Retrieved 2007-12-21.The first edition of this text is available as an article on Wikisource: "Ellis, Wynne". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- "Evicted from Eternity?" by Michael Hall, Country Life, 15 January 1998.