James Ellis Agar was the grandson of the first Earl, Charles Agar (1736 -1809), who took holy orders in 1763 and became chaplain to the then Viceroy of Ireland, the Duke of Northumberland. By 1768 Charles Agar was Bishop of Cloyne and by 1779 Archbishop of Cashel, a post he held for some 20 years before becoming the Archbishop of Dublin in 1801. During his successful ecclesiastical career he not only amassed an immense fortune of some [sterling]400,000 but also gained 3 temporal peerages. It was he who founded the family fortune. His son the 2nd Earl, Welbore Ellis Agar (1778 - 1868), added to this fortune, but is better remembered as a great connoisseur of art. The 3rd Earl, therefore, was fortunate in not only inheriting wealth but also a famous art collection. James Ellis Agar was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, and M. P. for Wilton (1841 - 1852). In 1873 he was created Baron Somerton of Somerley in the United Kingdom peerage.
One of the most interesting portions of the Normanton archives, and of great importance to the art historian, are the insurance lists of the art collections at the Earl's various houses. There are oils by Romney, Maclise, Reynolds, Ruysdael, and Gainsborough, among others. The inventories list both the name of the picture and the name of the artist as well as the appraised value. For example, from one "short term period policy" it is possible to determine that Normanton once owned Titian's Venus and Adonis, which was insured for [sterling]2,000 when sent to Haine, a picture restorer, at No. 8 Alfred Place. The files also reveal that Normanton, like his father, was a true connoisseur. In a note, under a picture titled Madonna and Child, he writes the following: "ascribed to Raphael, but really a very fine contemporary copy of Lord Cowper's picture at Panshanger. Mine probably by Andrea del Sarto." Thus even the Normanton "copies" were distinguished. Such files would be valuable to art historians in helping to establish the "provenance" of well known paintings as well as helping to document more fully the holdings of the once famous Normanton collection.
In addition, there is considerable material that deals with the various Normanton properties, particularly the management of his country seat at Somerley, Ringwood, Hampshire. Regarding this estate there are files on the leasing of Ringwood Mill; the establishing of a lumber company; the running of a salmon fishery; the building of an iron bridge over the river Avon on the Somerley estate; and other similar matters. In short, all the concerns of an owner of a large coutry estate are encompassed here. This is valuable source material for the historian of Hampshire county and the river Avon area.
Another property which is dealt with in detail is Normanton's Postland Estates in Lincolnshire. There is a large amount of documentation regarding a court action against an innkeeper (David Butler) for grazing his cows on what the authorities considered to be a public road. This Lord Normanton vigorously fought through his lawyers at the Boston Sessions in Spalding, saying that while the public had use of the Road, it was in fact his property and unlawful for a tenant to be arrested for grazing cattle on it. The authorities later dismissed the charges against Butler, apparently unwilling to engage in a lengthy legal battle over the issue. This is an interesting file for the legal historian.
The one other property documented at length is Normanton's town house at No. 7 Princes Gardens which he rented on a longterm lease and later purchased. This house faced on Onslow Road which is today called Exhibition Road, with the Victoria and Albert Museum at the end. There are detailed inventories, valuable to the cultural historian, listing fixtures and other belongings room by room. There are several watercolor sketches of the property lines, including a beautifully executed copy plan of 1857 regarding an exchange between the then owner, Sir Charles James Freake, and the Royal Commissioners for the exhibition of 1851.
Normanton was one of the trustees of his father, the 2nd Earl, along with the 3rd Earl Nelson (his brother-in-law) and the Earl of Powis. There are several letters by the former, the great-nephew of the famous Admiral on this topic as well as a substantial amount of trustee business such as accounts and related financial affairs. The 2nd Earl's will provided for a bequest of [sterling]100,000 to the Hon. H. [Harry] W. E. Agar, a subject of some concern to the trustees in that at one point Harry Agar could not be located and was last heard of in western Canada.
Lord Normanton spent considerable time over the division of his own estate. There are numerous copies of wills with codicils, from various stages of his life, and a large collection of correspondence with his solicitor, Mr. Procter, on this subject. There is one especially moving memo to Lady Normanton from Lord Normanton, dated 21 December, 1891 (Box 4, folder 5), stating that upon his death "upon no pretence is Lord Somerton [his eldest son and heir] to be allowed to take possession of any keys, papers, etc. belonging to me now or now at Somerley (in the strong room or elsewhere) or in Princes Gardens. ...Procter must be sent for ... on no account to let anything get into the hands of Lord S... Again, I repeat, send for Procter and put everything into his hands... Lord Somerton has a right to nothing and nothing belongs to him, except the heirlooms, and what is left to him by my will. There must be no misunderstanding on this matter, otherwise great trouble, difficulty and annoyance, to say nothing of great waste and expense will surely and certainly be the consequence." Normanton's concern was unnecessary as Lord Somerton predeceased him, dying in 1894, and the younger son, Sidney James Agar, succeeded to the Earldom after the 3rd Earl's death in 1896.