He Lived in a House, a Very Big House
Lucy Inglis on the demise of the English country-house sale, which for centuries not only sustained a secondary industry in fine art and brown furniture but also held a gilt-framed mirror up to the state and taste of the nation
THE BRITISH COUNTRY house sale is the stuff of legend. Dealers and collectors alike still talk of Mentmore, Shrublands, Benacre and Houghton. The provenance of the greatest pieces lists, tersely, the names not of owners but of the houses where they once resided.
These sales have changed significantly over the past century, reflecting changes in art-buying habits, as well as the changing fortunes and structure of British society. In the history of these events, millions of objects have been redistributed.
The latest of these — if not technically from a country house — was the sale of Mark Birley’s possessions, with their strong canine bent, from Thurloe Lodge at Sotheby’s in March, which fetched £3.9 million (well above the high estimate).
This grand tradition began in 1720 in London, with the Tart Hall sale of the Arundel Collection after the death of Henry Charles Howard. The sale was triggered by all three usual factors: dearth, death and divorce.
The sale was held on the premises, just south of Buckingham House (later Palace), and included in the sale were ‘A Knot of fine Rubies set in Gold, worn by Queen Elizabeth, sold for 27l.6s’, ‘A Dagger worn by King Henry the 8th, set with Jacynths in Gold sold at 43l.1s. bought by Sir Andrew Fontaine for the Prince’ and ‘Many other surprizing Curiosities and Rarities sold, the Particulars of which are too tedious to insert’.
Tart Hall was demolished soon after and the sale was not equalled until that of Fonthill Abbey, held by Christie’s, just over a century later.
Debt eventually did for William Beckford. In 1770, the ten-year-old William inherited a fortune of £1 million in cash, land at Fonthill in Wiltshire and four plantations in Jamaica.
Though fond of his wife, he was a frequenter of the Lincoln’s Inn boghouse and the parade grounds, where he looked for sexual diversion. He was complacent and, after a scandal, Beckford had no choice to but to take his wife and daughter to the continent. There he honed the collecting prowess that has won him fame with every generation of collectors since.
He returned home a widower and lived like a recluse at Fonthill, which he rebuilt as a vast Gothic pile, condemned by William Hazlitt as ‘a desert of magnificence, a glittering waste of laborious idleness’.
Yet Beckford’s art collection at Fonthill contained works by Raphael, Lippi, Bellini and Velazquez as well as early works from Turner and Blake. He began to run short of money, and in 1822 he put Fonthill and the contents up for sale. Christie’s printed over 70,000 copies of the catalogue and sold them for a guinea apiece.
Admission to the sale was by presentation of the catalogue only, and there was not a room to be had for miles around over the course of the sale. The beautiful, badly built Fonthill subsequently collapsed.
NINETY YEARS LATER, the first of the great 20th-century sales took place: that of Trentham Hall in Staffordshire, seat of the Marquess of Stafford. It was not only the contents that were auctioned off: in May 1912, Country Life carried an advertisement offering the balustrading and urns from the roof for £200.
The vast house was demolished after the sale, when the people of Stoke-on-Trent turned it down as a gift from the owner, thinking it too costly to keep up. A long agricultural depression meant that while expenses rose, rents and returns did not, and an income tax had been imposed upon investments, rather than a salary. Suddenly, a country house was not only a symbol of prestige, but a yoke around the incumbent’s neck.
The impact of the world wars on the British country house was substantial. Some were requisitioned and badly treated. Their owners often fared worse, with 800 titled men dying in the first sixteen months of the First World War. In 1916, Vanity Fair declared the aristocracy altered for ever. ‘The whole social fabric of Great Britain has been changed… When the boy dukes and earls grow up they will find their formerly important rank regarded as a quaint and curious survival of an ancient and outworn custom.’
Not only were the owners lost, but also the ranks of young men required to maintain the properties. In 1921, Jackson-Stops offered 3,700 lots from Stowe, Britain’s finest Palladian house with its magnificent Italianate collections. The release of massive amounts of fine objects, art and interiors on to the world market had begun in earnest.
BY THE END of the Second World War, few British country houses remained intact and occupied. Estate duty had been introduced in the mid-19th century, but it was used punitively to raise money for the war effort, lifted to 65 per cent in 1940 and then again at the end of the war. One of the largest houses, Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, admitted defeat and called in Sotheby’s in 1948, resulting in an on-site sale of more than 2,000 lots, with subsequent specialist sales of fine ceramics in London.
With the 1950s came a measure of financial recovery, and the new Britain saw a change in the social origin of the art buyer. Now, acquiring art was seen not so much as a lifestyle, but as a symbol of success. The remaining members of the ailing aristocracy were faced with the bleak reality of selling off the contents to eager buyers or selling up and getting out entirely.
Once stripped of their contents, the houses were no longer homes but expensive monuments to a faded past, and by 1955 five British country houses were demolished every week. The total loss over the course of the 20th century is over 1,000. Sale followed sale, the lots reflecting the interests of owners who had lived not only in another time, but another world. Each was billed as ‘the last great country house sale’. Goods flooded on to the market and the art and antiques trade boomed as the economy continued to flourish.
Then, in 1977, came one of the last true country house sales: Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire. Built by art connoisseur Baron Mayer de Rothschild as his country seat to house his collection, the house was finished in 1854. When the Earl of Rosebery, crippled by death duties, offered the house and the collection to the nation in the 1970s for £2 million, the Labour government refused it and demanded settlement.
The nine-day sale of the contents by Sotheby’s in 1977 raised £6 million. The contents included some of the finest art and objects of the past five centuries. Such was the embarrassment of riches and the time pressure that Sotheby’s employees turfed out what they regarded as domestic detritus such as invoices and monogrammed paper knives; local residents came with wheelbarrows to pick through it.
THE FASCINATION FOR the detritus of country houses has only grown since, and no country house sale is now complete without the inclusion of the attic’s most charming oddities, culminating in the Chatsworth Attic Sale of 2007, with just over 1,400 lots.
The appetite for Gosford Park and Downton Abbey drama has increased the appeal of country house domesticity, and whereas buyers would once have attended a house sale to buy a Fragonard or a Gainsborough or that final, elusive Delft armorial charger, now a worn and woodwormed greyhound is desirable simply because it is from Chatsworth.
The flow of goods, so rich and numerous for decades, began to dry up at the end of the 20th century, and so it was with glee that so many buyers heard of the Dumfries House sale. The house had been virtually untouched since 1800 and Christie’s was brought in, producing an exceptional catalogue pored over eagerly by trade and private buyers alike.
Then the house and its contents were saved for the nation in June 2007, a fortnight before the auction, by a consortium led by Prince Charles, making Dumfries House the great country house sale that never was.