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October 26, 2010updated 08 Jan 2016 5:46pm

When the Going Gets Toff

By Spear's

Ivan Lindsay on the current crop of aristocrats who are having to sell the family treasures in order to hang on to their stately piles
A SERIES OF sales of artworks over the past twelve months has drawn attention to the dire straits in which many of the once powerful aristocratic families find themselves.

Sellers have included: the Duke of Devonshire, who sold a £10 million bronze relief of Ugolino Imprisoned with His Sons and Grandsons (1549) by Pierino da Vinci, and who also held the Chatsworth Attic Sale in early October; Earl Spencer, who had a clear-out from Althorp at Christie’s in July totalling £21.1 million, which included Rubens’ portrait A Commander Being Armed for Battle (1614) at £9 million and Guercino’s King David (1651) at £5.2 million; Lord Rosebery, who sold his Turner of Campo Vaccino (1839) in July for £29.7 million to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; the Earl of Jersey, who sold his Van Dyck self-portrait (1640) last December for £8.3 million to Philip Mould in partnership with the Milwaukee collector and dealer Alfred Bader; the Earl of Wemyss and March, who recently sold his Saint Sebastian (1591), having previously parted with his Botticelli of The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (1490) to the National Galleries of Scotland in 1999 for £10.25 million; and Lord Northbrook, who in May finally managed to complete his 2006 sale of eight paintings to the Prince of Liechtenstein after an investigation by HMRC into the sale was dropped.

Lord Gerald Fitzalan Howard had a mixed sale from his vast Victorian Gothic house Carlton Towers in late 2009, commenting: ‘It will secure the house for the next 100 years,’ while observing of his roof: ‘There’s something like a third of an acre of lead up there, 80 tons’ worth.’ The family intend to use the proceeds to expand their hospitality business and pointed out that opening up the house to corporate events, shoots and weddings meant that many of the items were at risk from staff and guests who didn’t realise their value. Indeed, Lady Gerald noted, ‘The ebonised cabinets only ended up with waitresses putting coffee cups on them. They were a dumping ground.’

Some owners have been amazed at what the gimlet-eyed auction room staff have managed to unearth. The Duke of Bedford, whose grandfather was a pioneer in the country house industry when he opened Woburn Abbey to the public in the 1950s, sold some items in December 2009, including a Seated Nymph (1503) sculpture by Antico which went for £1.3 million. The duke said he had been surprised that a ‘dull, small bronze’ could be worth that much, adding: ‘I knew where it sat, but I have to admit I have never picked it up and looked at it under a light and said, “That’s spectacular.” I was staggered to hear the estimate.’

Although most owners of stately homes try to put a brave face on the situation, talking of sales in terms of reallocating capital towards income-producing assets, privately they admit that the situation is difficult. Edward Harley, president of the Historic Houses Association, which campaigns for tax breaks for its membership, says its 1,500 members are struggling to pay for ‘a maintenance backlog of £260 million, which is basically to keep the roof on and keep the properties weatherproof and watertight, and I believe the backlog is growing. Clearly it’s not a sustainable position and our research shows that a quarter of major house repairs are being funded by works of art.’

Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund, which raises and distributes funds to try to save artworks for the nation, believes the rash of selling is ‘a combination of a difficult economic climate for owners plus a buoyant art market at the top end, an unusual combination’. While it is true that the aristocracy have been hit by the credit crunch as hard as any group, with a depressed farming sector, stock-market losses and falling visitor numbers, their current difficulties are nothing new and they have been selling consistently since their decline started in the 1880s. The few families who have survived intact, mainly those with extensive London property holdings such as the Westminsters, Cadogans and Portmans, show the extent of the decline of the rest.


UNTIL THE LAST quarter of the 19th century, 7,000 families, described by the author David Cannadine (The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, Vintage, 1990) as a ‘tough, tenacious and resourceful elite’, owned four-fifths of the land of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

The land provided a huge income in the form of rents, agriculture and mining. The leading families had incomes c. 1880 of: Westminster (£290,000), Buccleuch (£232,000), Bedford (£225,000), Devonshire (£181,000), Northumberland (£176,000) and Derby (£163,000). The broad acreage of the leading owners such as Buccleuch (232,000 acres) and Sutherland (1,358,545 acres) was on a scale unequalled except perhaps in Eastern Europe with the Esterhazy, Liechtenstein and Schwarzenberg dynasties in Austria-Hungary and the Yusupov and Sheremetev families in Russia.

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It had been that way since the Middle Ages, when William the Conqueror divided up England between his men after his victory at Hastings in 1066, and Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century had taken the Church’s 20 per cent of the British landmass into private ownership.

Land ownership was the key to political power through seats in the Lords and Commons and social prestige through the vast incomes that allowed for London palaces (such as Dorchester, Grosvenor, Spencer, Dudley, Bridgewater, Portman, Wimborne and Apsley Houses) and county seats full of art (including Chatsworth, Woburn Abbey, Blenheim Palace, Longleat, Castle Howard, Hatfield, Petworth and Knole). David Cannadine sums it up: ‘These people had leisure, confidence, experience and expertise: they had time to govern.Their offspring, particularly second and third sons, filled the upper ranks of the army, the Church and the civil service, making these an outwork of patrician power.’

However, after 1880, an unfortunate series of historical forces began to converge. A worldwide decline in agricultural prices diminished the income from the estates at the same time as an increase in democratisation extended the vote to the urban masses. First the Gladstone ministries of the 1880s extended the franchise to 60 per cent of the male electorate, and later the Land campaigns of Lloyd George before the First World War culminated in higher taxes for landowners and higher wages for labourers.

During the First World War the aristocracy, who had always been a warrior class, signed up with relish and set off for the front with a sense of adventure. Julian Grenfell, who ‘loved fighting’, found it ‘the best fun one ever dreamed of’, and Harold Alexander called it a ‘terrific adventure’, regretting that with the armistice ‘all good things’ came to an end. However, sadly, by the end of 1914, the glamour had gone and six peers, sixteen baronets, 95 sons of peers and 82 sons of baronets had been killed, their losses being proportionally much higher than any other group.

During the subsequent fighting there was hardly an aristocratic family who did not lose a member, and one in five volunteers from this group died. In 1916 Lord Rosebery wrote: ‘The fountain of tears is nearly dry. One loss follows another till one is dazed.’

With their families decimated, their estates becoming uneconomic and a series of left-wing governments raising taxes against them, they started selling millions of acres. Soon the art followed and then they began to demolish the London town houses and the country houses. By 1939, some 250 mansions had been pulled down.

An increase in merit-based competition, professionalism, specialisation and expertise and a rise in the status of businessmen kept aristocrats out of the Commons, and their names no longer guaranteed entry into the Church, army or civil service. Through the 1930s and 1940s some tried to re-create their positions in colonies such as Kenya, while others drifted aimlessly around the Côte d’Azur. Lloyd George commented with satisfaction that their place in history would be ‘like the scent on a pocket handkerchief’.
LUCKILY THE aristocracy always understood the value of art and, when they were riding high, they diversified into artworks, filling their houses in London and the country. Selling this art sustained them through difficult times and it is what little is left of these once considerable holdings that is keeping them afloat today. The art selling started to accelerate from the 1880s.

In 1878 the Munros of Novar sold their Turners and Old Masters for £100,000 and later their Raphael Madonna for a great deal more. The Duke of Hamilton sold the entire contents of Hamilton Palace in July 1882, with the 2,213 lots achieving £397,562. The Duke of Marlborough sold his jewellery and Old Masters from Blenheim Palace in 1886. Major sales followed from the likes of Lord Dudley, the Spencers, the Duke of Fife, the Duke of Norfolk, and in 1904 the Marquess of Anglesey sold the entire contents of Beaudesert and Anglesey castle, which included jewelled walking sticks, paste diamonds and silken nightshirts.

Between the wars and after the Second World War, the art sales only accelerated. Despite their volunteering once again to fight in the Second World War, Denis Healey said at the Labour Party conference of May 1945: ‘The upper classes in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent,’ echoing a political view that has been maintained through the meritocratic era of Mrs Thatcher and the Labour governments of Tony Blair.

Thus the aristocracy have faded from public life, business life and even the gossip columns. Living on the edge of extinction, they are left with portraying themselves as the custodians of their shrinking share of the national heritage, and the recent rash of art sales should be seen in its historical perspective rather than as a new phenomenon.

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