For hundreds of years the political power of a country house was in the ownership of the house, and most importantly the estate – acreage equated with power even if the land was mortgaged to the hilt. The paintings or furniture which furnish these houses were not only decorative but assets which were easy to sell off when financial circumstances demanded that money be raised. An upcoming sale at Christies highlights how this is still the case today – even if the strength of the art market means that fewer works now need to be sold to raise the totals required.
Althorp House in Northamptonshire has famously been the home of the Spencer family since the 16th-century and sits in a 14,000-acre estate. The family fortune was founded in livestock and commodities which enabled John Spencer to purchase the red-brick Tudor house at Althorp in 1522. It was this house which the 2nd Earl Spencer commissioned the architect Henry Holland to modernise in 1787-89, encasing it in white brick and tiles and remodelling the interior to create the grade-I listed house we see today. The Spencer family then built up their connections becoming politically influential but also extensive art collectors.
Today, Althorp is in the middle of a £10m project to put the house on a sound structural footing. One major task, along with repairing the ornate stonework and the external tiles, is to fix the roof – an undertaking which is taking nine months and requires over 50-tonnes of lead. Globalisation means that commodity prices have been rising strongly on the back of growing demand from countries such as China meaning the cost of the project has proved too great to be borne through income. So the 9th Earl Spencer has been forced to put a selection of art, considered ‘non-core’ to the collection by the trustees, up for auction. However, the flip side to globalisation is the massive wealth creation and more well-funded collectors chasing the best works. In this case, the quality of the paintings and the robust prices being achieved at recent auctions, it is possible to raise enough money with just a few works.
The highlight is ‘A Commander Being Armed for Battle‘ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens which is expected to fetch between £8-12m which should cover the restoration bill for the house with the other works, including ‘King David‘ by the Italian Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino, providing some financial breathing space. Ironically, the current Earl publicly criticised his stepmother for selling off four van Dycks and a Stubbs in the 1970s and 80s but this time the difference is that the proceeds will be re-invested in the house and estate rather than just simply for running costs. It’s a fact of life that ownership of a country house is a constant battle against physical deterioration and with grant aid from the public bodies in such short supply it is unfortunately the artistic heritage which is once again being sacrificed to ensure that the family seat remains intact.
Full story: ‘On their uppers: The great aristocratic art sell-off‘ [The Independent]
Auctioneers: Christies – The Spencer House sale will be on 8 July 2010.