The Lost Rooms: the sale of architectural salvages to America

Having just spent two weeks touring the west coast of the United States, one great pleasure has been visiting the various art museums to see some of the wonderful paintings which the immensely wealthy collectors of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries acquired at a time when many of our country houses were in crisis. Sadly, in so many cases, the sales were a precursor to the complete loss of the house, with over 1,400 houses demolished since 1900.  However, it is still possible to see a fragment of these grand homes as the demolitions fuelled an impressive transatlantic trade in architectural salvage which included entire rooms. The whereabouts of many of these are now unknown – but they do sometimes reappear in surprising places…

Cannons, Middlesex (Image: Vitruvius Brittanicus / wikipedia) - engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739)
Cannons, Middlesex (Image: Vitruvius Brittanicus / wikipedia) - engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739)

This post and the entire subject of country house architectural salvage owes an immense debt to the historian John Harris who has been chronicling these losses since he first started exploring country houses in the grim era following World War II. Of course, the trade had been going for many years: Nonsuch Palace, in Surrey, was deliberately sold for its materials in 1682, Cannons, in Middlesex, the seat of the Duke of Chandos was stripped and sold in 1747 after his death, and the once impressive Wanstead House, Essex, was similarly dismembered and sold to pay the debts of the spendthrift husband of the heiress in 1824. The plundering of rooms as part of the spoils of war by a conquering army has also happened throughout history with perhaps the most famous room taken also one of the greatest mysteries; no-one has seen the famed Amber Room from the Catherine Palace, just outside St Petersburg, since the German army meticulously removed it in 1941.

The country house room salvage trade takes off when, just as Europe is facing an agricultural slump which disproportionately affected landowners, the immensely wealthy industrial titans in the US were flexing their wallets to acquire collections which would become their legacies.  In the UK, as the situation worsened, so the familiar pattern of contents sales started with pictures and other artworks being discreetly sold.  Often many of these works were acquired by US collectors such as Frick, Mellon, Carnegie, Kress, amongst others, often on the enthusiastic encouragement of dealers such as Joseph Duveen.  However, to display the art required the right setting, and so an industry grew up to satisfy a voracious demand for authentic rooms – even if the rooms weren’t identical by the time they arrived.  Later, museums were also looking for rooms in which to provide context for their collections of furniture and art.

The Lawrence Room, Boston Museum of Fine Arts - de-accessioned 1930 (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)
The Lawrence Room, Boston Museum of Fine Arts - de-accessioned 1930 (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)

John Harris identifies the first stirrings of the transatlantic trade with the sale in 1876 of a supposedly ‘Jacobethan’ room to a Mrs Timothy Lawrence, which was incorporated into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Harris next highlights the reference, in November 1897, in the sales/stock records of the famous Duveen family of art and antiques dealers of a ‘large Louis 14 Style Brown & Gold Room‘ ‘delivered free New York‘ for Mrs William C. Whitney which cost $10,000.  By the early 1900s, adverts were appearing in Country Life magazine and the Connoisseur listing entire rooms or just the parts; chimneypieces being a popular offering.  Building on the still lingering Victorian fashion for anything Elizabethan and Jacobean, dealers competed to offer the most choice rooms from the houses being demolished at the time.  One of the largest dealers, Robersons, were boasting in 1906 of having ‘100 Old Marble Mantelpieces in Stock‘, whilst Druce & Co had 5,000 feet of old panelling.  Books such Charles Latham’s ‘In English Homes‘ fuelled the fascination with these periods – perhaps even spurring on the demolition of some houses by creating a demand for the materials, and making it easier for the owners to decide to demolish.  As the architect John Swarbrick, founder of the Ancient Monuments Society, argued in 1928, ‘history adds commercial value to buildings’.

This desire for ancient association led some dealers to be somewhat generous in their attributions of the architects or owners involved.  The dealers Robersons were particularly apt at indulging in this type of misattribution, often assigning provenance with little or no research.  Another firm, Gill & Reigate, were being quietly accused of fabricating rooms as early as 1926.

Advert for the Staircase from Cassiobury House with Edwards & Co (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)
Advert for the Staircase from Cassiobury (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)

However, the finest pieces were often were those with a clear provenance, usually from a celebrated dispersal or demolition auction such as that of Cassiobury House near Watford or Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire.  The urban growth of Watford has spoiled the estate at Cassiobury and so it was gutted in 1922, leading to the sale and dispersal, via French & Co, of one of the finest sets of Grinling Gibbons carvings in the country, including the impressive staircase.  Hamilton Palace, seats of the Dukes of Hamilton, was one of the most impressive houses in the country – and one of the greatest losses.  Built on coal wealth, it was also its literal undermining with subsidence (but also it’s vast size) leading to its demolition following huge sales in 1919 which not only released huge quantities of art and antiques but also of material.

Although there were many buyers, the most voracious – and possibly indiscriminate – was William Randolph Hearst; publishing magnate and heir to a mining fortune which reputedly gave him an annual income of $15m.  Although disliked by dealers for his lack of taste (something Joseph Duveen was particularly sensitive to), the value of his spending meant that they beat a path to his door despite his sometimes difficult behaviour.  In one case, having bought the staircase from Hamilton Palace via French & Co, he returned it to them no less than three times – but as he had spent $8m with them they were willing to be indulgent.  A network of agents throughout Europe sent him a daily stack of catalogues and flyers which he would eagerly read before dispatching orders for purchases.  These would then be shipped to his five-storey warehouse which occupied a whole New York block and was dedicated to his acquisitions and employed a staff of 30.  European purchases were mainly installed at San Simeon in California, but 50 English medieval salvages were installed at St Donat’s Castle in Wales which he bought without seeing and in which he only spent one night. In New York, he occupied five floors of a mansion block, creating a vast home which housed yet more salvage and art.  Almost inevitably, Hearst’s spending caused financial difficulties leading to a badly timed sale of many items in 1941 through the Gimbel Brothers department store in New York – though much remains even today in that warehouse which is still owned by the Hearst Corporation, who sadly refuse access to researchers (and if anyone knows someone who can get me in there I would happily make the trip to New York!). The scale of Hearst’s acquisitiveness is astounding and I’ll probably revisit it later in a separate post.

Inlaid Chamber, Sizergh Castle, Northumberland (Image: NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel)
Inlaid Chamber, Sizergh Castle, Northumberland (Image: NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel)

Sadly, like a tide coming in, which swept so many items and rooms into houses and museums in the States, so it also retreated and they also were removed, sometimes to vanish, their present whereabouts unknown.  Museums began quietly de-accessioning some rooms when they discovered that they perhaps weren’t as authentic and accurate as they had been led to believe.  Sometimes it was a positive thing; that sense of place being the greater concern leading to restitutions such as the Inlaid Chamber from Sizergh Castle (now National Trust) which was removed to the V&A Museum in 1891 and returned in 1999. One rare success for a Hearst purchase was that of the Dining Room from Gwydir Castle in Wales which was returned – having never been unpacked – in 1996 (the story is wonderfully told in ‘Castles in the Air‘ written by the then owner).

Perhaps it’s a little harsh to call the rooms lost if they have only been moved but to take a room from its original context is to lose something of the intrinsic value of it as part of an architectural whole. That said, it could also be argued that they were being rescued as, when the houses were demolished, fittings which couldn’t be sold were sometimes burnt – John Harris recalls seeing a beautiful staircase from Burwell Park in Lincolnshire being put on a bonfire in 1957.  Yet, so much of what was bought is still out there – particularly the items acquired by Hearst.  Which leads me to my own personal discovery in a bar in San Francisco; if you are ever in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, do visit ‘Jack’s Bar‘ in The Cannery where you will be standing in the former Long Gallery of Albyns, an elegant Jacobean house built c.1587.  It was demolished in 1954 but which had been gutted earlier with the gallery bought by Hearst but sold in the mid-1960s and given a new life – though not an elegant one.

Long Gallery, Albyns - now Jack's Bar, San Francisco (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Long Gallery, Albyns - now Jack's Bar, San Francisco (Image: Matthew Beckett)

So these rooms, once the centrepieces of some of our finest country houses, have been extracted and shipped around the world but particularly to America where, although they were initially often fully appreciated, now they may languish, unremarked and more worryingly unknown, vulnerable to just being dumped as though simple room decoration.  So, if you know of a Hearst room installed in a house or museum (and I’d be particularly grateful to my many American readers) then please do post a comment or email me and we’ll try and make sure that these wonderful expressions of the craftsman’s art are not forgotten and lost forever.

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If you would like to see some of the rooms and items then below is a small list of museums where these items are being exhibited (thanks to Andrew for help with the research):

New YorkMetropolitan Museum of Art

PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia Museum of Art

BostonMuseum of Fine Arts

MinneapolisInstitute of Arts

  • Tudor Room‘ – unconfirmed, possibly Higham Manor House, Suffolk

Louisville – J.B. Speed Art Museum

Amherst, Massachusetts – Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

Washington DC – Freer Gallery of Art

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Find out more – some recommended further reading