The collections of the Spencer family have always been celebrated. Over the years, however, they have suffered some high-profile depletions, as spectacular masterpieces were sold off to meet the growing expenses of the great houses the family owned at Althorp in Northamptonshire, Spencer House in London, and at Wimbledon, Harlestone (Northamptonshire) and Wormleighton (Warwickshire). Holbein’s sole known autographed portrait of Henry VIII was sold through Agnew’s to Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza in 1935 for £10,000, and Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus was acquired by Norton Simon for a princely 760,000 guineas at Christie’s in 1965. Less familiar, but no less damaging, were the discreet sales that took place in the 1980s, after the 8th Earl Spencer had suffered a stroke and when his second wife, Raine, was chatelaine of Althorp. Charles Spencer, now 9th Earl, has estimated that between his father’s re-marriage in 1976 and his death in 1992, some 20 per cent of Althorp’s contents were sold.
What went were virtually all the religious paintings and many a Baroque mythology, and much else – from Castiglione, Guido Reni and Van Dyck to Salvator Rosa and Stubbs. The solid gold Marlborough ice pails, probably unique in English goldsmithing, are now in the British Museum; the Althorp Archive went to the British Library, as did Henry Holland’s architectural designs for the house. Some works even left Althorp’s back doors in laundry baskets, Charles Spencer reports in Althorp: The Story of an English House. An appropriate means of transport, he quips grimly, since his family was being taken to the cleaners by London’s art trade.
Any object or work of art offered discreetly for fear of publicity or without mention of its impressive provenance would, of course, have raised a fraction of its real commercial value. As for the contents of the cellars, and the fireplaces, baths, garden ornaments and the like long removed from other Spencer properties, they were “cleared out by the lorryload”.
So the news that the Trustees of Althorp Estate are now offering more works of art from the Spencer collections at Christie’s, staged in three sales over three days (July 6-8), has prompted a degree of wonder. Can there be anything “superfluous” left to sell, and why is it being sold? The answer to the latter is the usual one. Raine Spencer lavished a fortune – around £2m – on a redecoration scheme which gave the house, as her stepson puts it, “the wedding-cake vulgarity of a five-star hotel in Monaco”, but little thought was given to the plumbing or the like. After taking the reins, the current Earl Spencer began a £10m re-roofing and restoration project, including a new decorative scheme more sympathetic to the house’s fine period interiors. The anticipated £20m raised by the sales will also allow further investment in the estate and security for its future.
It requires an effort of the imagination to consider how any great work of art can be regarded as “superfluous” in a large house, but it has to be admitted that the Spencers have more than most. The Hon John Spencer was the favourite of his grandmother, Sarah Jennings, dowager Duchess of Marlborough, and on her death in 1744 he inherited from her estates in 12 counties: significant chattels ended up at Althorp. These make up the lion’s share of July’s offerings, along with works of art that are not considered part of the house’s core 18th-century collection.
Rubens’ imposing “A Commander Being Armed for Battle” – or is he being disarmed by his pages? – is a tour de force that was at Althorp by 1802. The panel, executed some time in the 1610s, offers a bravura handling of paint as well as a psychological study of character and courage tempered by tender feeling (note the ungloved hand resting on the page’s shoulder). It is one of two Spencer works to be offered at Christie’s on July 6 (estimate £8m-£12m). The other is Guercino’s monumental “King David” of 1651.
Like most of the finest Spencer treasures on offer in July, this picture of David as the wise Old Testament prophet and king comes from Spencer House, the ambitious London palace built by the 1st Earl in 1759-65, which lays claim to the earliest and most important neo-classical interiors in Britain. In fact, along with its pendant, a prophetess, “The Samian Sybil”, it was bought specifically to hang in Althorp’s Great Room, and both were given the grandest of carved and gilded frames designed by the architect, James “Athenian” Stuart, to match the mouldings of the doorcases and window surrounds.
David sits supporting a stone slab carved, like an epitaph of some ancient monument, with a line from one of the psalms traditionally attributed to him, which was seen as foretelling the coming of the Messiah. While the Sybil remains at Althorp, this thoughtful, calm King David, an outstanding late Guercino, comes to the block with expectations of £5m-£8m – sadly, the pair is to be split.
The 1st Earl and Countess Spencers’ pioneering passion for antiquity and its revival, orchestrated for them by Stuart, is further revealed in Christie’s Spencer House sale on July 8 with a pair of ormolu three-light candelabra (£150,000-£250,000) and a giltwood torchère, both almost certainly designed by Stuart, the latter estimated at £40,000-£60,000. From the celebrated Palm Room come a glorious pair of giltwood stools, probably designed by John Vardy and carved by his brother Thomas, their scrolling arms wrapped in palm fronds (£200,000-£300,000).
Seat furniture steals the furniture show here, with the likes of a set of 12 fabulous carved mahogany dining chairs probably designed by John Vardy for the Great Eating Room (£600,000-£1m) and two pairs of sabicu and lime “Athenian” Stuart armchairs (£200,000-300,000 a pair). French furniture, including a £2.5m-4m Saunier lacquer commode and encoignures, is also offered, along with silver, porcelain and Garter jewels.
What is likely to capture the wider public’s imagination are the 700 lots drawn from the Althorp attics and presented at Christie’s South Kensington on July 7 and 8, everything from old ice skates and copper jelly moulds to liveries and portrait miniatures. And, of course, the Spencer carriages, the most impressive 19th-century aristocratic family collection to survive. They were moved from Althorp when the Princess Diana exhibition was installed in the stable block in 1998. Even after the losses, visitors to the house will still see one of the finest private art collections in Britain.
The Althorp Attic sale and the Spencer House sale, July 6-8, www.christies.com