Sutton Place, the Tudor manor house near Guildford, south of London, once owned by a string of great art collectors, is up for sale for £25 million. It has most recently belonged to Frederick Koch, the American oilman and enthusiast for nineteenth century paintings who is selling because of a change in US tax laws.
The house is currently run by a US-registered charitable foundation which is funded by an interest-free loan from Mr Koch. Such loans are now taxed, and his spokesman explained that the cost of running Sutton Place has become “prohibitive”—despite the fact that Mr Koch is worth an estimated £400 million.
Built in 1521, Sutton Place was in the Weston family for four centuries and their portraits still line the main staircase. In 1919 the family sold the house to the Fifth Duke of Sutherland, the owner of the Stafford House collection of Old Masters. The Fifth Duke lived at Sutton Place for forty years, but since then it has belonged to a succession of three Americans—all of them oil barons and all art collectors.
John Paul Getty bought Sutton Place in 1959 for £60,000. It was there that the billionaire installed his famous pay-telephone for guests, with a prominent enamelled sign “Public telephone” (sadly, this piece of history was never treated as a fixture or fitting in the listed building and has been removed). Mr Getty’s art collection was scattered around the house. He hung Rubens’s “Diana and her nymphs” in the Great Hall, portraits by Gainsborough and Batoni in the Library, and Raphael’s “Madonna of Loreto” next to a trio of Renoirs in his bedroom.
Mr Getty died at Sutton Place in 1976 and four years later Getty Oil sold the property to Stanley J. Seeger. He too was an American, and although he was secretive about his wealth, his money is believed to have come from oil. Seeger was rather more open about his art, and critics described his collection as eclectic. He put his Bacon triptych in the Great Hall, opposite a seventeenth-century Brussels tapestry. Dotted around the house were Cézanne’s “Au Jas de Bouffan”, a Monet, abstracts by Alan Davie, Moore bronzes, pre-Columbian art, Indian temple carvings and African sculptures. Seeger was also responsible for some of the unfortunate “improvements” to the interior decoration, including a glass-fibre Tudor-style ceiling.
In 1982 Mr Seeger leased the house to Frederick Koch, who purchased it four years later for £8 million. This followed Mr Koch’s abortive attempt to acquire St John’s Lodge in Regent’s Park, which he had hoped to use as a gallery to display his art collection. The St John’s Lodge project was eventually blocked in 1986, after planning permission was refused on conservation grounds. Mr Koch then spent a further £12 million on the refurbishment of Sutton Place, assisted by designer Rodney Melville.
Unusually for a private house, Sutton Place now boasts no fewer than eight specially-designed watercolour galleries. Mr Koch bought an interior from Prinknash Park Abbey in Gloucestershire, which had been acquired by the St Louis City Art Gallery and deaccessioned in 1987. This panelling has been incorporated into Sutton Place’s Prinknash Room. An antiquarian library has also been constructed, based on the library at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. Although Mr Koch has rented or owned Sutton Place for seventeen years, he has never actually spent a night there.
The Koch paintings are now set to leave Sutton Place. His great love is late nineteenth-century art, particularly Symbolism, and his masterpieces include Leighton’s “Syracusan bride”, as well as Burne-Jones’s portrait of Baronne Madeleine Deslandres. Works on paper by Burne-Jones, Arthur Rackham and William Heath Robinson hang in the watercolour galleries. Sadly, much of the sculpture, decorative art and furniture purchased by Mr Koch for Sutton House had been in store and was destroyed by the fire at the Bourlet art warehouse in 1991.
Sutton Place’s garden has also been turned into a work of art. It includes the Surreal Walk, inspired by Magritte: a path of diminishing width (giving a false perspective) runs alongside a series of monumental urns from Mentmore. The Nicholson Garden, originally designed by Gertrude Jekyll and modified by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, includes an expanded version of the artist’s “White relief” of 1938, which reflects into a pool.
So who will become the new master of Sutton Place? Richard Denny, of London agents Cluttons Daniel Smith, anticipates interest from other art collectors. The house currently has planning permission for “the display, study, storage and conservation of art, literature and sculpture and to conduct seminars on related subjects with access for members of the public”, although permission would probably be granted for single residential use. Is there a fourth American oil baron with a taste for art?
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Room for another American art lover'