The National Trust was not given the option to buy objects from Ickworth House by the Marquess of Bristol

Controversial stately sell-off


The Ickworth sale, to be held by Sotheby’s on 11-12 June, will disperse pictures and furniture that have been in the Marquess of Bristol’s family for over two centuries. It includes works of art that were sold off by the previous Marquess and then repurchased by his son.

Ickworth House, at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, was given to the National Trust in 1966 in lieu of death duties, together with the family’s greatest art treasures. Although the main part of the house, known as the Rotunda, is open to the public, the Marquess of Bristol’s family has continued to live in the east wing. All the items in the sale are from the private apartments, not the public rooms, and the one thousand lots are expected to raise well over £1 million.

When the Sixth Marquess moved from Ickworth to the south of France in 1975, he sold off some of the paintings and furniture. His son, John Hervey, was distressed by the sale and went to great lengths to repurchase these items at a cost of £2.6 million.

History now looks set to repeat itself, as John Hervey, now the Seventh Marquess, plans to sell off family art treasures that he himself bought twenty one years ago. A Sotheby’s spokesman explained that this month’s sale “follows the decision of the Marquess to spend more time abroad” (he enjoys Monte Carlo and the Bahamas). The Seventh Marquess is a controversial figure and has twice been imprisoned on cocaine charges.

Among the paintings being sold from Ickworth are a pair of Coronation portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte by Ramsay and studio (estimate £50,000-80,000). These were probably commissioned by the Second Earl of Bristol in 1766 to mark his appointment as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. Among the eighteenth-century family portraits are “Elizabeth Hervey, Countess of Bristol” by Kneller (£12,000-18,000) and “Lord John Hervey, Lord Privy Seal” by Van Loo (£20,000-30,000).

Pictures collected by the Fourth Earl of Bristol during his European travels in the late eighteenth century are also included in the sale. These are mainly sixteenth and seventeenth-century. Among the furniture being sold is a pair of mahogany chests of drawers commissioned in 1827 by the First Marquess and specially made for the east wing by royal cabinet-makers Banting and France (estimate £4,000-£6,000).

Three years ago the National Trust bought two paintings from the Seventh Marquess. These were Hugh Hamilton’s “The Earl-Bishop of Bristol and Derry seated before a prospect of Rome” and Jacob More’s “Landscape with classical figures” which were purchased for a total of £200,000 with help from the National Art Collections Fund.

Relations between the Seventh Marquess and the National Trust have become very strained, particularly following an attempt to evict him from the east wing two years ago. The Art Newspaper has been informed that discussions are now under way that could lead to the Marquess agreeing to vacate the private apartments, although he still has sixty-four years of the lease remaining. If the National Trust takes over the east wing it would be unlikely to open it to the public, but the extra space would enable it to move offices and other facilities from the Rotunda, allowing more of the house to be opened up.

The National Trust was not offered the opportunity to buy paintings or furniture prior to this month’s sale. However, the Trust is expected to try to acquire some of the works which have particularly strong links with Ickworth.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Controversial stately sell-off'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 60 June 1996