Inside the Art Market-Invisible

Inside the Art Market: Invisible

This sale of the principal contents of Sutton Brailes Manor is being conducted on instructions from the Treasury Solicitor, the owner, the reclusive Mrs. Dorothea Allen, having died intestate. No next of kin has been traced, despite a nationwide search, and Mrs. Allen’s life remains shrouded in mystery.

—Introduction to Sotheby’s Catalogue, 4th September 1990

When I first read these words in the Sotheby’s catalogue for the sale of furniture, pictures and decorations from a lovely but otherwise unremarkable manor house in Warwickshire, I couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of the phrase “shrouded in mystery.” It seemed so unusual in this context.

After all, auction sales like this of the contents of an English country house are most often drenched in social and personal history. They exalt in family legends and fox-hunting tales, of fortunes made and lost, with grainy old period photographs and flowing family trees provided in the catalogue to further excite the reader’s imagination.

Only last year Bonhams in London offered the contents of Glyn Cywarch, the ancient country home of the illustrious Lord Harlech, better known as David Ormsby-Gore, who was Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. during the Kennedy years. He later proposed marriage to Jackie Kennedy, who turned him down and shortly thereafter married Aristotle Onassis. The Bonhams sale catalogue offered an electrifying trove of the Kennedy-Harlech correspondence, highlighted by a draft of Lord Harlech’s “wounded response to her rejection of the proposal.” It was the star lot of the entire sale!

The introductory essays in such catalogues as this are thus often steeped in reveries of a glorious and melodramatic past, perhaps one extending back many centuries. Often a lady or gentleman of title will be asked to pen such an essay, thus adding further pomp and prestige to the story of this or that ancient English family and their collections.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s can perhaps even take credit for inventing these potted tributes as a distinct literary genre.

Take, for example, this stirring snippet of history from the first lines of the Christie’s catalogue for the sale of selected furniture, decorations and drawings from the fortress-like Raby Castle in County Durham, which took place on-site in October 1994:

Although Raby has been the seat of the Vanes since 1646 when it was purchased by Sir Henry Vane the Elder, the family preferred to live at the ancient ancestral home of Fairlawn in Kent, which, being nearer to London, facilitated their careers as Members of Parliament and courtiers.

Browsing through the Christie’s sale catalogue, it is easy to see why the illustrious Vane family had decamped to their ancestral home in Kent. For Raby Castle must have been a damp and freezing nightmare, jammed to the rafters with torn and tattered furniture, with endless jumbles of cast-off porcelain and pottery stacked on rickety, knocked-together cupboards. In terms of homey comfort of the sort we esteem today, it perhaps offered none.

Still, the catalogue was a fascinating documentation of a lifestyle long past. Here were things like architectural fittings, damask curtains, plain brown furniture of various periods and more intriguing items like Regency toilet-mirrors, William IV pole-screens and Edwardian plant stands. I was particularly fascinated by a “Victorian Electrical Plate Machine,” whatever that might be, which commanded its very own page in the catalogue. Affixed to it was a label from its maker, I&W Watkins Optical Mathematical and Philosophical Instrument Makers, Charing Cross Road, a firm that once flourished but is now undoubtedly extinct.

Despite the gloominess of Raby Castle, its furnishings comprised a wondrous encyclopedia of Victorian taste and style. Everything looked so shabby and tattered, but it had all been preserved for decades, which is often the case in these country houses. Things are handed down and moved from house to house but rarely thrown out or sold.

Indeed, the whole of Raby Castle seemed frozen in time, as if the Vanes had simply abandoned it long, long ago but kept a few staff on hand to prevent it from crumbling or going up in smoke, the latter a common fate for such places. Perfectly capturing this mood of abandonment evoked by the sale catalogue was an eerie color photograph of a room in the attic. Ragged old sofas and chairs were lined up in dusty sunlight that came pouring in through a window, like figures awaiting the family’s return.

In keeping with the romance of such country house sales and their allure of things seemingly untouched for generations, everything at Raby Castle was offered as is, shredded upholstery and all. Since the sale was held at the castle, prospective bidders and buyers could thus wander about the cavernous rooms and soak up the genteel if threadbare grandeur of the place, imagining domestic scenes from the past.

In this way an auction sale that seemed to offer items more commonly seen at a flea market was smartly upgraded and cleverly repackaged by Christie’s, those masters of promotion. Every object was thus seen through the prism of its upper-class pedigree—and thus rendered all the more desirable.

An example of this auction alchemy was a two-page color spread in the catalogue that featured an enormous “gilt-enriched” mahogany settee described as being in the French manner. It looked hideous, all gussied up with scrolls and wreaths and gold ornamentation, the upholstery frayed and faded. It had the appearance of something dreamed up by the designer of one of those 1930s-era Hollywood movie palaces in places like Detroit and Cleveland, featuring an eye-dazzling and exotic décor. But to the discerning bidder this hulking monstrosity had a glorious history, as revealed in the small in print of the catalogue note:

Supplied to William Harry (d. 1842), 3rd Earl of Darlington and subsequently 1st Marquess and Duke of Cleveland, for the Drawing Room, now the South Drawing Room, at Raby.

The Raby Castle sale seemed almost to flaunt with pride its illustrious past. But this was not the case in the Sutton Brailes sale, where the past of its reclusive owner, Dorothea Allen, remained shrouded and suppressed. The obvious question seemed: “What was she hiding?”

Surely Ms. Allen enjoyed a life of glamor and luxury. In the sale catalogue, above a black-and-white photograph of Mrs. Allen arm-in-arm with her husband Eric on the beach at Cat Cay in the Bahamas in 1961, were a few paragraphs summarizing the couple’s life together. But the essay was written almost like a legal brief, with an ominous tone of deceit running throughout, beginning with this haunting paragraph:

It appears Mrs. Allen deliberately attempted to obliterate her past. She destroyed letters and family papers and although her passport gives her maiden name as Farquarson, her place of birth is not known, the passport page having been mutilated.

 What was known for sure was that Mr. and Mrs. Allen founded a company that manufactured ladies’ corsetry, which was co-owned by an American firm. During the war the ingenious and enterprising couple also designed and manufactured a body belt “to relieve the effects of G forces when flying at high speed.” In addition to making a fortune, Mr. and Mrs. Allen were awarded the prestigious OBE in 1957 for services to industry. For such an aspiring and successful couple, a lifestyle of luxury required a suitable country residence.

In 1931 the couple purchased Sutton Brailes, a 300-year-old manor house of twenty-eight rooms. Unlike Raby Castle, however, Sutton Brailes was designed for comfort, with things like plum silk velvet curtains and scads of silver and porcelain for entertaining. Charles Tozer, “a leading and exclusive interior designer of the period,” was thus hired to do up the house, and no expense was spared in giving the place an ancestral look. The goal was to make the house look as though successive generations of the Allen family had resided there since perhaps the 17th century.

Interestingly, as the catalogue essay revealed, the house and all assets “were in Mrs. Allen’s name.” As became clear later on, this was perhaps because Mr. Allen already had a wife and never divorced; hence he and Dorothea were never married.

A snapshot in the catalogue gave but a glimpse of the couple’s lavish lifestyle. It shows them at the Captain’s table aboard the Queen Mary on one of their frequent first-class crossings. They counted Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable as friends and knew many prominent politicians. In addition to Sutton Brailes they owned an estate in Barbados, where their yacht was moored, as well as flats in Kensington and on Fifth Avenue in New York. A snapshot in the sale catalogue showed Mrs. Allen in a bonnet and flowing skirt seated in her garden, holding kittens and looking almost child-like.

During the war she provided a home for child evacuees at the manor, building a summerhouse for them called “Snow White’s Cottage.” She even provided notepaper for each child “engraved with a vignette of the thatched building so they could write home to their parents.” We learn that she donated an ambulance and fire-fighting equipment to the village and helped pay for a Spitfire that was given to the RAF during the war.

The story all but ends with the death of Mr. Allen in 1965, as the catalogue relates, “after which Mrs. Allen appears to have shut herself away from the outside world.”

Flipping through the Sutton Brailes catalogue, with its 832 lots crammed into a mere 60 pages, the only items that seemed truly to stand out were Mrs. Allen’s two automobiles: a 1964 Daimler V8 Saloon and a much flashier 1972 Rolls-Royce Corniche Convertible Coupe. Most of the furniture and decorations were modern reproductions and thus warranted little notice. But the cars seemed vivid symbols of Mrs. Allen’s identity as a woman of great means, even if she had made herself all but invisible to the outside world. One imagined that the more socially prominent Vanes, by way of comparison, would have shunned such a blatant symbol of wealth, privilege and status, since they would not have needed it.

As I began puzzling out the mystery of Mrs. Allen I came across another auction catalogue that highlighted a collection formed by someone of great mystery and eccentricity. Only in this case, it was not the collector so much who was invisible but the collection. It was stored like a secret treasure in an old mill house, kept guarded under lock and key, and shown only by invitation.

Here again, the introduction to the auction catalogue provided a startling revelation, in the form of a question:

Why did a man who made a small fortune out of recycling waste from hotel kitchens as pig swill ever embark on a sequence of acquisitions that would build a large and extraordinarily varied collection of paintings, furniture and works of art? Perhaps he dreamed of reversing the family’s fall from fortune in the 1830’s when the estates of Stokestay in Shropshire were auctioned to pay for gambling debts.

The collector in question was a Mr. E. A. Onians of Baylham, Suffolk. In his chosen profession as a purveyor of pig swill, he was often on the road sixteen hours. But he had the eye of a collector and the desire to fill his large mill house with furniture, clocks, paintings, tapestries, porcelain, violins and all manner of antique oddities. These he acquired in the 40s and early 50s, attending countless house sales and country auctions. He had the means to buy and was doing so at a very opportune moment. For after the war country houses all over England were being abandoned and torn down, their contents stripped out and sold. Prices were modest and collecting opportunities unlimited.

The sheer volume and diversity of his acquisitions would suggest that, in a curious way, Mr. Onians was indeed attempting to restore the fortunes of his family. For while he could not buy back the estates long lost, he could do something else: buy furnishings for them, many hundreds. These he stored in his spacious mill house in Suffolk, and when it overflowed he bought sheds from the army and filled them as well. Perhaps a hoarder at heart, and obsessed with security, Mr. Onians turned the mill house into a fortress, one well protected from thieves.

Inside the mill house, the rooms resembled not at all an English country house owned by a wealthy squire. It was just a chaotic jumble. Here were old master paintings stacked against one another, commodes stuffed with Japanese woodblock prints, Renaissance manuscripts, French enamels and porcelain figures, every table surface covered and tiny passageways allowing one to thread through the artful maze. Here was Mr. Onians’ own personal country house collection, but few visitors ever saw it. Nephews and nieces were allowed in occasionally; otherwise it was the collector’s personal and very private museum.

After Mr. Onian’s death it was all put up for sale, aptly, at auction. And so, over two days in October 1996 in London, Sotheby’s dispersed everything. The sale hardly had the aura of one of those elegant English country house sales, like the one that took place on-site at Raby Castle. Still, it was perhaps just the sort of ancestral sale that Mr. Onians had longed dreamed of having—only without the ancestral home.

In reading through the Onians catalogue I couldn’t help thinking of Dorothea Allen. Unlike Mr. Onians, she seemed never to have enjoyed a passion for collecting. That was left to her interior decorator. But the collection was central to the romantic if murky story of her life, a fitting expression of an apparently hard-won status as a wealthy socialite. Thus Sutton Brailes became her own private fantasy world, an elegant cover for an identity, and a past, that she had wished always to remain a secret.

The sale took place and Dorothea Allen was forgotten. At least for six years. But then an amateur researcher in England started digging. He found a distant cousin of Mrs. Allen’s, and this led in time to the revelation that she had some seventy relatives, all of them now heirs to her fortune of many millions.

It seems that she had been born in 1895 as Dora Brammer, the daughter of a steelworker in Sheffield. She was employed as a dressmaker’s apprentice and seemed destined for a dreary life—until she met Robert Allen. At some point she changed her name, and perhaps this began the long trail of lies about her identity. As she grew old and gradually became demented, she hid documents behind secret panels at Sutton Brailes, mutilated her passport, cut off the heads of people in old photographs, and left no will.

In the flurry of newspaper articles that appeared in England when her true identity was revealed, stories about Mrs. Allen’s curious behavior surfaced. “She apparently did not pay well,” said one account, “and even demanded people to walk out of her office backward.” Perhaps she was only emulating the Queen!

Reading these revelations was, I have to confess, a disappointment. For Dorothea Allen had seemed vastly more interesting with the mystery of her identity preserved, as she had so badly wanted it to be—invisible. Hers, like Mr. Onians’, was a great success story, achieving distinctions in the field of commerce and collecting sufficient to warrant a stand-alone auction sale at one of the great old houses.

In this regard they both joined a long and venerable line of distinguished men and women through the centuries whose lives have been publicized—for good and bad—in dealings with the art market. But the art market these days is an almost ruthlessly public sphere, where secrets are hard to keep. Staying invisible there is a goal few achieve.

—Ronald Varney

(Photo: The Contents of Glyn Cywarch: The Property of Lord Harlech. Image Courtesy of Bonhams.)