Inside the Art Market: Rooms for Sale

Emblazoning the cover of the Country Life issue of October 28, 1949, above a black-and-white photograph of Clarence House glimpsed from the garden of nearby St. James’s Palace, was the announcement:

Princess Elizabeth’s London Home: First Pictures.

This tantalizing headline, satisfying the curiosity of a war-weary public in seeing the new digs of the heir to the British throne, showed room after sumptuous room within the vast grandeur of Clarence House. The smart décor of Georgian furnishings and gilded family portraits conveyed a rarified, elegant, serene and oh-so-private aura. The reader might well have exclaimed: What a dream for a 23 year-old to live in such splendor!

But all was not perfect at Clarence House. Extreme measures had been needed to bring it back from its previous, almost primitive state of neglect and disrepair. Not only was there bomb damage from the war but the place exuded generally a cold, medieval comfort typical of stately homes. As the Country Life article explained, the place needed drastic upgrades:

Although some alterations had been made by the Duke of Connaught, yet the house lacked any form of central heating, had no complete electrical installation, and not even a bathroom (though a bath of antique pattern was contained in a cupboard to one of the bedrooms). The basement and service quarters were correspondingly antiquated.

This delightful bit of backstairs voyeurism has been the hallmark of Country Life for over a century. Readers have long lusted after these sneaked photographic glimpses of the grand, mesmerizing interiors of the English country house. Even so, the views often appear staged and sterile: museum-like tableaux of vast entry halls and long picture galleries, of lush living rooms filled with ancestral treasures, and usually with no people in sight. Then there is the text that goes with the pictures: rhapsodies of glorious family history, of fortunes made and lost, of visits by this or that king a century or two ago. Truly these country house profiles are a literary genre all their own!

Thus what a thrill it must have been for Country Life readers in 1949 to see featured on the cover an elegant old pile like Clarence House, restored and refurnished to perfection for the young princess and her new husband. One could almost hear in the article the swelling chords of patriotic music and the sentiment-stirring voiceover from one of those newsreels of the 40s and 50s, proclaiming: What a heart-warming tale of renewal for the nation after the miseries and privations of the war!

And yet . . .considering the very moment in which this article appeared, its soaring prose now seems oddly oblivious to the plight of British architectural heritage as it stood in the fall of 1949.

For just as Princess Elizabeth was moving into Clarence House countless villas and palaces and manor houses like it all across England—many far older and grander and more historic, with eye-watering interiors and picture collections formed over centuries—were being gutted and demolished at a furious rate, a tale of downsizing on a dreary, massive, calamitous scale.

The owners of these houses found they could no longer staff, maintain or even afford them. The houses had been designed and built generations before as pleasure palaces for a style of living now almost ludicrously outmoded. Of course, some owners had many such houses and wouldn’t mind the loss of one or two. As the poetic historian of the English country house John Harris has written: “Nowhere in the world are there so many country houses as in England, matchless for the astonishing variety of their styles and the richness of their collections and furniture.” So in the great scheme of things, what was all the fuss about a few surplus houses being closed or knocked down by their owners?

But here was devastation on truly an epic scale.

As one report cited, more historic houses were demolished throughout England in 1954 alone than had been built in the previous 200 years. The dreamy if surreal lifestyle of the landed gentry and the aristocracy, centuries old and once impregnable, was all but vanishing and never to return except on the big screen or in fanciful televised melodramas like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs.

For everything had changed: the servants in these houses had fled, as if from long indenture; the owners were being taxed to death by almost vengeful politicians; farm and tenant revenue was precarious, as factory work and city-life beckoned to the young; and the next generation of country squires had been killed during two world wars, so for many of the greatest land-owning families there was to be no heir, no succession, no need for costly castles. At some houses admission would now be charged to raise revenue, giving the common folk an opportunity to look around, have tea, wander about the grounds and then go home.

The National Trust endeavored to save and preserve as many houses as possible, especially those of greatest architectural and historical distinction. It helped if the gift of a house to the Trust also included period furnishings, nice pictures and an endowment. The stories of visits to these houses by the Trust and the ensuing negotiations with beleaguered owners, many of them elderly and in financial shock, are poignant and make vivid reading.

On a visit to Shropshire in March 1944, for example, James Lees-Milne of the Trust recalls visiting Pitchford Hall, dating from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. He is soon galloped through the house, with its sad and romantic, low and dark rooms, by Sir Charles Grant, the owner, who talks volubly and a little irrelevantly about his ancestors. Lees-Milne then encounters Sir Charles’s wife, Lady Sibyl, on the lawn. As a special favor she took me to the orangery where she lives all the time, Lees-Milne recalls, for she hates the house.  She says it is haunted.

But many such houses could not be saved. Hence they fell in rapid succession—Syston Park in Lincolnshire, Cothelstone House in Somerset, Middleton Park in Oxfordshire, Doveridge Hall in Derbyshire, Hallinbury Place in Essex, on and on and on.

As Harris summed it up: “The ‘twenties, ‘thirties, late ‘forties and early ‘fifties are black decades in our architectural history.”

The narrative of these “black decades” was duly presented in all its grim pictorial details in the landmark exhibition mounted by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1974 aptly titled “The Destruction of the Country House,” a truly haunting experience for its visitors. In the exhibition catalogue, interspersed with endless pages of period photographs of the houses burned and abandoned and otherwise destroyed, were fascinating essays on the fate of the art within the houses. As an essay by A. R. Miller recalled, for example, this was a time of many hasty, intemperate sale decisions by owners under a state of siege:

After the last war it was admittedly difficult to foresee the future of the country houses and their collections; but it must have been unwise—as it must since have been bitterly regretted by their owners—to sell at auction a large number of pictures, poorly catalogued and inadequately ‘researched,’ from famous collections which, as things turned out, are still in a flourishing condition.

To put this in perspective, one must remember that a sale at auction in 1950 was a far cry from what it is today. Now we have the benefit of extensive cataloguing and photography, of global promotion through the Internet and vast anecdotal knowledge of art transactions generally to ensure a record for posterity.

But this was not the case in 1950. The art market then was like a small, private and provincial club. Many sales were all but invisible, un-photographed and barely catalogued. They passed in a blur and were quickly forgotten, with few if any details recorded. At least a sale in London might yield greater attention and be remembered. But a sale by a local auctioneer out in the wilds of Lancashire, on the other hand, would have been an event all but invisible and usually done in haste. Such a sale, writes Miller, was for the owner “invariably and from every point of view a disaster.”

One thus asks the inevitable question. What effect did this architectural catastrophe in England during these “black decades” have on the art market?

For one, it meant a flood of material, with whole collections suddenly appearing at weekly auctions throughout England in a colossal sell-off. Here was something much greater than merely an occasional country house sale, long a romantic staple of the auction market. This was architectural salvage conducted on a massive scale, week after week, with whole rooms being stripped from condemned houses and sold aggressively by the leading brokers and dealers specializing in this arcane area of recycled artifacts.

By way of history, the antiques business in England seems to have taken root and grown steadily from the trade in architectural salvage that began in the 19th Century. In the 20th Century it simply exploded: chimney pieces, paneling, doorways, ceilings and all manner of fixtures and fittings from country houses were now being shoveled onto the art market almost willy-nilly to meet the demand.

Nowhere was demand greater than in America. Whole rooms were thus dismantled, crated and shipped across the Atlantic to adorn the pop-up mansion of this or that newly-rich titan of industry in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. A river of paintings also flowed to America, enriching greatly the leading museums and private collections, much to England’s loss.

Perhaps no one has written more passionately on the story of the English country house and its destruction than John Harris. One of his most stirring books is No Voice from the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper, an odd reminiscence recalling the author’s youthful explorations of ruined houses all over England. It’s an eerie, chilling travelogue, conjuring up pictures of potato sacks filling elegant dining rooms gone to seed; of creaking gates opening onto abandoned mansions hidden behind weeds; of silent, crumbling kitchens and backstairs rooms once filled with the voices of servants but now abandoned and spooky.

My favorite of Harris’ books is Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvage. It’s a brilliant, encyclopedic story of the art market in this one specific area of commerce: exquisite rooms removed from country houses in the past century and sold through the trade on both sides of the Atlantic. Tales of avarice, greed and megalomania much enliven this story.

Hence we glimpse William Randolph Hearst, the greatest of the salvage kings. To meet his almost maniacal need for furnishings to fill his many spectacular residences Hearst employed armies of dealers and scouts throughout Europe. Heeding the press baron’s obsessive and exacting demands dictated in a stream of endless cables, these scouts bought up in bulk the choicest paintings and antiques they could find, including whole rooms from houses being torn down throughout England, including London. Warehouses galore were thus filled to the rafters, masterpieces commingled with dreck in forming this sprawling, oddball “collection.”

But Hearst is a minor figure in the tale that Harris weaves in Moving Rooms. Above all it’s a fabulous treasury of information on countless doomed houses, about which Harris writes in staggering detail, itemizing the contents and their appearance on the art market with wry, acerbic commentary. For example, there’s this colorful snippet regarding a room removed from a house identified as Bury St. Edmunds:

A boiled-up late sixteenth-century room acquired 1961 by the Denver Art Museum from Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, who bought it for her Park Avenue apartment from Arthur S. Vernay 1927-28, who may have acquired it from Acton Surgey. De-accessioned to store in 1995. Not clear if related to the ceiling in an ‘old house in Bury St. Edmunds,” bought by Hearst through “Nash’s Magazine,” London, 13 June 1927.

I came away from reading Moving Rooms above all curious about the workmen who appeared at these houses and deftly removed ceilings and boudoirs and drawing rooms of the most elaborate design. I couldn’t help feeling as though they had acted more as artisans than art strippers as they went about their demanding work. And what a challenge it must have been to encounter the most exquisite architectural interior in one of these soon-to-be destroyed houses—a plaster ceiling designed by Robert Adam, say, an English Rococo room or an entire library of carved walnut—and to be taxed with the somber responsibility of dismantling it without causing damage.

I thought that these removal specialists must have felt a certain kinship with the artisans who had installed these rooms centuries before them, and thus had assumed a responsibility to protect a legacy of old world craftsmanship. Might one even argue that they were preservationists and not mere demolition workers?  

Truly the art market is a house of mirrors.

I say this because, for all the books, catalogues, exhibitions, photographs and magazine articles on the bleak history of English architectural history in the 20th Century, gloomy as they seem, the feeling one has about it all remains improbably and curiously rosy, hopeful, even inspiring. Yes, there is a sense of great loss. But there is also a feeling that the art market, for all its phoniness and inefficiencies, its flaws and greed and self-glorifying drama, is an indispensable source of cultural uplift and enlightenment.

Maybe this is what might be called the “sanitizing” aspect of the art market, where unpleasant history is often forgotten or ignored and a kind of art-market-pixie-dust is sprinkled over something being offered for sale, lending romance and luster that might otherwise never be gleaned.

There is no better example of this phenomenon than an auction that took place at Christie’s in 1990. Here was a trove of architectural salvage the likes of which had not been seen on the art market in many years. The seller was T. Crowther & Son, a leading seller of architectural furnishings for more than a century and now winding down business as part of a “rationalisation programme.”

It was a blockbuster sale, presented with all the scholarship and promotional gloss for which the auction houses are so acclaimed. And it was not really a sale about demolition, as one might have expected, but one about rescue and reuse. The destruction of the English country house was but a dimly-recalled backstory. Indeed, artfully presented by Christie’s, the Crowther sale was thus about discovering “the fun of architectural fragments.”

What a triumph of marketing!

For here were some 1,200 lots of architectural furnishings from innumerable houses, fireplaces and paneling and garden ornaments in great quantities, with much romance conveyed by way of provenance, such as described in this excerpt from an article about the sale in the Christie’s Magazine:

Still at Crowthers are a pair of stone figures over seven feet high, depicting Vice Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington with his horse Copenhagen. These are by Robert Forest (1790-1852) and came from Falcon Hall, Edinburgh, which was demolished in 1909. The statues were subsequently moved to Lennel House, Coldstream, from whence they were removed by T. Crowther and exhibited at Grosvenor House.

Here then was perhaps the last chapter of the “black decades” story of those long-ago country house demolitions. It was a dreary tale indeed, but here it was ending on a positive note. Viewed in this light, the sale at Christie’s of the remaining stock of T. Crowther & Son was a celebration of what had survived “the demolisher’s hammer.”

If this view seems ironic, one must remember that the art market, for all its great and growing size, its grandeur and self-importance, its breathtaking prices and outsized personalities, must still be regarded in the great scheme of things little more than light entertainment.

The art market has become big business, to be sure. But it remains more than anything else a sideshow, a welcome and dazzling distraction from the uglier and more brutal sides of life—such as played out in the “black decades” of the 20th century that wreaked such havoc on the once supreme, now diminished and slowly vanishing world of the English country house.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Dining room from Lansdowne House, London, 1767-1769, Robert Adam. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.)