Hall of plenty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 69

Hall of plenty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 69

A Florentine 17th century ebony, pietra dura and specimen marble cabinet on stand

Hall of plenty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 69

A home that has belonged to the same family for 300 years reveals an extraordinary array of treasures that have never left the house. Philippa Stockley discovers an exceptional collection

Outside the portico of castellated Hooton Pagnell Hall in South Yorkshire, a hunt meets. The master of foxhounds is top-hatted, the other riders sport a variety of headgear. Thronged local men in flat caps watch. This image is a photograph, taken in winter 1930-1931 – the trees are bare. It may have been the last meet witnessed by the beautiful and indomitable Julia Warde-Aldam (1857-1931), whose portrait hangs in the dining room, with another in the hall. Great-great-grandmother of the Hall's current owner, Mark Warde-Norbury, she inherited this magnificent house set on 2,000 acres of arable land.

The estate includes many houses in the pretty village of the same name (Pagnell derives from Ralph Paganal, first owner; 'Hotone', which means 'town on the hill' was mentioned in the Domesday Book), as well as a medieval tithe barn, outhouses and tied cottages. Julia Warde-Aldam added the gothic crenellations, just as generations of her forebears had altered, enlarged and improved before her – and just as her great-great-grandson does today.

But that redoubtable woman, a keen traveler and talented watercolourist, did a great deal besides. In the First World War, she voluntarily ran the house as a hospital, nursing the men herself in the makeshift drawing room-cum-ward, keeping a bedroom for a professional nurse at the top of the house – which is still there with its faded wallpaper and warming pans standing to attention in the corner.

In the attic, a box full of scores of poignant, handwritten letters from grateful soldiers is part of the family's archive, still to be sorted out, along with a beady-eyed, stuffed African crocodile perched jauntily on a chest on the landing – a grateful gift to Julia from departing men.

There is also a letter from her to the scientist Edward Wilson, who accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his fateful trip to the Antarctic. He was the brother of the family's estate manager and visited the house, but he never received her good wishes. By the time her letter reached New Zealand, he lay frozen to death on the ice of the South Pole.

That undelivered letter is one of 600 items to be offered in December at a truly memorable auction at Bonhams in Knightsbridge – the first time that some of Hooton Pagnell's remarkable treasures have been offered for sale. The house has been in the same family for 300 years – and during those centuries of keen curiosity and collecting, it slowly filled with a remarkable trawl of things whose sheer volume and breadth reflect the changing tastes and times of its many occupants. The result is an informal, rich history of their lives, from their interest in fine jewels and paintings, to Georgian silver, and the smaller, charming ephemera of country life.

Among the letters for sale there is also one from Florence Nightingale. "Florence had a strong hand," says Warde-Norbury. "You can tell she was the sort of person who could easily run a hospital. Handwriting tells you so much more about character than computers." The letter discusses the efficacy of chloroform as an anesthetic on a particular patient.

Then there is a bill from 1809 signed by the Duke of Wellington, authorizing the payment of thousands of pounds to an army corps, possibly connected to the siege of Badajoz in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars. "It was a hell of a lot of money at the time; that would have paid a lot of soldiers," says Warde-Norbury, who found the invoice in a crammed drawer on the upstairs landing. "I had no idea it was there," he admits.

"A friend asked why we are selling things, and I said, 'we have five grand pianos and six grandfather clocks: what would you do?' We have to clear some things out in order to move forward; but when most of my friends visit, they don't notice any difference. We've kept all the things that are part of the house's character and archive.

"I angsted long and hard about what could go. Some things were obvious, such as the weapons." In the sale will be a fine pair of c.1800 flintlock pistols made by the King's gunmaker, H.W. Mortimer, as well as a savage-toothed man-trap, whose twin still grimaces in the terrifying oubliette – a cell high in the thick walls of Hooton Pagnell's 14th century tower-house.

"The tower was like a museum, full of boxes and display cabinets, crammed with Stuart jewelry, Grand Tour mementoes; all sorts of things getting dusty and cobwebby," Warde-Norbury explains. "We have kept all the big portraits, and lots of watercolors, but some of the latter are in the sale." One is a very fine example by Paul Sandby of Windsor Castle. He asked his wife, Lucianne, and their children, Isobel, 15, and William, 12, about everything, and they vetoed a couple of things from being included.

Among the pictures for sale (which include two by Warde-Norbury's late friend, the artist Sebastian Horsley) is an exceptional collection of about 40 miniatures, which the family scarcely looked at. The jewel in this set is a romantic watercolor on vellum of Patience Warde. Born in 1680, he was the first Warde to buy the house, funded by an uncle who had made his fortune in silk – and so the estate began its elegant journey towards its current owners. A painting of Patience that is not in the sale shows him, heavily rouged, in a full-bottomed wig, a handsome dandy.

There are also books such as an important first-edition 15th-century Liber Chronicarum, containing 1,800 woodcuts, including maps, by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff.

But it is the family stories that make things special. A remarkable piece brought back from the Grand Tour and believed, because of its high quality, to have been made in the Florentine ducal workshops, is a Pietra Dura specimen marble chest, its drawers inlaid with vases of lilies and birds. "Absolutely lovely, but it just stood in a dark corner," explains Warde-Norbury. "In one of its drawers I found a letter from my father, written when he was eight, to my grandfather.

So I have kept that, alongside a letter written by my own son when he was eight, to my father."

One delightful curiosity that is staying is a small muff, covered with albatross feathers. This has a parcel ticket inside, printed with Julia Warde-Aldam's name. Penciled in her decisive hand are the words: "Made from the skin of an albatross shot by my Grand Uncle ... 1860-1865".

Warde-Norbury is currently restoring the great medieval tithe barn so that up to six weddings can be held there each year; building five new cottages, and rearing a flock of small Scottish sheep. Surveying with a grin the heaps of furniture and spilling boxes that he has unearthed, he says cheerfully, "I've made all this mess, but now I can tell the wood from the trees."

Philippa Stockley is a Royal Literary Fund fellow at the Courtauld Institute and writes about art history for national newspapers.

Contacts

Related auctions