Sotheby's to offer property from Spetchley Park, one of Britain's great Regency houses

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Sotheby's to offer property from Spetchley Park, one of Britain's great Regency houses
Felice Fortunato Biggi, called ‘Felice Dei Fiori’ (active in Verona towards the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries) A still life of flowers This floral celebration was possibly acquired by Rose Berkeley or her sister Ellen Willmott. It demonstrates their love for all things floral. Estimate £20,000-30,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Spetchley Park, the glory that is one of Britain’s great Regency houses, is set to reveal for the very first time a whole sequence of fascinating stories from its long and eventful past. On 11 December 2019, Sotheby’s will offer some 750 objects that together unlock these previously untold stories, at the same time allowing for a first-ever glimpse inside a house that for the last 400 years has been closed to the public eye. The sale, to be held in London, springs from a need to make this historic house into a home. After inheriting Spetchley two years ago, Henry Berkeley, the youngest son of the late John Berkeley, rekindled his love of the house further to moving back to the estate with his wife and children, but he has since become conscious of the need to reimagine it for a young family in the 21st century.

Henry Berkeley commented: “Spetchley, despite its imposing presence in the Worcestershire countryside, is first and foremost a home. We have been very fortunate to have inherited it and want to renovate it into a family home suitable for the 21st century. There is much in this wonderful collection that is duplicated or not pertinent to our vision and requirements where children can roam free without the pressures of being around pieces that are too valuable to risk. We therefore have taken the difficult but necessary decision to put some of the collection to the market so that it can be nurtured by those who will understand its provenance. The Spetchley collection is iconic in that it has remained in the same house since it was built over 200 years ago. The sale will also allow us to undertake the enormous task of this renovation and so create a wonderful legacy for future generations as well as provide a beautiful backdrop to the magical gardens, enjoyed by so many visitors through the summer.”

David Macdonald, Sotheby’s Head of UK Single Owner Sales, said: “One of the glories of Britain is the Country House – a repository for ‘things’, accumulated over time like the pebbles on a beach, polished by memory, associations and stories from the past. Spetchley is just such a house. With so little changed for more than eighty years, Henry Berkeley has chosen to transform a stately pile into a family home, at the same time respecting this magnificent house’s artistic heritage. Spetchley really is at the heart of everything Henry does in managing the estate, and with that came the decision to make some changes and effectively take Spetchley into the 21st century.”

The auction of Property from the Berkeley Collection comprises objects from the house’s attics, stores, state rooms and domestic offices – objects which illustrate not only inheritance but the family’s ancestry, their passion for collecting, the practical considerations that living in such a house brings, and, importantly, a sense of fun enjoyed by each generation.

The foundation stone of Spetchley in Worcestershire, as it appears today, was laid on the 3rd May 1811 by the young son of Robert Berkeley (1764-1845). The estate, owned by the Berkeley family since 1606, was an inheritance from his uncle and guardian, Robert Berkeley (1713-1804). Whilst coming with a park and extensive land, this gift lacked a big house. The old mansion had been burnt during the Civil War in 1651.

Built with honey-coloured Bath stone brought from Somerset by canal and by road, the mansion is a dramatic Regency statement and the opposite of what had stood before, a deliberate intention on Robert’s part, perhaps a celebration of ancient lineage but also an indicator of considered good taste. The whole was made to impress, at considerable cost: according to family tradition, so extravagant was this project that he burnt the accounts.

The interior supports this with a grand series of “State Rooms” along the South side of the mansion from where some of the offered lots come. Detailing is restrained but the materials used are sumptuous, from milky white marble chimney-pieces, a flame-mahogany-appointed library, and finely figured stone floors, to an exquisite wrought iron staircase which leads to a pillared landing with yellow marble columns.

This new Spetchley was to be a home for Robert (his wife Apollonia Berkeley had died in 1803) and his two surviving children, Robert (1794-1874) and Eliza (1796-1824). There are hints at what may have been acquired on a two-year “Grand Tour” throughout Europe for their new house in the sale: possibly some fine paintings to enliven Berkeley ancestral portraits, hardstone inlaid tops and Siena marble slabs, and antiquities to fill a ground floor gallery, with its two sets of faux porphyry columns and unusual folding walls which surely made it one of the most ingenious Regency rooms built at the time.

In the first quarter of the 19th century Robert acquired mahogany furniture for his new house from the very best cabinetmakers, and possibly one of the glories in the sale, a suite of sumptuous Chinese Export wallpaper for a Regency scheme that never materialised. The wallpaper’s exquisite colours have remained hidden in the darkness for 200 years.

In 1830 the estate and house were formally passed from Robert Berkeley, the builder of Spetchley, to his son, Robert (1794-1874). The preparations included the extensive redecoration of the house and the acquisition of new furniture, and in 1838 Robert was appointed High Commissioner of Worcester.

Robert’s early experiences in Europe with his father and sister must have stayed with him for he was to become a notable collector of pictures and sculpture in his own right, attending Lord Berwick’s historic sale at Attingham in August 1827, perhaps William Beckford’s famous sale in Bath, and most importantly the Buckingham and Chandos sale at Stowe in September 1848. Many of his acquisitions feature in the sale.

Robert records in his diary visits throughout the British Isles to family estates in Wales and British treasure houses like Chatsworth. Tellingly he was to send his son Robert Martin (1823-1897) to Europe and then, aboard the SS Great Western, to North America in August 1843. He also must have encouraged Robert in his own collecting as it was presumably the two who created the private museum at Spetchley in the 1840s. Housed in a small room off the Grand Staircase, the museum was an astonishing space that came to be filled with the acquisitions of three generations. If his father was a product of the Regency period, Robert was a son of the Victorian age and all that it encompassed.

Spetchley’s long history has been largely dominated by male protagonists. There are however, two important female characters who have great bearing on the house, gardens and collection: Ellen Ann Willmott (1858-1934) and her sister Rose (1861-1922), later Berkeley and chatelaine of Spetchley. Ellen was to become one of the most important horticulturists of her generation.

In August 1891, Rose married Robert Valentine Berkeley (1853-1940), Robert Martin’s son, and in 1897, they moved into Spetchley where they set about rationalizing the collection and adding to it, exploring different areas and focusing on Northern Europe, the low Countries and Renaissance Italy. They were the fourth generation of collectors at Spetchley united by the common pursuit of informed acquisitions through foreign travel.

Between 1907 and 1912 the young couple began a programme of refurbishment and redecoration at the house. Rose brought her own taste to Spetchley, along with an injection of family money. Historic textiles were installed, along with antiquarian furniture, metalwork, treen and fine bronzes.

Rose’s sister, Ellen Willmott of Warley Place, was a passionate collector too. After Ellen’s death in 1935, the Berkeleys added to the collection treasures with Willmott provenance, items that celebrated the sisters. They acquired works from the six-day sale of Ellen’s collection from Warley Place at a sale on the premises and from Sotheby’s in 1935, including a rare Kirkman harpsichord, one of the jewels in the collection. The legacy of Ellen and Rose at Spetchley was far reaching, the garden at the house being their greatest monument. Many of the works offered from the collection reflect the sisters’ greatest love – gardening – and feature an abundance of floral motifs.

During World War II, Spetchley was earmarked as the headquarters for Churchill and his war cabinet; however, he decided to stay in London and, as a result, it became a recuperation home for the 9th United States Army Air Force.

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