This sale is a unique one on several levels. It is not just the sale of one family – the Sitwells – but it reflects British collective history in many individual items, preserved by generations of female owners and passed down by circuitous inheritance. So in a sense, the collection works like a needle thread through the collective history of the United Kingdom. It affords a rare opportunity to capture a piece of history relating to an iconic family within the narrative of the 20th century. It represents the next in the line of important sales relating to the world of the Bright Young Things, engendering the same fascination as the sale of the contents of Reddish House (Cecil Beaton) in 1980, West Dean (Edward James) in 1986, and Wilsford Manor (Stephen Tennant) in 1987.
Weston Hall is famous as a Sitwell house, where Sir Sacheverell Sitwell and his Canadian wife, Georgia Doble, lived from their marriage in 1925 until her death in 1980 and his in 1988. It remained in the possession of his son Francis and was recently sold by the family. In the late 1920s it was a haven in the sleepy countryside for the Bright Young Things, who flocked there to escape the hectic life in London, or in some cases to bring their antics to the Northamptonshire countryside – and not only the Bright Young Things, but some of the most interesting figures of the 20th century, within an intellectual milieu. Francis Bamford, secretary to Sir George Sitwell, commended Weston Hall less for its architectural merit, but deserving attention ‘because of its association with the circle of friends, artists, writers and musicians whom during close to half a century [found] there ... peace, refreshment and renewed mental stimulation.’ [i]
In so many ways Weston was the ideal home for a scholar such as Sir Sacheverell Sitwell to live and write in. Frequently he stayed there quietly, rather than heading off on exotic travels – though he did his share of that too. This is evidenced by a number of literary manuscripts in the sale – poetry notebooks, a scrapbook of Sitwell activities between the 1920s and 1940s, and letters between that famous trio of siblings – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell.
On its own merit, Weston Hall was an enchanting house, John Pearson, biographer of the Sitwells describing it as ‘one of the most perfect lived-in small country houses in the country’.[ii] It is a Gothicised 17th century manor house, set in one of the lost villages of Northamptonshire, with a walled garden, fine lawns and ancient trees. Spread throughout the fifty rooms of the house and tucked away in the attics were furniture and other fascinating items, saved by generations of female owners, and giving the house a sense of the warmth of previous owners, of continuity and of a way of living hard to recapture in the 21st century. These contents were hailed by Francis Bamford, as ‘of exceptional charm and interest.’ [iii]
~ John Pearson
When the young Sitwells – Sachie and Georgia - took on Weston Hall, they found, in Pearson’s words: ‘The house was a treasure-chest of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century objects, carefully hoarded by those generations of long-dead magpie ladies in its dusty rooms – pictures, books, eighteenth century clothes.’ [iv] Georgia made it her life’s work to restore it and refurbish the house with exquisite taste. In 1923 she wrote that the house were not period rooms, but that each generation had added something of beauty and interest, which thus presented a picture of English culture through 200 years. On his first visit, Osbert Sitwell described the contents of the house as resting ‘in a trance-like slumber undisturbed for centuries.’ [v]
Sir George Sitwell showed Georgia Doble the house in 1924, shortly before she married Sacheverell the following year. He murmured: ‘I don’t intend to do much here; just a sheet of water and a line of statues.’ [vi] That never happened but a great many other things did, not without difficulty. Anything pertaining to Sir George was complicated for his children. No changes could be made to the house or the garden without his permission, and every bill was scrutinised, Sir George maintaining a tenacious grasp on the purse strings.
Weston Hall had come into Sir George’s possession in a rather touching way. Originally built in 1690, the hall passed through many generations via the female line. Between 1721 and 1923 seven of the eight owners were women. Since they seldom threw anything away, much survived. Osbert Sitwell wrote: ‘[Weston] is a place full of the past, and I have never known rooms in which you could hear more clearly the heart-beat of other centuries than our own.’ [vii]
Sir John Blencowe, a rich Northamptonshire squire and judge (Justice of the Common Pleas and of the King’s Bench), bought a seven-year lease for his widowed daughter, Susanna Jennens, later securing the freehold as a St Valentine’s Day gift for her in 1721. The era of Susanna Jennens is represented by a set of six mahogany chairs inlaid with needlework (lot 238), and the four-poster with George III needlework hangings, embroidered by Mrs Jennens (lot 235). Sir George cites this bed in his history of Weston Hall, hailing it as ‘an excellent example of its class’:
The background is of a reddish-brown, and the decoration consists of borders, wreaths, trails, and bunches of flowers – roses, lilies, hollyhocks, carnations, hyacinths, convolvulus, peonies, auricula, tulips, jasmine and honeysuckle. The tester is worked with a circular chaplet, and the back shows the common motive of two columns, in this case wreathed with flowers and connected by a hanging garland.
The upper valences are richly embroidered with a floral border two feet across; those below are plainer, showing a wavy line of flowers. A pair of large curtains with floral borders two feet broad on either side hung at the foot of the bed, pulling well round the posts, and two smaller curtains with a single border secured the exclusion of any draught. [viii]
The bed was valued at £5 in 1773, the coverlet or quilt at £1. Susanna’s portrait used to hang in the drawing-room, and she brought much of her household goods to ‘dear Weston’ as she called it, in 1714 – an oak chest in the lumber room, the long table in the hall, several cabinets and vase supports, tall-boys and chests of drawers inlaid with root of walnut, other paintings and plate.
The portrait of Sir Edmund Probyn in judge’s robes (lot 25) is Mrs Jennens’s brother-in-law. One walnut cabinet (lot 231) which used to stand in the breakfast room had been inherited from Susanna’s sister, Lady Probyn. Mrs Jennens had a dream about a secret drawer containing jewels. And by that dream the jewels were indeed found.
Susanna was succeeded in 1760 by her son Richard Jennens, who died in 1773. His portrait by John Vanderbank is lot 24. He bequeathed the estate to his sister, Mary, second wife of a widower, Arthur Barnardiston, of Brightwell Hall, Suffolk. Her husband came from a family of merchants, which explains the presence of many of the Chinese and oriental items in the house. She made many additions to Weston. There were two portraits of her at Weston. A portrait of her son, also called Arthur, who died suddenly of measles at the age of six in February 1742/3 – painted by Rosalba Carriera is in the sale (lot 421).
Mrs Mary Barnadiston died in 1788, having lived long enough to witness the marriage of her granddaughter Henrietta to William Wrightson, of Cusworth Park, MP for Aylesbury. Mrs Barnad- iston’s daughter Molly had died unmarried in 1760, and so the next heir was Elizabeth, wife (from 1756) to Richard Heber, from an old Yorkshire family. Many of her possessions were found at Weston by Sir George Sitwell – old lace from her trousseau, diamonds, and an organ given her by her husband at the time of her marriage. Elizabeth died in 1803 and she was succeeded by her unmarried daughter, Mary Heber, who died aged 51, in 1809. The estate then passed to her niece Harriet (daughter of Eliza- beth Heber). Her first husband was Hon Frederick Douglas, son of Lord Glenbervie and a grandson of the Prime Minister, Lord North. The portrait of Princess Caroline (Princess of Wales and later Queen Caroline, the unwanted wife of George IV), and her daughter, Princess Charlotte by Maria Cosway (lot 46) came to the family through this marriage. It had been given to his mother, Lady Glenbervie, by Princess Caroline to whom she was Mistress of the Robes, as did lot 45 – a fine portrait of Lord Glenbervie by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Harriet married as her second husband, Colonel the Hon Henry Hely-Hutchinson (1750-1874), a gallant survivor of the Peninsular War and of the Battle of Waterloo. Harriet was Sir George Sitwell’s maternal grandmother.
Colonel the Hon Henry Hely-Hutchinson was the nephew of the celebrated General, Lord Hutchinson (later 2nd Earl of Donoughmore) (his portrait is for sale, lot 47), who quite intended to make Henry his heir, but when Henry produced five daughters and no son, he changed his mind and left his property to his nephew, the 3rd Earl of Donoughmore. Lot 50 comprises some Ottoman Mameluke Sabres with rhinoceros horn grips, said to have been presented to the General.
Harriet Hely-Hutchinson left Weston to her daughter, Lady Hanmer, who bequeathed to Sir George her personal fortune and all the furniture at Weston on her death in 1911. She begged him to buy the estate should it ever come on the market. When her sister, Georgiana Thomas, died in 1923, Sir George found the savings depleted by 40% and double death duties. He was told to remove the contents – eighteen vanloads – and had nowhere to put them. But in 1924 he was able to buy Weston and he passed everything over to his younger son, Sacheverell in trust for life.
Christmas 1927 found them entertaining Stephen Tennant, the very brightest of the Bright Young Things, with his lover, Siegfried Sassoon (who was so cold in the icy bedrooms that he overcame
his innate puritanism and spent most nights in Tennant’s bed), Cecil Beaton, Elizabeth Wyndham and the composer, William Walton. The weekend was made memorable by them being trapped in the snow, and indulging in dressing up, acting games, eating enormous meals, drinking and making home movies. Sassoon somewhat disapproved of the lipstick-stained glasses, heaving ashtrays and empty bottles that the servants had to remove each morning. In the New Year, Lord Berners, the mischievous composer, came from Faringdon, with Christabel Aberconway, William Walton again, and Zita Jungman, an enduring love of Sachie’s. This time it was a wet weekend, Berners doing his best to paint a picture of the kitchen garden from an upper window, the result condemned by Georgia as ‘a dreary little picture.’ [ix]
~ Francis Bamford
Numerous are the guests who stayed at Weston, William Walton composing most of Belshazzar’s Feast there in 1931. The role of Sir William Walton within the Sitwell family has always been intriguing. The artist Lawrence Mynott who sketched Sachie, and is therefore something of a physiognomist, is convinced that he is a Sitwell by birth. Walton’s nose was like Edith’s, a snipe’s beak, which led people to believe he was an illegitimate Sitwell, the composer Constant Lambert promoting the idea that he had been sired by Sir George, with the lesbian composer, Dame Ethel Smyth, as his mother. The sale contains his manuscript for the valse for Façade, which Edith Sitwell performed through a megaphone to Walton’s musical accompaniment (lot 301).
Rex Whistler was another favourite. He produced at 30th birthday testimonial for Georgia’s 30th birthday (lot 272) and drew their coat of arms (lot 271), which is reminiscent of many a bookplate he designed for friends.
Cecil Beaton had been advised to make friends with the Sitwells. Their love for publicity (matched only by his own) and their willingness to do his bidding led to some of the most iconic images of the three – Edith as a medieval saint, lying on the floor clasping lilies, the three siblings reflected in the lid of a grand piano (a device first used by Maurice Beck and Helen MacGregor but made fashionable by Beaton), and some of her costumes are being sold in this sale – the celadine green silk and metal brocade cape (lot 333), the velvet damask tunic gown (lot 328), a silk velvet and gold metal brocade gown (lot 331), and – for a much later photograph in 1962, printed as a multiple, the white ostrich feather wide hat (lot 324). Cecil Beaton appeared memorably in Dame Edith Sitwell’s This is Your Life in 1962 (connected memorabilia appearing in lot 330).
The Sitwells will be forever associated with Weston Hall. Today Sir George and his wife Lady Ida, Dame Edith, Sir Sacheverell and his son Francis lie buried near Weston, in the graveyard of St Mary and St Peter in Weedon Lois, Northamptonshire. Only Sir Osbert eludes them, lying with the litterati of Florence in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori.
The hall has already been sold. A house that has been within one family for generations has passed into new hands. It cannot have been easy for George, William and Henrietta and their mother Susanna (widow of Francis) to let it go. And with the house gone, the contents too will find new homes and become a part of someone else’s collecting narrative. Francis, son of Sachie, and Susanna kept it going against all odds. After Francis’ death Susanna took on the mantle singlehandedly, taking house tours by the bus load and ran the house like clockwork for seven years. George tried and so too did his brother William, but then the deathblow would soon be dealt upon the introduction of a six per cent charge on value, payable every 10 years. Amongst the turmoil of the past few months and years Weston Hall remains serene sitting within her landscape watching the ever-changing world around her.
[i] Country Life, 22 January 1976.
[ii] John Pearson, Façades (Macmillan, 1978), p. 262.
[iii] Country Life, 22 January 1976.
[iv] John Pearson, Façades (Macmillan, 1978), p. 262.
[v] Osbert Sitwell, Tales My Father Taught Me (Hutchinson, 1962), p. 34.
[vi] John Pearson, Façades (Macmillan, 1978), p. 262.
[vii] Osbert Sitwell, Left Hand, Right Hand (Macmillan, 1945), p. 40.
[viii] Sir George Sitwell, A Brief History of Weston (Privately printed), p. 24. Sarah Bradford, Sacheverell
[ix] Sitwell – Splendours and Miseries (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993), p. 176.
Tuesday 16 & Wednesday 17 November | 10.30am GMT
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
Sign up to email alerts
Full auction on view at Dreweatts Newbury from Wednesday 10 - Monday 15 November 2021:
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
To book an appointment, please email: email@example.com or call 44 (0) 1635 553 553.
The catalogue will be available and online in October. If you wish to purchase a printed catalogue, the cost including postage is:
USA / Africa / Asia: £50
To order a catalogue, please pay online here. Please put 'SITWELL AUCTION CATALOGUE' in the 'Invoice number' field and ensure you complete all other fields.
General enquiries: + 44 (0) 1635 553 553 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Press enquiries: email@example.com
Sign up for auction alerts and our monthly newsletter to receive expert analysis and insights from our specialists and keep up-to-date on forthcoming auctions, valuation days and previews.