Auction catalogue cover
Sunday 1 April 2012

SEEKING THE LOST TREASURES OF STOWE

Trust Launches Public Appeal for Information

 
 

As World Monuments Fund (WMF) comes close to reaching its fundraising target of £10 million, with only £99,500 left to be raised, the Stowe House Preservation Trust (SHPT) launches an appeal for the public’s assistance in finding out what happened to the lost treasures of Stowe. It is over 150 years since Stowe House, the magnificent Grade I listed Neoclassical palace set in 400 acres of landscaped park in Buckinghamshire, was stripped of its contents.

Jonathan Foyle, Chief Executive of WMF Britain, said: “World Monuments Fund’s challenge for Stowe is now within 1% of completion, three years after an anonymous benefactor threw down a £5 million gauntlet for matching funds. The combined funds have already helped to repair the magnificent south front, restore the Large Library and prepare the exhibition space beneath the central Marble Saloon. Now we are concentrating on delivering its public presentation. In March, the National Trust opened the gates of New Inn directing tens of thousands of visitors towards the house, just as Georgian tourists first experienced the site almost 300 years ago. From April, conservation of the delightfully painted Music Room will get underway with the help of the Paul Mellon Estate, before attention turns to William Kent’s North Hall. Finally, the balustrades before the south front will be repaired, the thirty spun copper urns reinstated as sponsorship allows. One of Britain’s great architectural set-pieces will then be complete and home to the Lost Treasures of Stowe, a ‘virtual’ collection of the paintings and works of art that once filled the sumptuous rooms – if we can find and identify them. The public can now play a key role in complementing this magnificent restoration programme. If you know the whereabouts of any items that once adorned the house, please contact Stowe House.”

The Temple-Grenville family owned Stowe for most of its history: it was a famed seat that cultivated prime ministers from within the family, presiding over the turbulent decades when England amassed an empire but lost America. Earl Temple largely completed the house circa 1770: his nephew became the Marquess of Buckingham and his son eventually gained the title of 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos in 1822, the only dukedom created by George IV. The 2nd Duke, at vast expense, completely redecorated the State Rooms for a three-day visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in January 1845. It was this final extravagance that led to the first Great Sale of Stowe, which lasted thirty-seven days, by Messrs. Christie and Manson in 1848 when most of the paintings and works of art and much of the state furniture came under the gavel, raising a mere £75,000 against debts of £1.5 million.

The following year over 6,000 documents were sold and further sales were conducted by Messrs. S. Leigh Sotheby & Co. in 1849. The family’s dwindling fortune and the loss of the heir in the Great War necessitated the auction by Messrs. Jackson Stops in 1921 of the entire estate: the house, gardens, furniture and even bed linen. The following year the house was bought by property developer Harry Shaw who intended to donate the estate to the nation but could not raise an endowment to accompany the gift, so he too was forced to sell. The house was stripped of every fixture and fitting, all of which were then sold as individual lots and it was in this last sale that Stowe lost many of its important interior features. Stowe now faced the threat of demolition but escaped the bulldozers thanks to the foundation of Stowe School in 1923.

While many important items from Stowe found their way into national and international museums and institutions, notably the Wallace Collection in London, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and the Huntington Library in California, most have disappeared into private collections. These are the pieces the SHPT would like to track down, not to buy them back but to photograph them and thereby create a ‘virtual’ collection to give future visitors an idea of the rooms in all their glory. The SHPT is also eager to discover images, sketches, photographs or prints of the interiors of the house and its contents before 1922. Such images, together with digitised auction catalogues, would form part of the online forum to identify lost treasures.

One of the most complete descriptions of the interiors at Stowe soon after the Royal visit in 1845 is the record by an estate tenant Elizabeth George. This extraordinary account, together with the guide books published locally by Benton Seeley, give an idea of the artworks, furniture and objets d’art in Stowe’s heyday. George wrote: “Everything in the way of furniture seemed to be carved and inlaid gilded wood – rich, figured genoa velvet, embroidered satin and gold and silver brocade. The house was splendidly furnished before preparations were made for the Royal visit, and in my humble opinion all these costly additions are de trop and have so crowded the apartments as to give them the appearance of a large furniture warehouse – and no space being left vacant on the floors – you do not appreciate the noble proportions of the rooms.”

Other useful visual records include: a faint watercolour by one of the Wynne sisters, frequent visitors to Stowe, which shows a pair of chairs that may fit the description of those in the Wallace Collection; and the painting in the Royal Collection of the State Drawing Room commissioned by Queen Victoria from Joseph Nash which is detailed enough to make out individual paintings and pieces of furniture. Some of the more individual fixtures sold at the 1922 auction include a mock sarcophagus containing a stove, a pair of sphinx statues and a set of seven canvases and two glass panels painted with depictions of Egyptian figures and hieroglyphs. These items once belonged in the Egyptian Hall which was restored last summer. A 19th century watercolour sketch gives a good indication of the design of the sarcophagus-stove but the canvases and the sphinx statues remain something of a mystery.

For over a decade, the SHPT has worked hard to restore the building and encourage students and visitors to understand its importance and now most of the interior restoration has been completed. Whilst the Egyptian Hall and the Music Room restoration projects highlight the immediate need to re-discover lost fixtures and fittings in order to restore interiors accurately, the long-term purpose of the Lost Treasures of Stowe campaign is to record the dispersal of Stowe objects. As the house is preserved for future generations, this campaign will serve to record the objects that were once housed here.

Items that once belonged to Stowe might bear a variation of the family’s coat of arms or even the family motto: Templa quam dilecta (How lovely are thy Temples) which is a pun or rebus on the surname and on the large number of garden buildings. To find out how you can join in the search, or to register items, visit www.stowetreasures.org or e-mail losttreasures@stowe.co.uk.

Notes to Editors

Stowe House is not only a building of huge scale and grandeur but also one of Britain’s most spectacular cultural landmarks, the result of a long and glorious era of artistic patronage on the part of the Temple-Grenville family who became the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos. The building was begun by Sir Richard Temple in 1676, his family having been sheep farmers under Elizabeth I. Over the next century, Viscount Cobham and then his nephew Earl Temple rebuilt it into the great classical show house and landscape which still amazes visitors today. As an early public tourist attraction, it was the first English site to be explained by a guide book and Stowe became a Grand Tour in itself. Numerous famous architects worked there including Sir John Vanbrugh, William Kent, James Gibbs, Robert Adam, Thomas Pitt and Sir John Soane, making Stowe one of the most important houses and estates in the country.

The Temple-Grenville family and their Pitt relatives dominated much of 18th and early 19th century politics with four prime ministers from this family in some fifty years. Many members of European and Russian royal families visited Stowe over the years culminating in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s three-day visit in 1845. The Queen is said not to have been impressed by the 2nd Duke’s lavish hospitality but the visit left him seriously out of pocket and in 1848 spiralling debts led to the first Great Sale of the House and Estate contents. The 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos died in 1889 leaving the Estate to his daughter, Lady Kinloss. Her eldest son was killed in World War I and in 1921 the Stowe Estate was sold to Harry Shaw. Unable to present Stowe to the nation due to a lack of an endowment, he resold it. The House faced the threat of demolition, was marketed as a quarry for salvage, but escaped the bulldozers thanks to the foundation of Stowe School in 1923.

By 1989, the School could no longer afford to look after both the house and the grounds and so the landscaped gardens and the 32 surviving temples were handed over to the National Trust. While the School had done all it could to maintain the vast house, no major restoration or renovation had been carried out since the 1860s and time and weather have caused the stonework and important interiors to deteriorate badly.

Stowe House Preservation Trust was established in 1997 with the principal aim of restoring and preserving Stowe House for the benefit of the nation, the public and the School as its tenant. Together with the School, the National Trust and in partnership with the WMF and other supporters, SHPT seeks to complete the restoration of Stowe as an historic masterpiece for the nation and to maintain it for future generations. It has been a daunting challenge to restore this great mansion with its 400 rooms and 1/6 mile-wide façade and of opening it up to the general public.

World Monuments Fund was set up as a private organisation in 1965 by a group of enthusiasts aware of the dangers that the world’s architectural inheritance faced from neglect, the passage of time, war and natural disasters. Its aim was to help rescue and preserve endangered sites around the world. WMF Britain helps as an affiliate and works with local partners and communities to identify and save important heritage through innovative programmes of field conservation, advocacy, grant-making and public education. WMF included Stowe in its 2002 Watch List of endangered sites and began to support the project by substantially funding the restoration of the astonishing Marble Saloon, an oval version of the Pantheon in Rome, with its 57-foot-high dome which was completed in 2005. Stowe House is their most exciting challenge and a unique opportunity to preserve a work of international architectural significance.

 
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