THE thwack of the polo mallet was replaced by the repeated thud of the gavel earlier this month at the Cowdray estate in West Sussex, celebrated as one of the great British polo venues and the seat of the Viscount Cowdray.
From September 13 to 15,
Christie's dispersed the contents of Cowdray Park and Dunecht
House, the Scottish home of Viscount Cowdray's brother, the Hon.
Charles Pearson. By close of play on the final day, over 4500
people had passed through the gates of Cowdray Park, either to
visit the house for the preview (opened to the public for the first
time) or to attend the sale.
Held in a large marquee just across the lawn from the house, the
opening day of the sale was reasonably well attended despite the
tail-end of Hurricane Katia doing its best to disrupt proceedings
with strong winds and several torrential downpours. Around 100
people, including a healthy contingent of locals, were present for
The marquee was by no means full, however, and since bidding in
the room was scarce at times, it appears that even country house
sales held in situ have had to adapt to 21st century saleroom
Two miles of cable fed electricity to 80 telephone lines, whilst
the online bidding via Christie's Live helped secure clients from
34 countries. The marquee itself had been tailored to use the house
as a scenic backdrop; it was visible through a clear plastic
'wall', providing a direct link between the home and its contents
lest bidders should forget.
Cowdray Park was built amid 16,500 acres of prime West Sussex
countryside by the 7th Earl of Egmont in 1878, four years after he
inherited; the land also includes the ruins of a Tudor house,
formerly known as Cowdray House, which was devastated by fire in
1793. The estate was purchased in 1908 by Weetman Dickinson
Pearson, the 1st Viscount Cowdray, a self-made tycoon who built a
business empire from a small construction company, its descendant
the global media and education corporation Pearson PLC. A 'princely
estate' by Pearson's own admission, it was rapidly filled with
pictures, furniture and works of art.
Above: a view of Buck Hall at Cowdray Park showing Thomas
Gainsborough's full-length portrait of Mrs William Villebois (far
left). This was one of the lots sold at the beginning of the summer
at Christie's King Street which took £5.8m, a record for the artist
A year later, the family's desire for a property north of the
border was satisfied with the purchase of Dunecht House in
Aberdeenshire, built in 1820 as the family home of the Earl of
Crawford and Balcarres. Both properties, furnished almost
simultaneously, were decorated with an emphasis on tradition allied
to modern comfort.
Dunecht and Cowdray are now on the market, the upkeep of the
latter has proven too onerous for Lord Pearson, who put the
property up for sale at £25m last year but has yet to announce a
The combined contents of the houses filled the 530-page
catalogue, offering a highly varied array of items, including
several four-poster beds, suits of armour, paintings, tapestries,
silver and silver furniture, chandeliers and European
In what was effectively a clearance sale prior to disposing of
the house, the aim was to offload as many lots as possible and most
(but not all) of the estimates - and presumably reserves - had been
tempered to allow for this. The approach paid off, as a healthy 93
per cent of lots found new homes, a tribute to Christie's marketing
The sale raised a hammer total of £6.4m. This comfortably topped
the £5m projection rather than blowing it out of the water in the
manner of some of the auctioneers' past memorable on-the-premises
contents sales, like Great Tew Park and Hackwood Park that had
descended through generations or material commissioned centuries
ago to improve an ancient family residence.
Moreover, some of the choicest items in the Cowdray collection
had already gone under the hammer earlier in the year as part of
Christie's high-season summer sales at King Street. These Old
Master paintings and grand pieces of silver had generated some
£9.6m, pushing the overall total for the Pearson collection up to
very healthy £16m.
Christie's incorporated the best remaining pieces into the
opening day, September 13, when anticipation and excitement was at
its peak. The results were solid but not exceptional, with much
going within or just over estimate.
Four full-size Elizabethan portraits had belonged to Lord
Willoughby de Broke of Compton Verney until 1921, when they were
bought by the 2nd Viscount Cowdray. The top lot, a portrait thought
to be of the Countess of Nottingham, sold to London portrait dealer
Other notable results included a pair of c.1870, large Wedgwood
green jasperware vases; several paintings by James Ferrier Pryde
(1866-1941) from Dunecht; silver furniture from the Mexican
Suite at Cowdray, a group of late 15th and early 16th century
helmets; a pair of Cowdray chandeliers and a group of Austrian
enamelled pieces which performed well despite punchy estimates.
There were, however, a few disappointing performances, including
the highest valued pre-sale item, Sir Thomas Lawrence's (1769-1830)
painting of the Viscountess Pollington with her son, John Charles,
which only just managed to get away at £210,000 against a
A self portrait by William Orpen was sold after the sale for
considerably less than the £150,000-250,000 estimate.
Above: this 19th century Italian rococo giltwood tester bed
from Cowdray Park was one of ten four-posters included in the sale.
Against an £8000-12,000 estimate, it sold for £15,000.
For the private home furnisher, souvenir hunter or interior
decorator there was much to whet the appetite. Christie's reported
a higher volume of bidders frequenting the marquee on days two and
three, when the auctioneers offered an array of more ordinary
objects including laundry baskets, labelled kitchen jars, curtains,
rugs and lamps.
The auction house also stated that a quarter of the buyers were
from Sussex or the surrounding counties, attracted predominantly by
the high-profile local provenance.
This Cowdray cachet came in handy in shifting many of the more
everyday pieces, but the relatively low value of much of this
material meant that the souvenir-seekers active on the latter days
contributed little more than a quarter of the overall total.
The buyer's premium was 25/20/12%