The auction of the contents of Weston Hall, one of the long-time seats of the Sitwell family, held by Dreweatts (25% buyer’s premium) in Newbury was nearly a white-glove affair with very few of the almost 600 lots failing to sell (also see Hammer Highlights, ATG No 2523).
More than 2500 potential bidders from all over the world registered; the final total from the November 16-17 sale was £1.417m including premium. The highest-selling lot was a rediscovered drawing by Tiepolo (see separate story this edition).
While the more famous Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire has been owned by the Sitwells since it was built in 1625, Weston Hall in Northamptonshire came into possession of an ancestor of the Sitwells in 1714. In that year, it was given to a Susanna Jennens as a St Valentine’s Day present from her uncle. Since then, the hall passed down, generally via the female line, until George Sitwell, father of so-called ‘Literary Sitwells’ Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, took it over.
Most recently it was owned by the food critic and publicist William Sitwell and his family. Earlier this year the hall was sold, leaving Dreweatts with the task of dispersing the contents. Over the centuries, consecutive owners contributed to the inventory, most of which remained in situ whenever the house changed hands.
The house contained an eclectic mixture of works of art from over the centuries as well as memorabilia directly acquired by or pertaining to the Literary Sitwells and their circle of friends, generally known as the Bright Young Things.
Plenty of surprises
The sale provided plenty of surprises when it came to fine art. The provenance of many sought-after pieces could be traced back to times long before Weston Hall was owned by the actual Sitwell family.
A case in point was a Portrait of Sir Nathaniel Barnardiston, a Parliamentarian politician renowned for his passionate opposition to King Charles I. The in-house experts were not taken in by the later inscription By Van Dyck 1632 on the 4ft 4in x 3ft 6in (1.32 x 1.07m) canvas and instead ascribed the portrait to the circle of the 17th century artist Robert Walker and put a guide of £3000-5000 on it. Numerous bidders saw to it that the hammer fell at £10,000. The buyer was a British private collector.
Among the 18th century descendants of Nathaniel Barnardiston was Arthur, who married Mary, the daughter of Weston Hall’s owner Susanna Jennens. A 2ft 6in x 2ft 1in (77 x 64cm) Portrait of Mary Barnardiston, holding a Spray of Flowers was attributed to the circle of Thomas Hudson and guided at £500-700. Several competitors pushed the price to £9500. Here too, a UK private bidder made the running.
One of the major disappointments of the auction was Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of the Right Honourable Sylvester Douglas, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1792. Eight years later the sitter was made Baron Glenbervie of Kincardine by George III. The portrait passed by descent and marriage through the family and came to Weston Hall in the early 19th century. The guide was £60,000- 100,000 but on the day there were no takers.
It was a different story when a painting that also belonged to the Glenbervie family and had come to Weston Hall in a similar way emerged for sale. By repute, it also had a connection to Thomas Lawrence.
Even though it was unsigned, there was no doubt about the authorship of the 1ft 11in x 19in (59 x 49cm) Portrait of Caroline, Princess of Wales and her Daughter Princess Charlotte, which was guided at £5000-8000.
The painter can be identified as Maria Cosway (1760-1838) through a mezzotint of the portrait, which was published in May 1801 and is inscribed Maria Cosway pinxit.
Her husband, Richard, was Principal Painter to the Prince and this certainly contributed to the choice of Maria to paint the then Princess of Wales. According to legend, however, Caroline was not fully satisfied with the final result and asked Thomas Lawrence, most probably her lover at the time, to rework the heads. Soon afterwards, Caroline presented the painting to Catherine Anne Douglas, Lady Glenbervie, her Mistress of the Robes.
The moderate estimate motivated bidders from several quarters, so much so that it was only when the bids reached £48,000 that the online bidder, a British collector, could claim the prize.
While many of the successful pieces in the sale came from earlier owners of Weston Hall, there were also numerous mementoes and works of art with much closer connections to the Literary Sitwells themselves.
One example was the 1919 lithograph Wet Evening on Oxford Street by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946).
The artist had several ties to the family: Osbert encountered him during the First World War and in 1925 he published a book about him. Some two years later Nevinson painted one of the iconic portraits of Edith Sitwell, a pastel which was auctioned by Christie’s in London for £46,000 in 1999 and which Nevinson re-created as an etching and dry point.
The lithograph of the West End in the sale was estimated at £1000-1500 but went on to sell for £14,000.
One of the central figures in Edith Sitwell’s life was the Russian artist Pavel Tchelitchew, who has been described as the love of her life, even though he was openly homosexual.
His interest in her was, according to the auction catalogue, purely intellectual, and possibly financial. They remained close for over a quarter of a century and Tchelitchew painted several portraits of Edith and in her collection were a dozen works, most dedicated to her by the artist.
A fan, painted with the motif The Bull Fighters, caused the biggest stir. Tchelitchew gave it to Edith Sitwell ‘on your birthday’ in 1943. The estimate was £3000-5000 but it sold at £26,000. This time a member of the trade had the most staying power.
Much in demand was a Portrait of Edith Sitwell executed in black crayon in 1918 by Nina Hamnett (1890- 1956), whose flamboyant lifestyle earned the title of La Reine Bohème, making her the ideal artist to portray the equally eccentric Edith. The drawing was in the catalogue with a guide of £800-1200 but thanks to its connection between two leading bohemian figures of their day it sold to a British dealer for £16,000.