The prospect of a mix of market-fresh items carefully gathered over many generations is undoubtably one of the major attractions of an estate collection. Such sales bestow objects with the stories and history that are so essential to collecting.
The May 27 Christie’s (26% buyer’s premium) sale titled The Collection of the late Lord and Lady Swaythling certainly fitted this category.
David Montagu (1928-98), who became the 4th Lord Swaythling in 1990, had a career that spanned the worlds of banking, horseracing, politics and media and a collection – displayed at a 19th century house in Newmarket and a modern London residence – that wove together strands of several family inheritances.
Many objects came from his maternal grandmother, the interwar connoisseur Nellie Ionides, née Samuel (1883-1962), and others from his paternal grandmother Gladys Montagu, née Goldsmid (1879-1965).
Ionides was well known as a collector of 18th century Battersea and Bilston enamels. It had helped cement a friendship with Queen Mary, who was also an avid enamel collector; and both collections were featured in the influential book, English Painted Enamels (1951), by Therle and Bernard Hughes.
For collectors of English 18th century enamels the Swaythling sale was something of a treasure trove. More than 80 pieces, once carefully displayed in cabinets at Buxted Park, Sussex, were offered in 18 lots. Some could be seen in a black and white photograph taken for Country Life in 1950 that was blown up to provide a suitable backdrop at the viewing.
These included a rare George III gilt-metal mounted enamel vase-shaped wall clock, c.1765, incorporating an earlier watch movement by Windmills, London, c.1720. The dial is bordered with an emerald-green paste set and upheld by a girl and a boy in Eastern dress while the chinoiserie handles are formed as dragons. It did suffer from a break to the base but, estimated at £6000-10,000, hammered at £9500.
Another very fine enamel piece was a gilt-metal mounted white ground enamel casket, c.1770. The casket contained four small snuff boxes, each with a cover depicting different rococo scenes of figures within ruined classical landscapes. After plenty of interest it sold at £14,500, above the estimate of £5000-8000.
For enamel collectors who like horses a large oval snuffbox that depicted a jockey exercising a grey was a good bet. The lid is inscribed Gimcrack – Robert Collins 1769 – a reference to one of the great 18th century thoroughbreds. Marred a little by a fitted chip to the base, it nonetheless took £3500 (estimate £2000-4000).
Two George III gilt metal mounted painted enamel caddies, c.1760, did well making £8500 against an estimate of £2000-3000. The hinged lids are decorated with The Flute Lesson after Lancret, the sides with scenes after Watteau, Annibale Carracci and others. As was often necessary, one interior is painted with some small insects to disguise original firing cracks.
Perhaps the choice lot in this section was a marriage of Eastern and Western craftsmanship: a jewellike ormolu-mounted casket set with Chinese reverse-glass painted panels of courtly ladies within landscapes.
A miniaturisation of the typical Georgian reverse-painted mirror with giltwood frame, it found many admirers but few direct comparisons. A comparable tea caddy set with reverse-painted panels was sold from the collection of Marjorie Wiggin Prescott in New York in 1981 and resold at Sotheby’s in 1985 for £13,500.
Against an attractive estimate of £4000-6000, this casket got away at £40,000.
The Swaythling range of Chinese objects was quite typical of aristocratic Western taste including both pieces made for export and some made for the domestic market.
Famille rose medallion bowls are the most recognisable imperial pieces from the Daoguang period (1821-50). The example here with a sgraffiato yellow ground was decorated with medallions of scholars in mountainous landscapes with pavilions. It was estimated at £6000- 10,000 but hammered at £38,000 – pretty much par for the course for one of these in a thirsty market.
An earlier example of famille rose, a miniature tea service, was probably made for export in the 1730s. It comprised a teapot, ewer, jar, bowl and 10 cups and saucers each finely painted in bright enamels and gilt. Miniature garnitures and teawares were made across the Qing period both as doll’s house objects and as novelties. Relatively few sets survive and this one got away at £19,000 against an estimate of £1200-1800.
Two textbook examples of famille verte from the Kangxi period (1662- 1722) both sold well above what were modest expectations. A pair of figural wine beakers decorated with figural scenes achieved £30,000 against the estimate of £800-1200 while a large bowl decorated with shaped panels of mythical beasts alternating with flowering plants between a geometric band of flower heads sold for £16,000 (estimate £1500-2500).
Very much in the established tradition of a country house clearance was a (relatively small) offering of 18th century English furniture.
The best of these was a George III lacquered-brass mounted bois satine, padouk and floral marquetry serpentine commode attributed to Henry Hill of Marlborough. Originally owned by Nellie Ionides, the commode can be seen in photos of the reconfigured saloon, formerly the library, at Buxted Park. She had bought the house in 1931 with her husband Basil Ionides (1884-1950).
Christie’s believed the commode could be firmly attributed to Hill as it shares many construction details with others such as the Doddington commode, supplied to Sir John Delaval in 1775. Hampered a little by pedestrian marquetry work, it hammered at £35,000 (estimate £25,000-40,000).
It is indicative of the market that some of the Swaythling furniture went under the radar. A prime example would be a pair of Regency mahogany bowfront commodes, c.1810. Very much in the manner of Gillows, each with fluted columns with foliate capitals on reeded toupie feet, these were certainly a bargain at £2600, way under the estimate of £5000-8000.
Overall, the Swaythling sale made £2.9m including buyer’s premium with 94% of the 168 lots sold.
Charlotte Young, Christie’s head of sale, said: “The market showed great enthusiasm across all categories from jewellery to Chinese works of art and English painted enamels, reflecting the appetite for works with great provenance, many of which have been unseen in public for many decades, if ever.”
Jewellery from the collection forms part of this week’s jewellery feature.