COUNTRY HOUSE TREASURES.
THOUGH the sale of the Townshend pictures and silver was one mainly of objects appealing more to family sentiment than to connoisseurs, the silver plate and the series of portraits of members and connections of a great family, many of them the work of the best portrait-painters of the day, fetched nearly double the sum which they were expected to realise, though only one piece, a silver bowl bequeathed by Sir Nicholas Bacon to be an heirloom in the fine house .which he began, but never finished, close to the North Sea at Stiffkey, fetched anything like a sensational price, as values rule to-day.
The importance attached to the Raynham sale suggests a question as to what can or might be the possible aggregate value of the treasures, many in sort, which form the contents of the country houses, and by no means only the great country houses, of the United Kingdom, and raises a doubt whether either the Continental critics or the English public have even the vaguest idea of the extent to which masterpieces, or the works of masters in every branch of art, have for centuries been quietly accumulating in the only country which for the last two centuries and a half has never seen a town sacked, a country mansion fired, or more than a temporary inter', ruption of the quiet accumulation of wealth, which our laws, unlike the Code Napoleon, do not force every father to divide equally among his children.
The date at which the art treasures of the Continent began to be acquired for English country houses is probably not earlier than the days of Charles I. The King set the example both as a buyer of pictures and of works of art, at a time when these were to be obtained on the Continent at very reasonable prices. The effect of this taste seems not to have been entirely lost even on those most antagonistic to him in the rule of dip Commonwealth, for after a decision to pull down Hampton Court and to disperse the pictures there, the Commons decided to reverse the Act, and ultimately some of the pictures, among them the "Triumph" by Mantegna, were preserved, as seems probable, by the wish of Cromwell himself, though the pictures and works of art at Whitehall were sold and dispersed. But it was after the Restoration that the Italian palaces were being built all over England, and that the houses designed by Wren, Inigo Jones, and their successors were steadily filled with statuary, pictures, and frescoes, the first two from abroad, and the last painted, as a rule, by foreign artists. Private gentleinen like Evelyn, equally with great nobles, were eager to embellish their houses with works of art, though their first care was un- doubtedly to build a fine house ; sculpture and pictures were afterthoughts. But next to the desire to buy land and add acre to acre came that for collecting objects of art. Accumu- lation of cash personalty, now among the ambitions, and per- haps one of the necessities, of the heads of great families, does not seem to have offered an attraction to those who succeeded to the titles and estates until recent years. When not 'buying land, their investments were largely in pictures, or they spent their money on architecture. The former have often proved a valuable asset, and in some cases have aided in preserving the family palace. There never seems to have been a period since the Restoration at which the owners of great country houses were not well represented by those who succeeded to the taste for buying pictures. Blenheim, Longford, Bowood, Stowe, Petworth, Holkham, Houghton, and Chatsworth have found their lineal successors in Hertford House, Dorchester Rouse, Mentmore, in Lord Crawford's collection at Haigh, and at Waddesdon.
Though the process of dispersion is never arrested, and has received an undue impetus of late from the action of the Death-duties, the sales are very largely only a means of circulating these treasures, and of their removal from one setting to another. While a certain percentage is lost, or goes abroad, the order and tranquillity of English society tend to attract and retain precious possessions. They settle here on their way down the river of time, as gold settles in the quiet eddies of some auriferous stream. This must con- tinue so long as the United Kingdom is the chosen home and retreat, not only of overseas Englishmen who have made fortunes, but of American and cosmopolitan millionaires who, with all the world to choose from, buy or build English 'country houses. It is probable that Waddesdon • Manor, with the gems not only of pictorial art, but of furniture and other ornamental objects, collected by the late Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, while one of the latest examples of an English country house and its contents, has never yet seen its equal in England. It is not only that the objects are all the very best examples of their kind, while each besides being precious is beautiful. Each and every one of them forms part of a whole, so that the harmony of colour and form is never for a moment interrupted, but only enhanced by each object in the kind of setting and surroundings, for which the original artists intended it.
The migration of masterpieces from one stately home to another would make an interesting subject for an essay. For one thing, masterpieces seem almost undestructible. There is a kind of divinity which hedges them. Only they are "passed on" from time to time. The dealers and owners could probably trace their migrations without difficulty from sale catalogues, which record not only their previous homes, but the rise or fall in their value. The famous sale at Stowe in August, 1848, occupied more than thirty days. The col- lection was rich, not only in pictures, but in Sevres and Majolica. There was also a curious "jumble" side to it, for among the lots were the inkstand of Sixtus V., the travelling organ of James II., a table given by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, to the Countess of Shrewsbury, the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, a miniature of Charles II. by Cooper, Queen Anne's toilet glass, ivory chairs once the property of Tippoo Sahib— and the statue of the marine Venus from the baths of Agrippa. At Petworth the walls and galleries show some six hundred pictures, nearly all of importance, and many of them masterpieces. The great Duke of Marlborough himself purchased many of the pictures at Blenheim, while others in the collection were presents from Princes and potentates who had been aided by his victories.
One of the earliest collections of pictures lost to this country was that made by Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton. The third Earl of Orford sold the greater part of it to the Empress Catherine of Russia for 210,000. Horace Walpole says that he nevertheless refurnished Houghton, and even supplied it with fresh pictures "by the flimsy scene- painter Cipriani." As an investment the choice made by Sir Robert Walpole did him credit, for he only paid £40,000 for the whole collection, and it was but a part that the Empress purchased for that sum. If during the " Georgian " period our nobles and squires went on col- lecting Continental paintings, it must be remembered that they were also almost the sole purchasers (except of portraits) of the work of the English school, artists whose paintings are now as prized as almost any of the "old masters," but who during their lives had no vogue beyond our islands. It is from the halls and galleries and dining-rooms and saloons of the English country houses that the Gainsboroughs, Romneys, Reynoldses, .Floppners, Constables, Cromes, and Morlands have been diffusing their glowing beauties and un- fading charm, which, like the light of stars so distant that their rays only just reach the earth from other firmaments after ages of travel through space, have at last caught and arrested the attention and admiration of the art world of Paris and Berlin. But there is something rather magnificent in the spirit in which the English set to work to collect pictures before their own artists were generally esteemed. The taste soon spread from the palaces of the nobles to the parlours of the merchants, but it is noteworthy that the latter seem to have turned mainly to English art. Vernon, the London job-master, and later contractor for Army horses, purchased English paintings mainly. .Angerstein, whose collection formed the nucleus of the National Gallery, was the father of "Lloyds," and showed as much good sense in picture-buying as in marine insurance and general finance.
Sculpture never seems to have appealed greatly to our collectors. It was too exotic. Had it been otherwise, perhaps Lord Elgin would have kept the marbles of the Parthenon as family heirlooms ; certainly we should not have seen in the last few years a portion of the frieze recovered from a rockery in Essex. Time seems to justify the excellence of nearly all English work, of our silver plate and our furniture equally with our pictures. The value of the silver has in many cases been enhanced beyond anything which its makers could have ever dreamed of, partly because of the scarcity of the early pieces, but largely from their beauty and charm. Country squires who possess family plate in any quantity, and think it worth while to have it insured, will often be agreeably sur- prised at the estimate of its value made by experts whose figures are accepted by the insurance offices.