F ascinating stories from one of Britain’s great Regency houses, Spetchley Park in Worcestershire, will be revealed for the first time as 750 objects, many acquired by the Berkeley family over the course of 400 years, will be offered by Sotheby’s.
Henry Berkeley, the youngest son of the late John Berkeley, inherited Spetchley Park two years ago, and now plans to move into the house with his wife and young children. The need to restore the historic building and turn it into a 21st-century home has led to the upcoming auction on 11 December, which will feature hundreds of fascinating objects from the house’s attics, stores, domestic offices and state rooms.
“There is much in this wonderful collection that is duplicated or not pertinent to our vision and requirements where children can roam free without the pressures of being around pieces that are too valuable to risk,” says Berkeley. “We therefore have taken the difficult but necessary decision to put some of the collection to the market so that it can be nurtured by those who will understand its provenance. The sale will also allow us to undertake the enormous task of this renovation and so create a wonderful legacy for future generations as well as provide a beautiful backdrop to the magical gardens, enjoyed by so many visitors through the summer.”
The First and Second Generations
The stunning house, as it stands today, dates from 1811 and was built with honey-coloured Bath stone brought from Somerset by canal and by road. The house, designed in the Palladian style, was commissioned by Robert Berkeley (1764-1845) and built on an estate which had been in the Berkeley family since 1606.
A dramatic Regency statement, the new house was the opposite of what had stood before on the site, a deliberate intention on Robert’s part, perhaps as a celebration of ancient lineage but also an indicator of considered good taste. It was designed to impress, and at considerable cost: according to family tradition, the project was so extravagant Robert was to burn the family accounts.
Many of the objects offered in the sale date from when the house was designed as a home for Robert and his two children, Robert and Eliza. It was decorated with ancestral portraits with sculpture and pictures likely to have been acquired on a Grand Tour through Europe and featured an ingenious ground floor gallery with unusual folding walls. In the first quarter of the 19th century, Robert acquired mahogany furniture for his new house from the very best cabinetmakers as well as a suite of sumptuous Chinese Export wallpaper for a Regency scheme that never materialised. The wallpaper’s exquisite colours have remained hidden in the darkness for 200 years.
The Third Generation
In 1830, the estate and house were formally passed from Robert Berkeley, the builder of Spetchley, to his son, Robert (1794-1874). The preparations included the extensive redecoration of the house and the acquisition of new furniture. In 1838, Robert, was appointed High Commissioner of Worcester.
Robert records in his diary visits throughout the British Isles to family estates in Wales and British treasure houses like Chatsworth. Tellingly he was to send his son Robert Martin to Europe, and then aboard the SS Great Western to North America in August 1843. He must also have encouraged Robert in his own collecting, as it was presumably the two who created the private museum at Spetchley in the 1840s. Housed in a small room off the Grand Staircase, the museum was an astonishing space that came to be filled with the acquisitions of three generations. If his father was a product of the Regency period, Robert was a son of the Victorian age and all that it encompassed.
The Fourth Generation
Spetchley’s long history has been largely dominated by male protagonists. There are however, two important female characters who have great bearing on the house, gardens and collection: Ellen Ann Willmott and her sister Rose, later Berkeley and chatelaine of Spetchley. Ellen was to become one of the most important horticulturists of her generation.
In August 1891, Rose married Robert Valentine Berkeley, Robert Martin’s son, and in 1897, they moved into Spetchley where they set about rationalizing the collection and adding to it, exploring different areas and focusing on Northern Europe, the low Countries and Renaissance Italy. They were the fourth generation of collectors at Spetchley united by the common pursuit of informed acquisitions through foreign travel.
Between 1907 and 1912 the young couple began a programme of refurbishment and redecoration at the house. Rose brought her own taste to Spetchley, along with an injection of family money. Historic textiles were installed, along with antiquarian furniture, metalwork, treen and fine bronzes.
Rose’s sister, Ellen Willmott of Warley Place, the famed horticulturist, was a passionate collector too. After Ellen’s death in 1935, the Berkeleys acquired works from the six-day sale of Ellen’s collection from Warley Place at a sale on the premises and from Sotheby’s that year, they bought a rare Kirkman harpsichord. Many of the works offered from the collection reflect the sisters’ greatest love – gardening – and feature an abundance of floral motifs.
During World War II, Spetchley was earmarked as the headquarters for Churchill and his war cabinet; however, he decided to stay in London and, as a result, it became a recuperation home for the 9th United States Army Air Force.