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Sale of the century: the contents of the Sitwells' mansion are going under the hammer

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

In my bedroom there is a small lidded laundry basket. It was designed by Geoffrey Lusty for Lloyd Loom, a company that has, since 1917, been producing surprisingly durable furniture made from lacquered woven paper fabric for the middle classes. The basket is globular and stands on three spindly legs. It is weatherbeaten, and slightly worn, because it was produced in 1957, at the dawn of the Space Era. Indeed, it is a Sputnik wicker linen basket, designed in the style of the famous satellite. Only 100 were ever produced. Why is this double design classic not in a museum? It may be that one is. As far as this one is concerned, however, I bought it at an auction in Bedfordshire last month for just over two hundred quid.

I suspect I am not alone in having gained a galloping auction habit during lockdown. All those empty hours at home with a laptop for company. Moreover, for me the pandemic coincided with setting up a new home. As Habitat had gone bust and Ikea was firmly closed, I dived into the auction world, in particular the mid-20th century sales at Sworders auctioneers in Cambridgeshire, home of brutalist lampstands and postwar Scandi treasure troves, and Peacock in Bedford, wherein my Sputnik basket and a quartet of lovely smoky, knobbly Whitefriars glass vases were sourced. I warrant that the vintage dealers were at the same auctions, buying stuff, marking it up and eventually putting it front and centre in their reopened shops.

I am sorely tempted by the single house sale, where everything under a particular roof goes under the gavel. Surveying an entire collection is a strange experience. No longer will all these pieces be in conversation with each other. The French have painstakingly reassembled most of the 17,000 lots of furniture and art flogged off from Versailles in revolutionary sales, but who will do that for the collection of gallerist Sally Hunter and her late husband, the banker Ian Posgate? Their vast, properly curated collection of mid-20th century British art, including handblocked wallpaper and bas-relief panels, went under the hammer at Sworders this May. Posgate and Hunter clearly had an unstoppable habit. The catalogue was 165 pages long.

This November heralds an even more tempting proposition, namely the sale of the contents of Weston Hall, the famous home of the Sitwells, where the Bright Young Things capered and guests included Cecil Beaton and Noël Coward. More than half of the furniture and accoutrements that crammed the 80-room mansion are to be sold by the auction firm Dreweatts. Highlights include a four-poster bed in which Edith Sitwell, wearing a turban, used to sit and write poetry, the gown she wore to the première of My Fair Lady, and a drawing by Tiepolo that was discovered in the family safe and is estimated to fetch £200,000.

It fell to the writer William Sitwell, who grew up at Weston, to oversee the sale of the house (‘it was bought by a private individual in finance, with a wife and three children’) and then to organise the subsequent auction of all the stuff inside it. This was clearly a painful, almost traumatic process. ‘We filled two or three skips, we had a fire raging day after day in the back yard, we had endless men in vans arriving… there was an extraordinary flotilla of people coming in and out of the house, as it gradually emptied,’ he says. ‘It was a horrible thing to witness. Every room at Weston was a time capsule of different moments in English history, and our own lives and memories. When you start peeling that back and eventually all you are left with are the bare walls and a tatty rug, it’s not very cheerful. The last day I was there, some friends came over and I said they could help themselves to books. Seeing the delight in their eyes, and envisaging things going to new homes, I kind of crumbled.’

Everything — the 18th-century books, the feathered hats, portraits by Thomas Lawrence, designs by William’s grandfather Sacheverell Sitwell, a portrait of Sacheverell by Wyndham Lewis, silver, ceramics, fabrics, militaria, a rocking horse and a Victorian Brougham carriage — is out of Weston, tagged and numbered, ready to be sold. ‘It is sad that they will be scattered,’ admits Sitwell. ‘These collections sat in the same room. They talked to each other, and now they are going to be dispersed. But that is the way it goes. New relationships will be born as the art and furniture are disposed of. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.’

Indeed, he realises that some of the individual treasures might shine a bit more forcefully once they have been relieved of the glaring foglight of Sitwell charisma. ‘When you go into a house like Weston, you always found that specific things become part of one entity. Now a particular piece might become the highlight of a room, or a wall. It can glow and sparkle in a way that it never did before.’

Anything he is quite happy to see the back of? ‘Well, Edith’s costumes are very important; they help tell the story of Edith Sitwell. But they are not the most practical of things, so I would be happy to see them taken on by someone,’ he confesses. ‘We used to try them on and mince around in them. It’s good now we can allow serious collectors to take possession.’ Indeed, one of the lots is a favoured hat trimmed with feathers which she wore during a sitting with Cecil Beaton. The resulting photograph is in the National Portrait Gallery, but you could purchase the actual hat for an astonishingly low estimate of £50. This is the surprising thing about auctions; outside the newsy sales of, say, a new da Vinci, or impressionist work at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, you can pick up some amazing things if you are willing to chance it.

This sale will clearly favour dramatic types with a bit of chutzpah. A bit like the Sitwells themselves. ‘When the Brougham chariot was wheeled out of the drive and put on to a low loader, that was really hard to see,’ admits Sitwell. ‘But if someone comes along and gallops off into the distance on it, that would be a charming idea.’ How very Evelyn Waugh.

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Highlights of the sale are at Dreweatts London from 28 September to 1 October. The full auction is on view from 10 to 15 November at Dreweatts Donnington Priory, where the two-day auction, Weston Hall and the Sitwells: A Family Legacy, will take place on 16 and 17 November.

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