Today and Thursday in London, Sotheby's is holding an auction of exceptional "property and precious objects" from the estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, who died last year at the age of 99. In an effort to channel Downton Abbey, Sotheby's is calling the auction "The Duchess." Cue the lavish promo video with soundtrack and the requisite trawl through a dusty attic filled with vintage monogrammed trunks.
Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe had an incredibly colorful life, brought up in splendor at the ancestral home of Crewe Hall in Cheshire and Crewe House in Mayfair, one of the last great London mansions, today the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. Her father was the first and only Marquess of Crewe, her mother was a Rothschild, and she was named after her godmother, Queen Mary. She was married in Westminster Abbey in 1935 to the 9th Duke of Roxburghe, and was back two years later at the coronation of King George VI to hold the new queen's train (the robes and ermine-trimmed coronet that she wore are part of the auction). She famously endured a six-week siege in 1953 at Floors Castle, her husband's 100-room Scottish seat, after he served her divorce papers on a silver breakfast tray; she barricaded herself in a wing of the house, and he cut off heat, electricity, telephone, and gas in an effort to oust her. He tried also to turn off the water, but a canny and sympathetic neighbor, the future Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who eventually helped broker a resolution, advised her to alert the insurance company to the fire threat. A divorce was granted later that year, and she spent much of the rest of her life in a stately apartment overlooking Hyde Park in London and at West Horsley Place, her mother’s family’s 16th-century brick mansion on 400 acres in Surrey. She never remarried, and she had no children.
After her death last year, her 80-year-old nephew Bamber Gascoigne - the original quizmaster for the BBC TV show University Challenge - unexpectedly discovered that he had inherited West Horsley Place, a place he had fond memories of visiting, but where he had never even seen the upstairs. The mansion, which is in a state of advanced decay, is full of centuries of family history. As Sotheby's says, these belongings represent a "portrait of an England that no longer exists but was preserved, untouched for almost half a century." That is an understatement. In nearly 700 lots, there is just a staggering range of objects from a vanished aristocratic world: 19th-century livery uniforms, Qing Dynasty vases, Art Deco jeweled and enameled gold cigarette cases, tortoise shell lorgnettes, a massive silver-gilt toilet service from 1934-1935 engraved with her initials MR under a Duchess' coronet, and so on. There is also a portrait of Carl Linnaeus smoking a pipe, and a set of 39 stereoview photographs of Native Americans and landscapes of the American West by T. H. O'Sullivan and W. H. Jackson, given to the Hon. Robert Crewe-Milnes (later 1st Marquess of Crewe) in 1875 by General William Tecumseh Sherman. To save the property and deal with the death duties, Gascoigne is putting many of the house's treasures up for sale. And the house keeps yielding surprises; a study for the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting Flaming June was discovered hanging behind a door in the Duchess' bedroom.
So, why write about this on a Smithsonian blog? Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe was one of the last of the Hungerfords, the family that James Smithson was so proud to claim - that which enabled him to boast that he was "related to kings." Her great-grandmother, Henrietta Maria Anne Hungerford, was Smithson's first cousin (Henrietta was the daughter of Smithson’s mother's sister, Henrietta Maria Keate).
I was fortunate to correspond with the Duchess back in 2003, when I was working on my biography of James Smithson. She shared with me a copy of a letter responding to one that Smithson had written to the family from Paris in the summer of 1820, after the death of his cousin Henrietta Maria, apparently trying to claim something of her estate. As I worked to reconstruct Smithson's social and scientific networks - after all his papers were lost in the Smithsonian fire of 1865 - this was one more very welcome clue to the importance that Smithson placed on his ancestry, and the tremendous efforts that he made to ensure that he received what he felt was due to him.
This letter and other Hungerford papers were promised to the Cheshire Record Office. They have not yet been deposited there, but I hope that Mr. Gascoigne, whenever he comes across Hungerford-related material, will follow through on the gift. It will be exciting to learn if there is other Smithson-related correspondence among the papers.
- James Smithson: Founder of the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives