ART MARKET / The Groombridge inheritance: The contents of the house in The Draughtsman's Contract, some in place since Stuart times, are for sale. Leslie Geddes-Brown reports

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The Independent Culture
Exactly 200 years ago, a pair of ornate glass chandeliers was being hoisted for the house-warming of Robert Burges, who had recently moved into Groombridge Place - a handsome, moated redbrick pile just outside Tunbridge Wells in Kent. One crashed to the ground during the party, narrowly missing the guests. The other hangs in Groombridge's dark-panelled drawing room to this day, its spear-shaped finials splitting into rainbows the sunlight that floods in from the window beside the moat.

How much longer that chandelier will hang there is anybody's guess. Most of Groombridge village, with its charming clapboarded or tile-hung cottages and the busy Crown pub set around a triangular green, has just been sold to a trust company. Groombridge Place - which starred in Peter Greenaway's 1982 film The Draughtsman's Contract - has been bought by a private owner. But its extraordinary contents are to be auctioned by Sotheby's in a two-day sale on 15 and 16 September.

In 1919, Henry Stanford Mountain bought the village, the 238-acre estate, the 1655 manor house and much of its contents, from the last descendant of Robert Burges. Mountain kept portraits and furniture where they were - including the Stuart portraits of the Packers, who built the house after demolishing the remnants of a burnt-out Norman castle within the moat.

The Packer portraits are coming under the hammer with the rest: Phillip Packer, who rebuilt Groombridge (estimate pounds 3,000 pounds 5,000); his pretty second wife, Isabella (same estimate); and a group portrait of their four daughters ( pounds 8,000- pounds 12,000) by a follower of John Michael Wright. Mountain bought them before the 1919 sale for less than pounds 50 each. The new owner was offered them by the executors of the last, on condition he bought everything else in the house. Understandably, he preferred to wait.

H S Mountain, who made his money from insurance, kept meticulous accounts of all his buys in a morocco-bound 'red book'. He saved all the original invoices, too. A copy of the catalogue of the 1919 sale annotated by Mountain (with rings round the lot numbers he wanted - and got) was also found in the house.

We therefore know that the remaining George III chandelier of the house-warming pair was bought before the sale by Mr Mountain for pounds 100. It was a good buy, for Sotheby's experts estimate that it will fetch between pounds 12,000 and pounds 18,000.

Many other objects in the panelled drawing room are detailed with equal care: the verre eglomise pier glass of around 1700 was bought by Mountain from Edwards of Regent Street on 20 June 1929 for pounds 650 (estimate now pounds 15,000- pounds 20,000). It replaced a Chinoiserie gilded mirror which Mountain bought at the 1919 sale for pounds 131 5s and was later moved to the staircase, where it still hangs. Its current estimate is pounds 3,000- pounds 5,000, which I reckon is pretty good value because it is both elegant and showy. The console table above which it used to hang is still in the drawing room - bought from the 1919 auction for pounds 62 and now estimated at pounds 20,000- pounds 30,000.

Because little had changed at Groombridge since George III was on the throne, Mountain's buys in 1919 had an impeccable provenance and were genuine in every detail. Henry Stanford was not, however, so astute with his other buys - though his eye for the right period effect cannot be faulted. Graham Child, head of Sotheby's furniture department, has found that quite a few of his purchases from antique dealers proved less than genuine - though, to be fair, authenticating antiques is much easier today because of modern technology.

'There are two oak buffets in the dining room which are old reproductions, although well-made and with an eye for detail,' says Child. Mountain bought these for pounds 85 and pounds 90 in 1915; they are now valued at pounds 1,500- pounds 2,000. Mountain's own bedroom is also furnished with dubious pieces: his overpowering four-poster, bought in 1922 for pounds 102 (estimate today pounds 5,000- pounds 8,000), is a made-up job. The side-table on which he laid his initialled hairbrushes has a fake oyster-veneer top on a genuine 17th-century base ( pounds 22 10s in 1921; pounds 800- pounds 1,200 today).

Mountain also purchased two Queen Anne walnut bureau bookcases for Groombridge: one bought in 1926 for pounds 370 (lot 152, estimate pounds 6,000- pounds 9,000) is genuine, the other (lot 102) is not; Mountain paid pounds 237 10s and the estimate is only pounds 3,000- pounds 5,000.

After Henry Stanford died, surrounded by the old oak he had collected, his bachelor son, Stanford Walton, succeeded him. He made the odd buy, but never became a serious collector. Beryl Partington, now over 70 - who was cook at Groombridge for 34 years - remembers the father for his asthma. The son was 'very Victorian - he never came into the kitchen without knocking and asking permission'. He died, aged 92, just before The Draughtsman's Contract was released. That was just as well, since he would have been disgusted by some of the scenes. 'Especially the sex. He was very prim.'

Her father, Stanley Newnham, was the elder Mountain's chauffeur. At that time, the house had two live-in housemaids, a parlour maid, two kitchen maids, four gardeners and a resident carpenter. The butler lived in a cottage by the moat which had no running water, so he always bathed in the servants' quarters on the second floor - and caused the housemaids endless trouble by insisting that the water be a specific temperature. They got their own back by setting off an alarm clock under the bath five minutes after he'd got in.

Beryl Partington's mother, brought up in a nearby farmhouse, would walk up to Groombridge - two miles or so - with the weekly order for eggs and milk. 'She was paid once a year, by old Mr Howes, the butler, who'd then tell her, 'Don't talk to anyone when you've got the cheque'.'

Even though its last owner, Rosemary Newton, the niece of S W Mountain, died over a year ago, Groombridge Place continues as though the family were still in residence. Though nobody is there to enjoy it, Mrs Partington still makes a daily cake on the kitchen table - a vast and scarred pine affair (lot 880) which Mr Mountain bought in 1930 for pounds 20 (estimate pounds 200- pounds 400) in a room scarcely changed since Victorian times. True, a cream Aga replaced the black 'kitchener' ranges she first worked on; and they had deposed the spit, bits of which still remain. The worn George III dresser seems to have been there since the 18th century, so well does it fit. In fact it was another Mountain purchase ( pounds 17 in 1930, pounds 3,000- pounds 5,000 today). Worn wicker baskets hang from hooks, Mrs Beeton's Household Management is on the shelf below while, from the high ceiling, great bars wait for cured hams. The old wooden sink was only taken out when it leaked. 'Mr Mountain liked good, old-fashioned country-house cookery, grouse and salmon and so forth,' she says. 'I would go to the library every day for orders. Breakfast, egg and bacon, was at 9am on the dot; dinner at 7.30. Tea - cucumber sandwiches and cakes - at 4pm.' She and her sister, Margery, still put on cotton pinnies when they start work and still eat their lunch on a cretonne-covered table in the servants' hall (lot 835, pounds 200- pounds 300).

Above, on the top floor, the servants' rooms remain untouched, with simple tongued and grooved built-in wardrobes covered with old brown rep for their clothes. The basic pine chests, hard chairs and plain bedsteads are not deemed grand enough to go into the first day's sale. They are being sold, along with the contents of the linen cupboards, at the very end of the dispersal of poor old Groombridge. Even these, however, were good buys. A set of four Victorian walnut chairs (lot 806) for which Mountain paid pounds 4 in 1930 are now estimated at pounds 600- pounds 800 - a rise of more than 200 per cent. 'All the servants lived on the top floor when I first came. It was freezing in winter,' says Beryl Partington, who managed to live out, in a village house that is still her home.

Mrs Partington makes her cake every day to serve with the tea no one orders; there are simple flowers on the dining-room table where no one dines; two gardeners weed the immaculate 'pleasure garden' that no one walks through. You can sense the old house is waiting for another change. 'It's heartbreaking,' says Mrs Partington. And she is right.

Viewing at Groombridge takes place between 10am and 5pm today, 10am and 4pm tomorrow. The sale is on 15 and 16 September, starting at 10.30am and 2.30pm each day.

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