How many of us, when rooting through the family holdings, have not wondered if we have a couple too many Titians, a bit of a Van Dyck surplus, or, if we're honest, perhaps a few more Poussins than we really need? So it is with Francis Ronald Egerton, seventh Duke of Sutherland, whose "prudent review of assets" has prompted him to offer a pair of Titians to the nation at a knockdown price.
It would not be the first time the paintings have changed hands at a discount. They were put up for auction in the 1798 fire sale that followed the guillotining of their then owner, the Duc d'Orléans, and were bought by Francis's distant ancestor, the third Duke of Bridgewater. He paid £50,000, kept the Titians and other choice items, parcelled up the rest, and sold them at a £20,000 profit. And that is how these paintings set off on a bumpy ride down the generations that led them into the possession of a publicity-shy, un-nobled Old Etonian who, until eight years ago, spent his time happily farming the family's 3,000 acres in Cambridgeshire.
His translation to a state of His Grace would not have come as a surprise. Ever since his father Cyril died in 1992, he had been heir to the dukedom, and when his similarly self-effacing cousin John died in 2000, Francis Egerton duly became Duke of Sutherland, Earl of Ellesmere, Earl Gower, Marquess of Stafford, Viscount Brackley, Viscount Trentham and Baronet of Sittenham. Rather than cash in his ancestral chips, he took his family north and began fulfilling his obligations, diligently by all accounts. He operates out of Mertoun House (a mansion on the Borders) with his wife Victoria, has two sons and three granddaughters. Much more than that is mere conjecture. He is seen little in public, and photographed even less.
But, aside from his land holdings and fabulous art collection (still one of the world's best in private hands), he has one inheritance few would envy. Dead aristocrats can burden their descendants with a lot more than estates, paintings, silverware and chinoiserie fire screens. Unlike the rest of us – the 14th Mr Bloggins, for instance, who is unbothered by what the ninth and 11th of his line got up to – with titles comes family baggage, and, in Scotland, none comes with more tainted freight than they duchy of Sutherland.
The cause is the first bearer of that title, an infamous architect of the Highland Clearances, who was responsible for the forcible removal from their homes of some 15,000 people, his agents burning them out if necessary. For all the recent efforts by revisionist historians to paint him as a great moderniser and builder of roads and bridges, he remains one of the most loathed figures in Scottish history. His successors have had to live with this legacy – from the second duke, whose attempts to recruit soldiers for the Crimea was met with the response that the men of Sutherland would sooner join the colours of the Tsar of Russia, to the sixth, who witnessed a campaign either to evict a 30ft statue of the first duke from its plinth at Ben Bhraggie, or have it smashed and left in pieces.
There were, however, considerable compensations. The first duke was, with one million acres, the largest landowner and the richest man in 19th-century Britain, and this wealth, although now diminished (the present duke has about £30m, plus an estimated £1bn in artworks), has featherbedded the genetic accidents who have succeeded to the title. At one time or another, the family owned Cliveden, Lilleshall Hall, Lancaster House, Sutton Place in Surrey, and Trentham in Staffordshire.
Such was the magnificence of these residences that when Queen Victoria came to visit, she pointedly remarked: "I have come from my home to your palace." And there was the Scottish Earl of Sutherland's ancestral seat of Dunrobin Castle. To serve the latter, the second duke built a railway, whose trains the third duke would enthusiastically drive. Chums accompanying him on the footplate had an upholstered seat in front of the coal bunker.
The succession of Sutherland sons ended with the fifth duke (whose funeral service was held in Dunrobin's drawing room). He had no children, and the title passed to John, a distant cousin. He was Earl of Ellesmere, and so brought with him to the Sutherland title – and to the present duke – the fabulous Bridgewater Collection of art, founded by that sharp investor in the temporary art market created by the French Revolution. No such upheaval has incommoded British aristocrats and their possessions, hence the saleroom wheeling and dealing in which even shy, retiring 68-year-old former gentleman farmers can still engage.
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