As the last of five centuries' worth of family artefacts, packed in cardboard boxes, were taken away, Mrs Colthurst fought back tears and said: 'I feel shell- shocked.'
Christie's porters moved in to prepare for an auction of the most valuable heirlooms in the 40- room timber-framed hall near Shrewsbury in Shropshire. The sale at the end of the month is expected to raise more than pounds 1m. Knight, Frank and Rutley is handling the sale of the 40-room Grade I listed building and 76 acres of the 1,000-acre estate.
Mrs Colthurst and her husband, Oliver, a stockbroker, were among the biggest losers in the Lloyd's names market, and were also hit by the escalating cost of maintaining Pitchford. Forced to sell up, they and their daughters yesterday moved out to the nine- room old dairy house on the estate. But they left for the auctioneer 40 ancestral portraits, the family silver, ceramics, books and a collection of stunning carved oak furniture.
The estate was bought in 1473 by an ancestor of Mrs Colthurst's, Thomas Ottley, a rich wool merchant. The hall, built in the 16th century on the site of a medieval manor, is steeped in history, including an association with two prime ministers, Lords Liverpool and Rosebery. The Regency rosewood dining-room table, once owned by Gladstone, is said to have been used for Cabinet meetings at 10 Downing Street: Lord Rosebery received it as a gift. Now it has a Christie's price-tag: pounds 6,000 to pounds 8,000.
It was at Pitchford that a 13- year-old Princess Victoria, the future Queen, slept with her mother for a week in 1832, and wrote in her diary of a 'curious-looking but very comfortable house. It is striped black and white and in the shape of a cottage'. The lumpy bed she slept in and the harp she played will also be sold.
One of Mrs Colthurst's ancestors died penniless, having spent his fortune on the hall. Today, the Victorian section needs reroofing, but the Colthursts cannot afford the pounds 300,000 cost. With a pounds 225,000 grant from English Heritage, they managed to reroof the Elizabethan section.
They offered the house and 76 acres to the nation in return for pounds 1.8m for the contents and opening it to the public. But David Mellor, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, rejected the proposal against the advice of English Heritage, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the National Trust.
What most upset Mrs Colthurst was that he made the decision without accepting her invitation to visit the hall. 'Not even one of his juniors came,' she said, grimacing and talking at breakneck speed to conceal anger and tears. She gave one of her last guided tours. In one room, she moved a piece of wood panelling and a secret door opened. Beyond it, a staircase led down to the Priest's Hole installed during Henry VIII's reign. In the 1640s, Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I, hid there from the Roundheads. Twelve of his troopers took cover in the tunnels.
Mrs Colthurst talked about the sitters in each portrait as if she knew them personally. Pointing to the fearsome-looking Tregonwell Frampton, the 17th-century father of flat-racing at Newmarket, she said: 'A horrible man. He had a horse flogged to death because it failed to win a race.'
For many of the bidders, however, the artists will be of greater interest than their subjects. Here is Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of Admiral Cotes ( pounds 15,000- pounds 25,000); and Arthur Devis's 1745 gentle family portrait of John Cotes ( pounds 80,000- pounds 120,000), featuring Pitchford's unmistakable landmark, Wrekin Hill. And there is a family portrait of Sir Francis Ottley ( pounds 40,000- pounds 60,000) by Petrus Troueil, a pupil of Van Dyck, in which the draperies, faces and elongated fingers reveal the master's touch.
Despite the Colthursts' move, not all the family have gone. There are ghosts in the house. Lots of them.
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